When the Blackhawks signed restricted free agent Tony Amonte to a five-year, $14.5 million contract in July, Chicago owner Bill Wirtz was so excited that he ordered champagne. Certainly it was a time to rejoice—Amonte, a right wing, carried the Blackhawks' offense last year with 41 goals—but the bubbly was also a grim reminder that Chicago has not drunk from the Stanley Cup in 36 years, the NHL's longest championship drought.
Don't look for the streak to end this season. The Blackhawks didn't make any major additions to a team that barely made the playoffs (34-35-13) and lost in the first round to the Avalanche. That leaves Amonte and underachieving center Alexei Zhamnov (20 goals in 74 games) as the only offensive threats for Chicago, which scored 50 fewer goals last season than in 1995-96. The Blackhawks need a left wing capable of playing on the first line, and they hope that 22-year-olds Eric Daze (22 goals) and Ethan Moreau (15 goals) and 1997 first-round draft pick Dan Cleary, 18, emerge.
Chicago, which moved to the United Center in 1994, finished below .500 at home last season for the first time since 1957-58. Players speak wistfully of venerable Chicago Stadium. "We had such an advantage with the old arena," says 35-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios. "We had a big, strong team that intimidated other teams. With our size, we need to get back to playing the aggressive hockey the Hawks were noted for."
Nobody questions Chelios's toughness, though one might wonder about his sanity. For two years he has played with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. "It's one less ligament to worry about tearing," he says. "I've worked on my legs pretty hard over the years, and the muscle holds my knee in place."
As usual, Chicago is strong on defense, with Keith Carney, Gary Suter and Eric Weinrich joining Chelios on the back line. Goalie Jeff Hackett had the league's second-best save percentage (.927) last season. But he was not content with his performance, and over the summer he went to Vladislav Tretiak's goaltending camp, where the Russian great, now Chicago's goalies coach, pushed him through double sessions for two weeks. "He worked me hard," says Hackett, 29. He had better get used to it, because the Hawks face an equally punishing season.