CHICAGO – From the first day of training camp nine months ago, the Chicago Blackhawks felt the expectations. They were everywhere, generated by championship-hungry fans and by the players themselves.
“We want to win the Stanley Cup. I think that’s what a lot of the guys are thinking,” Patrick Kane said after that first practice on a steamy September day.
The Blackhawks, led by the 21-year-old Kane and their 22-year-old captain Jonathan Toews, made it happen.
Now they will parade with their teammates on Friday through a city that is giddy because the Blackhawks have seized the Cup for the first time since 1961.
When Kane was taken with the first pick in the draft three years ago, it started the Blackhawks on their way to a remarkable rebirth. A year earlier they had chosen Toews in the first round and now they have become the faces of the franchise both on and off the ice.
At such a young age, they have won the Cup and done so in a short amount of time, accomplishing what some never do throughout their careers.
United Center that four years ago was half empty now rocks and the Blackhawks are one of the hottest tickets in town, a re-emergence that can be attributed to the efforts of owner Rocky Wirtz and his president John McDonough, who was hired away from the Chicago Cubs.
Kane finally ended the championship drought—the longest active one in the NHL—with a game-winning goal in overtime against the Flyers.
What an end to a whirlwind year for both Kane and Toews, who signed lucrative contract extensions with the Blackhawks in December—five-year deals worth US$31.5 million each.
Kane had a difficult summer. In his hometown of Buffalo, he and his cousin were arrested following an altercation with a cab driver.
“It didn’t start off very good back in August. But I think sometimes you know you go through those kind of things as a young kid,” Kane said. “You can really learn from them and try to better yourself as a person and as an athlete too. Yeah, there was ups and downs.
“As far as hockey-wise, I can be pretty satisfied. I thought I had a really good year as far as, you know, Olympics, obviously, you win the Stanley Cup, it’s pretty special too. Just really unbelievable to see how things can go from so bad to so good.”
Toews was named the top forward at the Olympics Games, where he helped Canada win the gold medal be beating Kane and the USA for the championship. He captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, even though he didn’t manage a goal in the six games against the Flyers, and finished the playoffs with 29 points.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Toews on Thursday to congratulate him on his “tremendous” victory, saying Toews “should enjoy the moment” and get some well-deserved rest over the summer.
Toews thanked for the Prime Minister for the call, saying it was “great to have the support of people like yourself” and all Canadians during the Olympics.
Chicago’s depth was the difference in all four series.
The all-around play of Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg, the speed of Patrick Sharp, the physical presence of 257-pound Dustin Byfuglien, the strong puck control of Marian Hossa, the defence of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and the emergence of first-year goalie Antti Niemi led the way. Keith even sacrificed seven teeth after being hit in the mouth by a puck during a sweep of San Jose in the conference finals.
Chicago set franchise records for wins (52) and points (112) in the regular season while finishing second to San Jose in the Western Conference.
The ride was a long one, starting with two exhibition games in Switzerland before the Blackhawks opened the season with two games against Florida in Helsinki, Finland, in October.
It was a team put together by former general manager Dale Tallon, who was demoted last summer after a clerical snafu in which offers to restricted free agents didn’t get out in time. Tallon, replaced by Stan Bowman, is now general manager of the Florida Panthers.
Bowman, the son of longtime coach Scotty Bowman, who became a team adviser, will have salary cap issues to wade through this summer. The team that returns for camp this September will have it core intact, but likely will have some different pieces.
Chicago’s big contracts include Hossa’s 12-year, US$62.8 million deal and a 13-year, $72 million deal for Keith, who signed the same day as Kane and Toews. Defenceman Brian Campbell just completed the second year of an eight-year, $56.8 million contract. And goaltender Cristobal Huet, now a pricey backup, has two years left on four-year, $22.45 million deal.
Among the Blackhawks’ restricted free agents are Niklas Hjalmarrson, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Niemi, who won the starting job for good in March and then went 16-6 in the playoffs.
The unrestricted free agent list includes veteran John Madden, a key penalty killer who has now been on three Stanley Cup winners, and Adam Burish.
But the Blackhawks want to savour before projecting to next season.
“We’re going to have fun with it,” said coach Joel Quenneville, who took over four games into last season and gave the team the leeway and also the discipline it needed.
“We’ll have plenty of time to sort outgoing into the summer and going into this next season,” he added. “I think we should enjoy it for a while and then go from there.”
—With files from The Canadian Press.