Bears

Santo's popularity shows at Saturday's Fan Fest

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Santo's popularity shows at Saturday's Fan Fest

One Cubs fan summed it up perfectly -- "I've never seen anything like this before."

The scene was almost picture perfect: Overlooking beautiful Otsego Lake, the sky was a bright blue, the weather was warm (but not too hot) and Cubs fans piled into the large tent in the middle of the lawn outside the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., Saturday for the Ron Santo Fan Fest.

Santo's daughter, Linda Santo-Brown, had just one word for it all -- emotional.

"Just coming down this hill and seeing all these people," she said. "They traveled so far. It's really surreal. It's really magical. We're just so honored and grateful.

"My dad loved the fans more than anything. It's nice to see them come out and give back. It would have meant so much. We're honored to be here representing him."

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts knew fans would come out in droves for the beloved former third baseman and broadcaster. So he and the organization decided to throw Saturday's Fan Fest, giving fans a three-hour outlet to tell and listen to stories about Santo.

"Obviously Ron was such a popular player and such a popular person," Ricketts said. "We knew there would be a lot of Cubs fans coming up this weekend.

"We wanted to make sure we did something extra special to give them a chance to gather and tell stories and just enjoy the weekend, so we came up with the idea of getting everybody else out here on the lake and having a nice day. It turned out wonderfully."

In addition to Linda, two of Santo's other three children -- Jeff and Ron, Jr. -- joined in on the fun, as well as former Santo teammates (and fellow Hall of Famers) Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ernie Banks.

Glenn Beckert, Santo's roommate on the Cubs for almost a decade, and Randy Hundley were other past Cubs in attendance.

And then, of course, there was Pat Hughes, Santo's broadcast partner for WGN Radio for 15 years, emceeing the event. High-level Cubs employees, including team president Crane Kenney and director of market Wally Hayward, joined Ricketts in the audience.

Fans recounted their stories of Santo and those that knew him best had the eager Cubs enthusiasts rolling in laughter with their own accounts.

"It's terrific," Ricketts said. "It's really a tribute to Ron and what he meant to everyone here as a player and then what he meant as a broadcaster and as a person.

"There's a lot of people here...and it's hard not to be emotional in the tent with the family talking. They were all emotional. It's hard not to feel that."

Nobody knows if the Cubs would have still held a similar Fan Fest for Santo if he were still alive to witness it, but his absence brought special meaning to the event.

"We're somewhat experiencing what he would be experiencing," Linda said. "He's not here, so we're representing him. We're getting a touch of what he would be feeling and it's overwhelming.

"I'm feeling it as if he were here, only it would be just that much more. I know he's happy right now that we are able to experience it. Maybe somehow he's experiencing it, too."

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?