With Stanley Cup, hockey finally comes in from the cold in Chicago
The Stanley Cup completed a Blackhawks rebirth that began with a 2007 overhaul
Owner Rocky Wirtz, taking over after his father died, revitalized the franchise
The 'Hawks made an extended playoff run in 2009; sellout crowds are now the rule
PHILADELPHIA -- The Stanley Cup-winning goal should be a transcendent moment, engraved in memory and history, a glorious conclusion to the pursuit of one of the most arduous trophies to win.
Alas, this overtime goal needed subtitles.
Patrick Kane scored the goal for the Blackhawks, on a play off the left wing that was vaguely reminiscent of the Olympic-winning goal that Sidney Crosby scored in overtime for Canada a little more than three months ago. Kane fired the puck with a quick release, there was an odd sound, Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton looked like someone had slashed his tires, and a few of the 'Hawks started celebrating. But other than a disheartened Leighton and a few giddy Blackhawks, there was no definitive sign the puck had gone in.
No red light. No emphatic signal for the referee. The money shot of the 2010 playoffs was proving to be as awkward as a pimply eighth-grader trying to ask a girl for a dance.
The stunned Flyers stayed on the bench as the referees asked for a video review of the most muddled Stanley Cup-winner since Brett Hull scored the controversial skate-in-the-crease goal for the Dallas Stars in Buffalo 11 years ago.
The Blackhawks, happily expectant, waited for confirmation. Why not?
After 49 years, Chicago could hold on another minute.
Shortly after 11 p.m. EDT, Chicago got off the schneid that had lasted a nearly half a century. This was the longest current streak of futility in the NHL (GALLERY), but it was not a record. (The Rangers suffered a 54-year Cup drought until winning it in 1994.) But the Blackhawks did set an unofficial NHL milestone for the quickest turnaround from irrelevance to champions in hockey history.
Now, there are sudden reversals in the sports entertainment business all the time, but they generally involve a wrestler taking a length of lead pipe out of his tights and going to town. The 'Hawks ... well, this was strictly legit.
Led by captain Jonathan Toews, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and defenseman Duncan Keith, who would have been a more inspired choice -- Toews didn't score a goal in the six-game final -- Chicago resurrected a grand franchise in what elsewhere might be called a New York minute. Patrick Sharp, who scored a four-on-four goal to tie the game midway through the second period -- understands this better than any Chicago player. He was traded from the Flyers to the Blackhawks in December 2005, a deal that, given the Stanley Cup parade set for Friday on Michigan Avenue, is tinged with a certain irony. This, of course, is the blessing of hindsight. On that distant winter day, the Sharp trade -- he cost the Blackhawks basically a bag of pucks and a dozen coupons for Subway -- was barely more than lines of agate in North American newspapers.
Sharp's first game in the distinctive Blackhawks jersey was against the Rangers, a nominally attractive Original Six match-up. Not that Chicagoland seemed to notice.
"I remember looking around and seeing 9,000 people," Sharp, the second-line center, recalled early in the final. "I had come from a first-place team in Philly, and now this. Years ago I would have never expected (our franchise) to turn around so quickly. (The Cup) means a lot to everybody, but especially to guys like (Keith and defense partner Brent Seabrook) and myself, who have been here through some pretty tough years ... I challenge anyone to find a better place to play in the league than Chicago."
Mark it down. June 9, 2010 is the day Hawkeytown officially came in from the cold.
In truth, a 'Hawks renaissance always had been low-hanging fruit. After years of irrelevance and incompetence, Chicago sifted through the rubble of past mistakes, rebuilt on the ice and off, and etched its name on a 35-pound trophy while engraving its brand into the hearts of formerly disaffected fans. As the party swirled around him on the Wachovia Center ice, owner Rocky Wirtz conceded that the franchise had severed a sacred bond with fans, sponsors, media, even the city. The 'Hawks were out of touch, even as they usually were out of the playoffs.
