At 21 years of age, I finally realized what the greatest feeling in the world is.
It’s jumping onto your brother’s back, in sheer jubilation, and celebrating with dozens of complete strangers, knowing that your team has won it all.
We’re about a month away from training camp in the NHL, which is odd because it feels like yesterday that the ice was finally removed from the United Center. As football season begins, Cup Fever in Chicago has finally started to dwindle. Nevertheless, the Windy City is more proud of its Blackhawks than it has ever been.
Back in March, Sports Illustrated had posted a cover of the Chicago Blackhawks, with the headline “The Franchise That Brought Hockey Back”. When you realize just what this franchise has been through in the past 10 years, you’d be amazed and understand why this statement is completely true. Just a decade ago, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports. The team had only made the postseason once since 1997, and still under control of selfish owner Bill Wirtz. Home games weren’t shown on television unless they were aired nationally, star players were traded away in the prime of their careers, and the fans flocked towards the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, leaving the Madhouse on Madison silent.
Then, something miraculous happened. Bill Wirtz passed away, and his son, Rocky, took over the family business, including the Blackhawks. During a moment of silence for Wirtz at a Hawks/Red Wings game in 2007, Rocky had to hear an unfortunate roar of boo’s for the former owner. He was upset and devastated at the treatment his late father received, but he knew something had to change.
Rocky enlisted the help of Cubs team president John McDonough, and reached out to Hawks legends who were shunned during the dark days of the franchise, including Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who now have statues outside the United Center. They struck a deal with WGN and Comcast Sportsnet (in which they are part-owners) to air ALL 82 regular season games, including home games. At the same time the Hawks were repairing their image, they were given a boost in Jonathan Toews, the 3rd pick in the 2006 NHL Draft, and Patrick Kane, the 1st pick in the 2007 draft.
All of a sudden, the product started showing on the ice. The core of Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, along with coach Joel Quennville pushed the Hawks to new heights. Almost instantly, the Madhouse had returned.
Fast forward to 2013, the Blackhawks have become the model franchise for the NHL in the hard salary cap era. To finally end the 49-year-drought between Stanley Cups in 2010, then have to overhaul the team and ship away most of the team’s role players due to cap concerns, only to progress once again and capture the Cup a second time in 4 years is miraculous.
This was a magical season, filled with a bunch of magical people. It was coach Joel Quennville, who was on the hot seat after consecutive first-round exits. It was Corey Crawford, who had much to prove after an abysmal performance in 2012 against the Phoenix Coyotes. It was the captain, Jonathan Toews, who seemed to lose his confidence during the hard stretch of the tough playoff matchup with Detroit in May.
This is a team that overcame every obstacle. Coming off two straight seasons of first-round exit’s, the Blackhawks came into 2013 with a huge chip on their shoulder. They responded by starting the season with a record 24-straight games without a regulation loss. This is a team that was down 3-1 to their biggest rivals in the second round of the postseason. Facing their first test of adversity all season, they responded with three of the hardest games they’ve played all season, and won all three, including one of the most thrilling Game 7’s in playoff hockey history.
This is a team who were supposed to be outmatched against the bigger, stronger Boston Bruins. A team that seemed as if they would have to win Game 7 and the Stanley Cup on home ice with about 2 minutes to go. They responded with a goal in front of the net by Bryan Bickell, and just 17 seconds later, a “right place, right time” goal from Dave Bolland.
CBC’s Jim Hughson said it best during the Canada broadcast – “The Blackhawks have snatched victory from the hands of defeat. Chicago has won the Stanley Cup.”
It was as if the city of Chicago stopped. No weapons were drawn, nobody was hurt, no controversy was to be had. All that happened was celebration. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The entire city, black or white, brown or yellow, ran into the streets in joy as their Hawks brought the cup back home. Not since the Bulls of the 90s, or even the Bears of 1985, has the city embraced a team the way it has the Blackhawks. Whether you were a casual fan or you sat in the rafters during the dark times of the franchise, it didn’t matter. You felt the bliss of this championship team.
So while the Bears will dominate the front pages in Chicago for now, in about a month, new banners will be raised in the Madhouse, Jim Cornelison will belt the national anthem despite being drowned out by a sea of 20,000+ in red, and Blackhawks hockey will be back in full force. Bigger and better than ever. The expectations have never been higher, but I don’t think they’d have it any other way.
This is a team of men who went through the ring of fire, and emerged from the flames with just that: rings.