In an era when it seems we can't get enough news about athletes, when every bar brawl, strip-club visit and parking-lot scrape merits a headline, the best story of the NHL season somehow managed to fly below the radar for nearly three weeks.
The story that's been dubbed "Millionaires Behaving Properly" was written in two small towns a few hours north of Toronto. It might have remained nothing more than local lore if not for the efforts of a few persistent e-mailers and fan message boards.
It begins with a young Chicago Blackhawks team in the middle of a wearying six-game road swing, having just beaten the Maple Leafs and learning that general manager Dale Tallon was staying behind to attend his father's funeral. The team had arranged a flight back to Chicago right after the Saturday night game to get some extra time at home before Thanksgiving and a West Coast swing.
Instead of boarding the plane home, though, the Blackhawks voted unanimously to check back into their hotel and charter two buses for a two-hour ride on a frigid Sunday morning to the rural Ontario town of Gravenhurst (pop. 11,000).
"It was a no-brainer that we're going to be there for Dale and his family," winger Adam Burish explained in a video posted the Blackhawks website Thursday, in response to numerous queries the club received. "Every guy in this locker room would say he's a guy you would do anything for."
The tale of a pro sports team pulling together when there's a death in its extended family isn't unique to hockey, of course. We saw it again this week as the New England Patriots went through preparations for Sunday's game at Oakland.
Quarterback Matt Cassell left practice Wednesday following the death of his father, but was back with the team the next day. The Patriots are still chasing the playoffs and Cassell, who's done a fair imitation of the injured Tom Brady since being pressed into service, gives them their best chance to win. But the last thing no-nonsense coach Bill Belichick was prepared to talk about was whether his young quarterback should play.
"It's bigger than football. I've been through that during the season as well," said Belichick, who lost his father in 2005, adding it was "a personal situation you just have to deal with."
What's unique about the Blackhawks' tale, and maybe hockey players in general, is that no one involved thought it was unusual enough to share with the rest of us. Part of it, no doubt, is because hockey resides at the edge of America's crowded pro sports radar - at least until one player caves in a rival's head or tastelessly talks about his girlfriend. But the other part of it is hockey's ethos.
When people ask which athletes are the best interviews, I always say, "Hockey players, hands down." Not because they come up with the most colourful or controversial quotes, but because they're usually the most honest. For whatever reason - the game's tradition, its Canadian roots, the fact that most players still labour at the low end of sport's stratospheric salary scale - hockey guys tend to be more open, more polite and less impressed with their own stardom than their pro counterparts.
That very sentiment was expressed countless times in the e-mails that pinged around the Internet the last few weeks. As classy and worthy of attention as team's show of unity turned out to be, the consensus was no one in the Blackhawks thought to make a big deal out of it because they just assumed any hockey team would have done the same. Tallon agreed.
"At first, I was, 'OK, a couple of guys came.' But then, as more and more of them came through the door, I almost forgot where I was," the GM recalled in a phone call Thursday from Colorado. "I thought for a moment we were back in Chicago.
"But I looked around and saw all these kids and it made me feel really good about what we're doing," he added. "It's been our goal to have those types of players. I tell people my draft priorities are, in order: Character, speed, skill size and then more character. You can never have enough of that."
So wouldn't you know it: The story gets even better.
Somewhere along the bus ride back from Gravenhurst, a few of the players decided it would be a good idea to pull off the road and into a McDonald's. Burish said it was Patrick Kane's idea, or maybe it came from Jonathan Toews, since both budding superstars figured their trading cards would be at the bottom of the sacks of burgers and fries everyone ordered - and they couldn't wait to rub it in.
Sure enough, posters of both players were tacked to a wall. And this being hockey-mad, small-town Ontario, it didn't take people in the place long to figure out who the two dozen millionaires in suits dropping by in the middle of a Sunday afternoon were. Any doubts were removed once Kane and Toews started showing off the trading cards to teammates, then signing autographs for some of the patrons.
Kane insisted in another video clip that he didn't know the promotion was going on, and denied Burish's claim the McDonald's stop was Kane's idea.
"He is probably just mad he didn't have one in there," Kane said, referring to a Burish trading card.
But Burish, being a hockey player and all, probably couldn't have cared less.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org