The tornado sky is draped like a gray-green cloak over the City of the Big Shoulders, but as the storm gathers outside and the crowd gathers inside for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Blackhawks and the visiting Bruins, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman, casual as a four-inch tap-in, is in his office in the United Center recalling his first championship parade. Not in 2010, when he won the Cup as the Blackhawks' rookie G.M. This was in 1979, the last time two Original Six franchises met in the finals.
Bowman was riding along Rue Ste. Catherine in Montreal—"the usual route," as a press release from the office of mayor Jean Drapeau called it—next to his father, Scotty, the Canadiens' coach. Stan, who was named after the Cup, was waving to the revelers as if he, too, had done something wondrous. He was almost 6 years old. He remembers the joyous noise, the festive mood. Not a bad day off from school.
"The Original Six is about the fabric of the family," Bowman says from behind his desk. He does not mean his family—it's not as if anyone else's dad has coached nine Cup winners—but all families in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto. An abiding fondness for this subset of the 30-team NHL is part of the collective memory in those cities. Like the good china, an affection for the Original Six teams is an heirloom, handed down through generations. "There are hockey fans in some of the new markets who are intense," Bowman continues. "But it seems there's an extra layer of passion from people who've had it passed on from their grandparents and parents and who now pass it on to their children. When our team struggled here, there was always a group waiting for things to turn around. When there's not a long tradition of hockey and a team struggles for a time, I'm not sure they come back in full force. That's the real significance of the Original Six."
The Blackhawks and the Bruins, the 2011 Cup winners, have been among the powers of the salary-cap era, but this final seems like a gift—the grace note to a season that almost wasn't. An appreciation for old-time teams was not merely manifest in the participating cities, where predictably the ratings for Game 1 on June 12 were splendid (28.1 in Boston, 25.1 in Chicago), but in neutral places like Buffalo (8.5) and Las Vegas (4.1) and West Palm Beach, Fla. (4.3), where they were the highest in more than a decade. As John Collins, the NHL's COO, says of the Original Six, "Everyone understands the magic."
But with the Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference as part of the league's realignment next season, the genie is being coaxed back into the bottle. Since the Maple Leafs moved back to the East in 1998, leaving only two heritage teams in the West, there has been a 3.6% chance of an Original Six finals. (That assumes every team has an equal chance, which, if you have been watching the Flames for the past few seasons, you know is not the case.) In the future, with only Chicago in the West, the random odds, calculated by David Madigan, chair of the statistics department at Columbia, shrink to 2.2%.
So there is at least a small chance that the 2013 finals—a.k.a. the Late Late Show—is not last call for the Original Six. But as the deadlocked series headed to Boston for Game 3 on Monday following 65:56 of extra time over two matches, the bartender is checking his watch.
Original Six magic: the witching hour. The minute and hour hands were pointing straight up, dead on midnight, when Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival floated a shot from the blue line that Dave Bolland, a scrappy center nicknamed the Rat, had deflected from the high slot. The puck altered course, then grazed the right shin pad of Andrew Shaw, a smallish 21-year-old forward who is almost as obnoxious as Bolland—a mouse apprenticing to be a Rat. The double deflection eluded Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask (that's Tuukka with two u's, two k's and no flaws) at 12:08 of triple overtime in Game 1, giving Chicago a 4--3 victory and ending the fifth-longest match in finals history after four hours and 38 minutes. Early in the third overtime a throaty fan in Section 315 had bellowed, "Let's go Hawks!" A voice a few rows away answered, "Let's go home!" Now they could.
Clutching straws of optimism and bottles of sports drinks the afternoon following the soul-sucking marathon, Boston players expressed confidence in their ability to rebound, which they certainly did after deciding to take the first period off in Game 2 last Saturday. Those first 20 minutes looked like an elaborate prank, with Rask standing in the net, fending for himself as the Blackhawks took target practice, and the Bruins hid in the bushes or the basement. Chicago outshot flummoxed Boston 19--4 in the first period but scored just once, on an acute angled shot through a thicket of bodies from winger Patrick Sharp after a series of four scrambling Rask saves.
Rask could have short-circuited the sequence had he simply been able to hold the initial shot for a face-off. European goalies have become increasingly adept at catching pucks, and Rask, a Finn, has among the NHL's best glove hands, always willing to slow down the game by holding the puck for face-offs. This time his nearly immaculate period was undermined by a bobble, but Rask is not cursed with self-doubt. "I'm not going to blame myself for that," he said after the game. "I think there were three or four saves before that goal.... I mean, they had 19 shots, and one goes by you. It happens sometime." (Like 2011 Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, currently on hockey hiatus, Rask, who stopped 92 of 97 shots in Chicago, provides 100% of the stellar Boston goaltending but none of the political grandstanding.) The Bruins rejoined their goalie in the second period, limiting the Blackhawks to 15 shots in the final 53:48 until, midway through the first overtime period, Boston winger Daniel Paille whipped a puck past Corey Crawford's glove, off the right post and in for a 2--1 victory.
"A dirty road win," defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. "We didn't deserve to be down by just one goal after the first. Tuukka saved us."