Sharp-er image: UVM alumnus Patrick Sharp is blossoming in the NHL

Hundreds of people gathered outside the NAPA auto parts shop in suburban Glen Ellyn on Dec. 27 for the chance to meet and present gifts to Chicago Blackhawk right-winger Patrick Sharp. Celebrating his 26th birthday with 700 of his closest friends may not have been his idea of the perfect day, but the respect and adoration the resurgent ‘Hawks have received from Chicago fans is a welcome site for every member of the team. “It was really nice,” Sharp said of the first sellout of the season at the United Center on Dec. 26. “With the fans in the crowd it really lifts up your effort level and helps get on the ice so the more fans we have the better our team plays.” Sellouts should be the norm for one of the Original Six NHL teams, but the ‘Hawks have always been outshined in Chicago. Whether it be Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the ’90s or the Bears’ Super Bowl run in 2006, sports fans in Chicago have been ignoring the Blackhawks. Who would blame them? The ‘Hawks have not had a winning record since 2001-02, which was also their last playoff berth. But enter Sharp and his team-leading and career-high 22 goals – seven of which were shorthanded – along with the slew of young, talented players and the city has begun to take notice. The Young Veteran Normally a 26-year-old is not considered a wily veteran. But, on a Blackhawks team where the top line for much of the season has consisted of two teenagers and two defensemen under 25, Sharp is the seasoned pro. “Right from day one I have tried to be a leader,” Sharp said. “It’s exciting to come to the rink every day and see the young guys and see the energy and excitement they bring.”They come to work every day and they want to learn and get better, which on a daily basis is really fun and refreshing.”According to head coach Denis Savard, Sharp has become a leader by competing every day.”For a leader, the first thing you have to do is lead by example on the ice,” Savard said. “He has competed and faced one-on-one battles every night and he is very determined to win ’em.”He won’t win them all but he wins a fair share of them and I think just by that he leads by example. In this game he has been one of our best at [winning those battles].” ‘Gut CheckThe leadership has come with time as Sharp grows in the league, but when he was at UVM his coach Mike Gilligan saw the beginnings of that growth.”He was one of the kids you never have to worry about off the ice or in class,” Gilligan said. “He did exactly what a student athlete should do.”He set a great example for a lot of kids. Took very good care of himself and I think a lot of those things point to the success he is having now. We were hoping he would stay for at least one more [year].”After playing with the Thunder Bay Flyers in his home of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Sharp came to UVM in 2000 – playing for the Catamounts for just two seasons.In the third round of the 2001 NHL draft, the Philadelphia Flyers selected Sharp and when they called, after his sophomore year, he chose to follow his dream of being a NHL star.”I was really disappointed when I left school after my sophomore year to go play pro hockey,” Sharp said. “I really wish I could have stayed all four years but I made a lot of great relationships and I developed my game hockey wise enough to take the next step.”I just always wanted to be a hockey player and the Philadelphia Flyers gave me the opportunity and I was real happy to take that opportunity, but I was also very upset to leave the teammates and the school.”During his two years at Gutterson Fieldhouse, Sharp scored 25 goals and had 28 assists for 53 points.According to Gilligan, Sharp was “dripping with talent” but never played to the level that the coaching staff knew he could.”I didn’t realize he was going to be as effective as he is right now,” Gilligan said of Sharp’s success in the NHL. “He was just growing as a young man. “He had the speed and the skill and I didn’t know whether he had the NHL commitment, but has certainly proven that.”‘Character'”Character,” is the one word Savard used to describe Sharp both on and off the ice. “He just wants to be the guy,” Savard said.While it will take Sharp more time to get recognized league-wide as ‘the guy’ – despite his numbers, Sharp was left off the All-Star game roster – he is more focused on his own game.”[National recognition] is not really something that I play for,” Sharp said. “It certainly is nice to read your name in the paper for a good reason and it’s nice to hear coaches say nice things.”Those are the types of things that you can’t really control. On a personal level I just want to play as hard as I can and let the rest of the stuff take care of itself.”