CHICAGO – A kid too young to know whether it was true stood outside the “Madhouse on Madison” an hour before the game wearing a T-shirt that read, “Hockey Never Left Chicago.”
No, but it sure seemed that way for the better part of the last decade, not to mention the first 15 minutes of Sunday’s game against San Jose in the Western Conference final. Yet in much the same way they’ve done throughout the playoffs, the Blackhawks found their stride with enough time to pull away from the Sharks, sweep the series, and book a place in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1992.
In truth, that effort was years in the making.
“Feels likes we’ve been together a long time, a handful of guys that have been here since the dark days,” centre Patrick Sharp said after Chicago scored four unanswered goals in a 4-2 win.
“A group of kids that were drafted together, played in Norfolk and Rockford together. It’s fun to be a part of this team on and off the ice. Guys get along so well. I think that really carries over into our play.”
Just as the revival of one of the NHL’s “Original Six” franchises took some time, so it was with this team Sunday. Chicago fell behind 2-0 just past the midway point in the second period, thanks to a short-handed goal by the Sharks that began when a loose puck smacked Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith in the face, knocked out seven teeth, and led to a 3-on-2 break.
“I told him it’s kind of a blessing in disguise because now he’s going to get some nice fake teeth,” Sharp laughed. “He’s going to have a great smile in a couple weeks. That’s playoff hockey. … A guy takes one in the face, picking out his teeth in the locker-room, comes back.
“He’s walking around, skating around the ice, talking to us before the power play, mumbling what we were supposed to do. I don’t think anybody understood,” Sharp chuckled, “what he was talking about.”
But Keith proved actions are sometimes louder than words, taking a hit late in the same period inside the San Jose blue-line and sending the puck back behind the net. There, Dave Bolland grabbed it, whirled around the other side of the net and tied it at 2.
The outcome was barely in doubt after that.
“This year,” Patrick Kane said, “it’s almost like we feel we shouldn’t lose a game, to be honest with you.”
Kane, the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2008, is still only 21 and struggling to grow a playoff beard. The best thing about being that young is not just missing the really bad times, but barely remembering the days when beating any team was an accomplishment.
The Blackhawks began climbing back toward the top coming out of the lockout in 2005, when former player and then-general manager Dale Tallon quit pursuing draft picks and free agents with wide bodies and narrow skill sets, instead choosing future all-stars and Olympians Jonathan Toews in 2006 and Kane in 2007.
By then the Hawks already had surrendered the NHL’s longest consecutive playoff streak—making 28 appearances in a row, until 1997—and failed to make the post-season in nine of the 10 previous campaigns. But Toews and Kane gave the Hawks more than energy. Teaming up with a few of the smart choices Tallon made in the draft earlier in the decade—notably their rugged linemate, Dustin Byfuglien, and attacking defencemen Keith and Brent Seabrook, both also Olympians—they gave Chicago one of the most potent offences in the league.
The problem is few people noticed, at least here. The Hawks last won a Stanley Cup in 1961, but a town that packed old Chicago Stadium to the rafters year-in and year-out, cheering a steady succession of greats like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, finally took out its frustration on tightfisted owner William “Dollar Bill” Wirtz and stayed away.
Early on, few people in town knew there was a revival under way on Madison Street because Wirtz stubbornly kept the Blackhawks games off TV and the Madhouse was a third-full on some nights, giving the joint the feel of a suburban mall near closing time.
Then Wirtz died in September 2007 following a brief battle with cancer. Yet the locals were still so bitter with his stewardship that a month later, during a moment of silence for Wirtz at the home opener, the crowd responded by booing instead. Yet those same people, and plenty more who grudgingly went into self-exile, returned to the stadium in droves and cheered nearly everything that followed.
The Hawks hired marketing director John McDonough away from the Cubs, and he proved just as adept at selling a winning team as one whose losing skid stretched back a century and more. Along with management, McDonough helped welcome back the past greats who built the Blackhawks’ tradition or sustained it. A reminder came late in Sunday’s game when Hull, Mikita and goalkeeping great Tony Esposito popped up on the giant video board looking on from a skybox. The place went bonkers.
The last two pieces of the puzzle fell into place when Joel Quenneville, who was hired as a scout, took over from Denis Savard four games into last season and led the Hawks to the conference final; then when goalie Antti Niemi came into his own.
Niemi signed as a free agent in 2008 and was viewed as insurance for frontliner Cristobal Huet. But he won the job in March and it’s been tough to get a pillow mint past him since, let alone a puck. San Jose outshot the Blackhawks in every game of the series but the last one, yet managed just seven goals and only three when the teams were at full strength.
“He’s a very relaxed guy, very comfortable, confident … he just moves ahead to the next shot,” Quenneville said. “I think that attitude helps the focus of what the goaltenders bring at this time of year. He just goes about it like, ‘Hey, I’m just trying to stop the next puck and do my job.'”
That calm, confident attitude seems to be part of the franchise these days, bubbling up from the fans in the seats to the very top of the organization. In the closing seconds, Rocky Wirtz, Bill’s son and the man who took over control of the franchise on the death of his father, was glimpsed on the video board wearing a wide grin.
This time, the crowd roared itself all the way to the final buzzer.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org