The stars and the scrubs alike took a spin with the Stanley Cup before it finally wound up in Joel Quenneville’s hands. The Blackhawks coach wouldn’t have it any other way.
The last team standing had just put away a tough young Tampa Bay squad 2-0 in Game 6 and earned the right to call itself a dynasty after winning its third NHL title in six seasons. But only minutes later, Quenneville recalled the sting they all felt barely a year ago, when the Los Angeles Kings elbowed Chicago out of their way by converting a fortunate bounce in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
When Quenneville gathered the team before this season, the first thing he told his players was, “It’s going to be a battle and a war just to try to make the playoffs.”
And almost in the next breath, after he scanned the faces of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and a handful of others, he put that bitter memory to rest.
“I’m fortunate to be around them,” Quenneville added. “I walked into a team ready to go. They took off and they keep going. … They make guys around them better, play the right way, send the right message. New guys coming into the team, they see that’s the message, how important winning is to the team, to the players, to the town, to the organization. It’s infectious.”
One of those “new” guys, 32-year-old veteran Antoine Vermette, joined the Blackhawks in March after general manager Stan Bowman was forced to find some replacements in the wake of a serious shoulder injury to Kane. He was the front-line center with the Coyotes, but had no problem taking a back seat with the third line here.
“You want to contribute, of course,” Vermette said. “But what made these guys special is that from top to bottom, everybody is the same. They all want to win. Coming into a situation like that, it wasn’t hard to fit in.”
Fitting in is a lot easier, of course, with a team on a roll. But among the core of seven players who’ve been around for all three titles, it isn’t hard to remember when the current toast of the town was just toast.
The Blackhawks climb back toward the top began with the end 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 rolling the dice on two skinny kids — Toews in 2006 and Kane in 2007 — who hardly looked the part of All-Stars and Olympians they were about to become.
Quenneville came aboard four games into the 2008 season and Bowman, whose shrewd personnel moves have kept the Hawks on top during the salary cap era, joined the next year.
By then, the Hawks had already surrendered the league’s longest consecutive playoff streak — making 28 appearances in a row, until 1997 — and failed to make the postseason in nine of the 10 previous campaigns. But Toews and Kane gave the Hawks more than a burst of youth and energy. Teaming up with Keith and Brent Seabrook — two of the league’s top attacking defensemen, already in the fold — they also gave Chicago one of the most potent offenses in the league. The problem, at least at first, was how few people in town noticed there was a revival under way.
Winger Patrick Sharp recalled days the now-packed-to-the-rafters “Madhouse on Madison” felt more like a nearly empty barn. He could pick out friends in the stands in the middle of the game. Sometimes they had an entire section to themselves.
That was because the late William “Dollar Bill” Wirtz,the club’s tight-fisted owner, stubbornly kept games off TV and had chased away legacy names like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Then Wirtz died in September 2007, following a brief battle with cancer, and the bitterness spilled out in one sweeping gesture.
During a moment of silence for Wirtz at the home opener, the crowd responded with boos. The Hawks made the postseason after a six-season hiatus, but those fans who chose self-exile only grudgingly began trickling back. It wasn’t until Wirtz’ son, Rocky, was in control for a full season — putting the games back on TV, bringing guys like Hull and Mikita back as ambassadors and putting up statues outside the United Center — that all was forgiven, and then some.
Average attendance jumped 7,000 seats by the end of the 2008-09 season. The product on the ice was reflected in the fast-climbing value of the franchise. The season after that brought the first of the three Stanley Cups during the current run, giving one of the NHL’s “Original Six” some recent history finally worth boasting about. A quiet gesture at the end of this latest title demonstrated just how much the Hawks have returned the warm embrace the city holds them in now.
Longtime equipment manager Clint Reif died last December in what was ruled a suicide. The Hawks dedicated a win over Toronto that same night to Reif, and were joined by the Washington Capitals in honoring Reif with “CR” decals on their helmets for the teams’ Winter Classic on Jan. 1. His wife, Kelly, was on the ice as the Stanley Cup was paraded around Monday night.
“A few of those tears you saw during the ceremony was for Cliff,” Rocky Wirtz said. “It shows you how much he meant to the players, to us, to everybody in the organization.”
Considered one of the worst franchises in sports less than a decade ago, the Blackhawks have remade the franchise into the model of professionalism. They looked lucky to be in the series, let alone up 3-2 headed into Game 6. Once the puck dropped, though, the same team that looked tired and out of sync somehow kicked their game into another gear.
Tampa Bay’s leader Steven Stamkos, who hopes to lead the Lightning into that same tier for seasons to come, couldn’t help but admire how Chicago had accomplished the feat.
“They know how to win in these situations,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive what they’ve done. .. It just seems that whatever reason, we didn’t get bounces.
“But,” he said finally, “you earn those.”