As bad as it sounds to say, but after the Blackhawks defeated the San Jose Sharks to go to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1992 I couldn’t help but wonder how bad of shape that the Blackhawks would be in if Bill Wirtz were still alive.
If you remember, once upon a time long ago the Chicago Blackhawks were not that good and nobody cared about the Hawks at all, namely because of the actions of one William Wirtz. He cut corners to save money, turned down plans to help Chicago contend for titles for years, never paid players, and the most unforgiveable sin of all, he blacked out all home games so you couldn’t watch them at home.
All of this made Chicago, an original six city, the home of the Golden Jet, Stan Mikita, and the spin-o-rama forget about hockey and the men that wore the Indian headed sweaters.
Fast forward to yesterday where in front of another sell-out crowd at the United Center and you wouldn’t even believe that The Chi was a dormant hockey town just three years ago. The Fratellis “Chelsea Dagger” blared over the entire arena as Jonathan Toews accepted the Clarence Campbell trophy for the Western Conference Champions. Fans waved red towels like rabid wolverines screaming at the top of their lungs with nearly everyone still in attendance. Hockey in Chi town was back.
It started five years ago after the NHL lockout and the league searching for any positives. The Hawks took Toews in the draft to begin a rebuilding process and hope that the team would pull itself out of oblivion. The next year they drafted Patrick Kane, the perfect attention grabbing compliment to Toews’s laid back demeanor. Together they began to draw attention due to their skill and age. The city slowly began becoming re-engaged to the Blackhawks though they were still a ways away from being anything significant.
Then came the death of the elder Wirtz and the turnaround officially began. Rocky Wirtz for years pleaded with his father to change his ways but it always fell on deaf ears. Now in charge, Rocky did things his way and began a transformation that is more and more impressive to fathom.
He held a fan convention in February of 2008, the first in the team’s history, possibly to rejuvenate the significance of the team to the city. Four months later, it was announced that the team would be hosting the newly implements, and annual Winter Classic from the historic Wrigley Field. After the success of the event at Orchard Park in Buffalo, a crazed hockey town in itself, it was a shoe in to be a great event.
Next was the hiring of successful coach Joel Quenneville, who guided long playoff runs for the St. Louis Blues in the early 2000’s. His hiring gave great leadership to a young rising team in the league and it came with immediate returns. His first order of business, and the team’s for that matter, was to award the Captain’s “C” to Toews to officially make him the face of the team as well as Kane.
The Winter Classic was the beginning of on ice success though it was in defeat. The Wrigley experience of their 6-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings made the Classic a huge event for a national audience and it let people outside of Chicago know who these boys were. Then came the playoffs and great showings from Kane, Duncan Keith and guys like Kris Versteeg and Brent Seabrook.
It all culminated into this season. A turn around four years in the making that led to pressure that these young men, or the city hadn’t seen since the days of Jordan and the Bulls. ESPN the magazine had Kane, Toews, Keith and newly acquired winger Marian Hossa on the cover chronicling the pressure that they would face and the troubling offseason that accompanied the success (Hossa’s injury and Kane’s run-ins with the law). Critics were quick to place the young untested core at the top of their yearly predictions over more proven teams like Detroit, Vancouver and San Jose. You wondered whether this team was ready for such exposure, if they play larger than their age and let their talents take over for a full 82 game season.
It was funny because Dave Bolland said in an interview after the game yesterday that the celebrations that came with wins last year had been replaced with a cooler temperament this year and more focus, and it showed.
Despite lingering questions about the subpar goaltending, the Blackhawks finished second in the West, first in the Central division (the first champion this decade not named Detroit) had 6 20-goal scorers and became the talk of the town. These playoffs added to their luster with break out performances by Dustin Byfuglien, Antii Niemi and Bolland in addition to the stars on the team. Every night a new Hawk steps up and takes over while Kane and Toews calmly and spectacularly guide the ship.
Yesterday’s win more than anything showed the grit, toughness and talent that has followed the team all year. Niemi shook off two early goals to deny any other San Jose advances, the Seabrook and Keith led defense held the Sharks to 3 third period shots, Keith also lost 4 teeth on a puck deflection yet stayed in the game for a fierce 20 plus minutes on the ice (he’s a hockey player come on). A Toews blocked shot led to Bolland’s game tying goal and then “Big Poppa” (Byfuglien) came through with another clutch goal as he parked his wide-bodied frame in front of Evgeni Nabokov to put the Hawks up for good. Just another jaw dropping game from the most talented team in the league that knows how to use their talents to their advantages instead of playing lackluster in big games and expecting to turn in on whenever (ahem Geno Malkin, Alex Semin and Milan Lucic).
The end result was an amazing scene in the United Center; fans going crazy in anticipation of ending a 50 year Cup drought, with Stan Mikita in attendance funny enough. A young Captain refusing to touch the Clarence Campbell trophy because of the bigger prize that waits in the wings. Rocky Wirtz jumping around like a kid in a candy store as the final horn sounded. A far different scene from what the town has been used to for the years leading up to yesterday. No more Eric Daze disappointments, no cutting corners, no selling out the fans, just sellout crowds and a large sea of red jerseys with that infamous Indian chief on the front and a range of names from Kane to Toews to Keith on back. Just like it should’ve always been in a hockey crazed town, hockey is back in Chicago and its return has been welcomed arms, open hearts and Champion starved fans. Even Bill Wirtz has to smiling at this scene.