CHICAGO (AP) — Jonathan Toews kissed and hoisted the Stanley Cup as he was introduced toward the end of the latest raucous rally honoring the Chicago Blackhawks. Then the captain headed toward the back of the stage at Soldier Field.
The roaring crowd wanted more and, as usual, he delivered.
"We all know this is amazing to be able to hoist this thing," a hoarse Toews said. "But to do it on home ice in front of you guys, in front of our fans, to share this with you guys, the best fans in the world — it doesn't get any better than this."
He thanked the crowd and added: "Maybe the only way it does get better is if we win four."
Tens of thousands of fans turned out on a warm, humid Thursday to cheer their beloved Blackhawks as they celebrated their third Stanley Cup championship in the past six years with a downtown parade and a rally at Soldier Field.
Goalie Corey Crawford told the fans "you guys made this unbelievable." Duncan Keith, the defenseman who won the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoffs MVP, hinted at another win saying, "four sounds better than three." Earlier, the crowd cheered for Blackhawks legends Bobby Hull, Denis Savard and Tony Esposito.
Former Blackhawks star Stan Mikita, who suffers from a progressive brain disorder, wasn't left out.
"Stan ... we're thinking of you," said Hall of Fame play-by-play announcer Pat Foley, the emcee.
The Blackhawks captured their latest championship with a victory over Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on Monday night. It was the first time Chicago has won the Cup on home ice since 1938 and the Blackhawks haven't stopped celebrating since.
Players, coaches and team executives rode to the rally in double-decker buses, passing screaming fans of all ages decked out in red and black, as they wound their way from the United Center downtown to Michigan Avenue and the rally at the home of the Chicago Bears. "Let's go Hawks!" chants rang throughout downtown.
It was a familiar scene for this Original Six franchise, and another reminder just how far it has come in recent seasons, with Toews and Patrick Kane leading the way.
The Blackhawks won it all in 2010, ending a 49-year championship drought, and captured the Cup again in 2013. But this year's run was different. The Blackhawks endured the suicide of their longtime equipment manager Clint Reif, the death of former teammate Steve Montador and Patrick Kane's broken collarbone.
Yet there they were on Thursday, celebrating the franchise's sixth championship. Chicago is the first NHL team to win three titles in a six-year span since Detroit in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
It's hard to believe that this organization not long ago was little more than an afterthought in Chicago and the "Madhouse on Madison" felt more like a library with its sparse crowds. The late owner Bill Wirtz refused to televise home games and drove away franchise icons such as Hull and Mikita.
Those two now have statues outside the arena, and the Blackhawks have a vice-like grip on the city.
"What a great day for the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois," new Gov. Bruce Rauner, decked out in a black Toews jersey, said as he exited the United Center before the parade. "This is fantastic to celebrate one of the greatest franchises in all of sports."
Soldier Field was rocking in a way that it rarely did last fall, with the Bears struggling. But with the Blackhawks taking center stage, there was a different vibe at the home of the Monsters of the Midway. Fans held up red placards that read "one goal achieved." Players took turns hoisting and kissing the Cup as fans cheered.
The crowd roared a few minutes into the rally when Kane leaned in to the microphone, asked "What's up, Chicago?" and invited out Toews, who walked onto the stage holding the Cup above his arms.
There were highlight videos. There were touching moments, like the nod to Mikita and Kris Versteeg awarding the player of the game championship belt to the young son of Reif. He did not have the title with him, but it was a heartfelt, symbolic gesture.
There were also some lighter moments, like when CEO Rocky Wirtz decided to take this playful dig at Tampa Bay following a tornado warning in the Chicago area two hours before Game 6: "Anyone notice the rain on Monday night? I didn't see any lightning."
Team President John McDonough felt the wrath from at least some in the crowd when he thanked Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stood on the podium dressed in a gray Blackhawks T-shirt.
He had them cheering moments later, when he said: "Today as we celebrate the third Stanley Cup in six seasons, I wanted to reiterate that our goal will always be to reward your allegiance to the Chicago Blackhawks."
The Blackhawks let Crawford speak, too. His comments were PG-rated compared to the colorful speech the usually reserved goaltender gave at the rally two years ago in Grant Park, although he did start this one with a word not fit for print or the airwaves.
Toward the end of the festivities, Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom grabbed the microphone and started singing the lyrics to Macklemore's "And We Danced." They asked the crowd to sing and dance along with the team as confetti fell.
It was quite a celebration. And a familiar scene.