So what was the primordial moment when the franchise started on the long road back to relevance? You can argue it was actually in 2002 when the 'Hawks drafted Keith, a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman, a prescient choice that predates the selections of captain Toews in 2006 and Kane in 2007, a pair of high-end picks. (Keith, who lost seven front teeth in the clinching win against the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals, said after the game that he doesn't worry about teeth, that he would have them all knocked out to win a Cup.) But for many embittered 'Hawks fans, the rebirth began with the death of Blackhawks chairman Bill Wirtz, Rocky's father.
Wirtz was an NHL colossus, one of its great power brokers and a man with a heart that was often in the right place even if his mind was back in the 1960s. You could land at O'Hare, mention the Blackhawks to a stranger and within 90 seconds, as guaranteed as death and taxes, you could hear a complaint about the 'Hawks' absence from local TV. Former general manager Dale Tallon, the architect of this Cup team as surely as Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Robie House in Oak Park, regularly used to moan that Wirtz's recalcitrance was costing the 'Hawks a 2½-hour infomercial every time they played a home game. Wirtz would not be moved. He was as intractable as the Blackhawks were invisible.
But with the surprising ascension of Rocky to chairman -- most in the hockey world assumed that Wirtz's younger son Peter, who had been a Blackhawks vice-president, would succeed his father -- the Blackhawks were slingshotted into modernity.
The 'Hawks skipped the 20th century and went directly to the 21st in November 2007 when they hired the man who was most responsible for turning Wrigley Field into a baseball theme park. John McDonough, the ex-Cubs president, is a tall, patrician fellow who, using an approach he called "a bulldozer on steroids," pounded on the reset button. In his first 11 months on the job, he made 27 changes to the business office, doubled the front office staff, hired a receptionist -- no, the 'Hawks hadn't bothered previously - started a midsummer Blackhawks convention, rehired popular play-by-play man Pat Foley and courted estranged ex-Blackhawks stars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
The season ticket base was 3,400 in 2007. Now there is a waiting list of as long as Toews' accomplishments -- Olympic gold medal, Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe.
How about Captain Spectacular?
"I think Rocky Wirtz lay awake at night thinking: 'I can't wait to get the reins of that hockey club because it's going to change when I get it'," Hull told SI earlier in the finals. "And he did everything right. He got rid of (longtime executive Bob) Pulford. He brought in McDonough, the smartest marketing guy in the history of the game. He hired Scotty Bowman [as a senior advisor]. He put the games on TV, and he decided to dive into his past. Because he knew with what we had, if he couldn't be proud of his past, they wouldn't have much of a future. And bringing back (Hall of Fame goalie Tony) Esposito and Hull and Mikita was the icing on the cake. The engine was Rocky. The engineer was McDonough and the two boilermakers were [marketing director] Peter Hassen and [senior vice president] Jay Blunk. They made the train run, and it's running very smoothly."
The 'Hawks made an extended playoff run in 2009, reaching the conference finals and settling on a burrow-in-your-brain ditty called Chelsea Dagger to celebrate goals, a reminder that it wasn't going to just be the same old song in Chicago. This season the growing 'Hawks fever enjoyed the ancillary benefit of the 2010 Olympics in which Kane, Toews and Keith played brilliantly.
For every home game in the final at the United Center, a shot of the Mount Rushmore of 'Hawks' hockey -- Hull, Mikita, Tony O and Denis Savard sitting together in a luxury suite -- would appear on the Jumbotron. Now it is easy to imagine that in 2059, 49 years from now, there will be a new Blackhawks trinity -- Toews, Keith, Kane -- that waves down to the crowd at whatever hockey palace holds one of the NHL's heritage teams.
The ending was most uncomfortable -- "I tried to sell the celebration," Kane admitted -- but it did provide closure if not the climax that a quirky, engaging, sloppy, riveting and goal-filled final deserved.
Now the 'Hawks can really paint their Cup-starved city red.
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