A sea of red-clad hockey fans descended upon downtown Chicago on Thursday to celebrate the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, packing a parade route through the Loop, then cheering and dancing at a boisterous rally inside Soldier Field.
One by one, the players took turns kissing and lifting the trophy triumphantly above their heads as red-and-black confetti swirled around the stage. The Hawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday in front of Chicago fans at the United Center, the third Cup win in six years and the first at home since 1938.
Braving storms and crowded trains to get there, tens of thousands cheered for hours inside Soldier Field as players expressed gratitude and quipped wise for the crowd. Officials put the total crowd estimate for the celebrations at about 2 million people, including those along the parade route who didn't have tickets to enter the rally.
"We share this with you, the best fans in the world," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, notably shorn of his playoff beard. "Maybe the only way it does get better is if we win four! Let's go!"
Forecasts had promised a drenching of festivities. That was one of the reasons city officials cited for avoiding Grant Park, where the celebration was held in 2013, and using Soldier Field. The move annoyed some fans who weren't able to snag tickets to Thursday's free event.
"Did anyone notice we had a little bit of rain on Monday night?" team owner Rocky Wirtz asked the crowd, then cracked: "I didn't see any Lightning."
Patrick Kane, who scored the final goal in the clinching 2-0 win, was the first player to take the stage.
"What's up, Chicago?" Kane said. "That's three in six years. Pretty good."
Kane then called out Toews, who hauled the Stanley Cup onto the stage. The fans went wild.
The Hawks players were introduced one by one, and some briefly addressed the crowd.
"Let's keep this red machine going, baby! ... Thanks, guys," Duncan Keith, MVP of the playoffs, shouted. "Let's keep it going. Four sounds better than three!"
Hawks goalie Corey Crawford uttered an expletive, then said to the fans: "You guys make this unbelievable."
Players took videos of each other, waved to family members and joked with each other on stage.
"You guys never cease to amaze me," coach Joel Quenneville told the crowd, which chanted, "Q! Q! Q!"
The journey began early for many Blackhawks fans who worried about getting to the party on time.
Kyle Beaumont, 20, of Lockport, avoided any commuter hassles by sleeping downtown and heading to the field at 3:30 a.m. He said he and his friends were determined to get a good spot inside to watch the rally.
"You get the full experience if you can," he said. "Lose a little bit of sleep for quality of spots."
Many others loaded into Metra trains from the suburbs hours before the parade began.
As boisterous Blackhawks fans squeezed in next to quiet commuters, Metra turned many trains into express runs on several lines. Still, most of the lines experienced some delays in the morning.
Metra prohibited alcohol and bicycles on trains Thursday, but some Blackhawks fans could still be seen discreetly chugging beers. Some trains were so packed that conductors couldn't collect fares.
"The conductors do the best they can, but it's difficult to get through the coach," said Michael Gillis, a Metra spokesman.
Once downtown, fans sought spots they hoped would give them the best view. Rachel Daverton, 21, climbed onto a ledge overlooking the end of the parade route at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street after waking up at 3:30 a.m. to board a train from Whiting, Ind., earlier in the morning.
From their perch, Daverton and a friend overlooked a torrent of red Blackhawks jerseys and cheered as cars festooned with jerseys and flags honked as they passed. Daverton missed the parade after the Blackhawks win in 2013, but said she celebrated at a parade downtown as a fifth-grader when the White Sox won the World Series. She hoped to see Patrick Kane.
"I hope he personally waves at me," she said. "That probably won't happen, so I guess I just hope I have a good time."
Then, around 8:30 a.m., the storms hit, drenching some before they even made it downtown.
At the Arlington Heights Metra station, a young crowd of hockey sweater-clad fans — mostly college students and recent high school graduates — was not deterred.
"I considered watching everything on TV, but I knew the experience would be a lot better in person," said Sam Garcia, 18, a recent Prospect High School graduate.
At Union Station, thousands of people in Blackhawks garb milled about waiting for the rain to ease, many of them unprepared for the weather.
Crowds at Soldier Field had to scurry for cover once the storms hit, but by 9 a.m. the rain had begun to let up.
Robert and Kim Thomas ventured up from Joliet, in part, so their 3-year-old daughter, Morgan, could take in the experience.
"It's a nice day, and everyone's been great and very friendly," said Robert Thomas, 29. "How can you go wrong?"
Beyond the weather and travel complications, 41 people were treated for heat-related illnesses, fire officials said, including 29 who were transported to hospitals.
For the most part, though, fans matched their champion Blackhawks' resilience.
As the heavy rain gave way to sunshine, fans pouring into Soldier Field for the rally fed off the rays, screaming and chanting "Let's go, Hawks!"
Norma Perez, of Bridgeport, said she watched the 2013 parade go by her office window on Washington Street. She wasn't going to miss it this time around.
"There's more hard-core fans than in any other sport," Perez said. "It's all ages, all races. It's amazing how we all get together to support our team. I wouldn't live in any other city."
On stage, player Duncan Keith motioned to his son, Colton, 2, in the first row behind reporters and photographers. Colton was lifted through the crowd into his father's arms, up onto the stage, where he watched the ceremonies and later enjoyed a lollipop.
Kane, known for past off-ice misadventures, issued a playful warning into the mic.
"They've been saying I've been growing up a lot," Kane said. "But watch out for me the next week."
Player Kimmo Timonen, who is retiring after winning his first championship, yelped as he bounded onto the stage, lifting the trophy above his head and kissing the Cup.
When the ceremony closed, Queen's "We Are the Champions" blasted through the stadium, while family and friends threw their arms around one another and swayed from side to side.
Some fans screamed: "See you again next year!"
The players boarded buses in the bowels of the stadium, but some, like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad, paused for one last thanks, signing autographs and posing for photographs with fans.
Many fans who still had not gotten enough of their team waited for the team motorcade to leave Soldier Field, waving and waving as the motorcycle police escort cleared the way through a city now used to hosting hockey champions.
As the bus pulled away, the Stanley Cup could be seen enjoying shotgun.