Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ya Gotta Have ❤

It's time to get philosophical. Last night, the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, were eliminated from the National Hockey League playoffs by the St. Louis Blues. As you may remember, I've been a Blackhawks fan virtually all my life, probably since I was two years old and watching hockey from a crib or whatever contraption my parents stuck me into when they didn't want to bother with me.

Now you might think I'd be taking the news hard, but I'm not. You see, I grew up a Chicago sports fan and am used to bitter disappointment. In fact, disappointment is so natural to me, at least as far as rooting for sports teams goes, I'm never quite sure how to handle it when one of my teams actually wins something. Young people or folks who recently moved to Chicago don't realize what it's like to be a real Chicago fan. To them, this city is a bastion of champions. They think of the Blackhawks with their three recent championships, and the Michael Jordan Bulls who won six NBA championships in eight years. OK that happened last century but Jordan is still as much a part of this town as he was back then. The Bears were in the Super Bowl just a few years back when the late musician Prince did that helluva halftime show; they even won the thing once upon a time. Hard to believe it was thirty years ago, but people around town talk about that Bears team as if it were still together. Heck even the lowly White Sox won the World Series, ten years ago. Like the Bulls, the Cubs haven't won it all since last century (the beginning of it, not the end), but the current team looks promising not that we haven't heard that before.

Now back in my day...

Well let's put it this way, before there was something called the Super Bowl, the Chicago Bears won the NFL Championship in 1963. I was alive but have no memory of it. The next major Chicago team to win a championship, (sorry soccer fans, I'm not counting the long defunct Chicago Sting), was that 1986 Bears team who won the Super Bowl. That is my very first memory of a Chicago championship. I was 27 years old on that glorious day, January 26, 1986 to be exact.

That means during my formative years, the time when I was most interested and passionate about sports, the teams I followed, and my heroes who played for them, in other words, during my entire conscious childhood, there was nothing, zip, nada.  Oh there were the close calls, the '69 Cubs, the '71 and '73 Black Hawks, the '75 Bulls, the '83 Sox and '84 Cubs, when we were at the gates of the Promised Land only to have those gates shut on our fingers.

Well as they say, if it doesn't kill you it only makes you stronger. That's why I'm convinced people who grew up rooting for Chicago teams, at least until those Bulls teams came along in the nineties, were better equipped to deal with the slings and arrows that life throws at us from time to time. As my mother who knew a thing or two about losing Chicago teams always taught me, when you expect the worst out of life, you're never disappointed.

By contrast, young Chicago sports fans don't think of victory as something they might experience one day but only in their wildest dreams, they actually expect to win. When they don't win, look out.

Those are the folks who are moaning and groaning today, complaining that the Hawks dug themselves into too much of a hole to climb out of, that they let the Blues walk all over them, that they fell apart at crunch time, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I get a kick out of people who like me, never played a day of competitive sports, yet feel compelled to criticize men and women who have made a life out of them. Did the Hawks really intend to fall behind early and often to the Blues? Did Corey Crawford plan to let a few shots slip by him that he knew deep down he really should have stopped? Was Captain Jonathan Toews who was held scoreless in the series, lazy, preoccupied, or indifferent? Was Coach Joel Quenneville content to rest upon his laurels as one of the winningest coaches in NHL history?

Hardly. This Chicago Blackhawks team didn't win three Stanley Cup championships for no reason. Perhaps I'm going way out on a limb by saying this but I believe they are the best team this city has produced in over a century, and yes I'm including the six time champion Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. That was a great team dominated by one player. Take that player out of the equation, as they discovered in 1994, and most of 1995, and they were a pretty good team.

These Blackhawks on the other hand, have a core of six or seven players who make up the heart and soul of the team. You probably know their names, Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Hjalmarsson and Seabrook. Those six have been with the team since they won the Cup in 2010. Rounding out that austere group is goaltender Crawford who became the team's starting net minder in 2012.

The rest of the team far from being a supporting cast as Michael Jordan liked to call his teammates, are a group whose members work seamlessly together, just like the different parts of a body. Because the rules of hockey dictate a strict salary cap, successful teams like the Blackhawks are forced to let go of good players every season, especially championship seasons. That is one reason why it is so difficult to win consecutive championships in the NHL. Winning a Cup almost always means losing some of your higher paid, better players, exactly what happened to the Hawks after last season.

Despite that, the Blackhawks have remained one of the handful of elite teams in the league, largely because of the influence of their core players, the brilliant wheeling and dealing of their GM, Stan Bowman, and the magnificent leadership of Coach Q.

I recently joined a Facebook group dedicated to ice hockey, whose members come from all over the US and Canada. Much to my surprise and delight, I discovered how many hockey fans despise the Blackhawks. Just as fans despised the Flyers in the seventies, the Islanders and the Oilers in the eighties, the Red Wings in the nineties, and the Canadiens for eternity, NHL fans despise these Blackhawks because they are really good. One comment which came after one of the Hawks' gutsy wins in this series went something like this:
I really hate the Blackhawks but you gotta admire them for their heart.
Their heart is what enabled them to come back after being down three games to one in a best of seven series. If one were to point fingers, that heart comes directly from their captain. It's true that Jonathan Toews didn't score a goal in the series, but he did get six assists. In perhaps the most important goal for the Blackhawks in this series which came in the second overtime period of game five, Patrick Kane made a point blank shot on Blues goalie Brian Elliot, then skated around the net and picked up his own rebound and flicked the puck into an empty net for the game winner. It was a miraculous play, something we've come to expect from Kane. Although he didn't make it into the score card on that play, it was Toews, by putting himself in harm's way in the goal crease that created enough havoc and distraction to make the goal possible.

But the Blackhawks found their match in the Blues. The team from St. Louis arguably has less talent than the Hawks, but make up for it in toughness. This series was as close as could be. All but one of the seven games were settled by one goal. Game one ended on a fluky St. Louis goal off a Chicago defenseman. In game two the Blackhawks benefited from a few questionable calls. St. Louis won both games on the road putting the Hawks down and almost out, three games to one. In game five in St. Louis, the Hawks let a two goal lead evaporate in the third period, but battled back in overtime which was settled by that brilliant Kane goal. In game six in Chicago, St. Louis scored three unanswered goals to take a two goal lead but the Hawks, still with their backs against the wall, battled back and scored five unanswered goals of their own in the only lopsided game of the series. That victory tied the series three games apiece.

At that point, the Chicago press and much of the national press as well had written off the Blues who blew a two game lead and apparently lacked both the talent and the experience of the Blackhawks. But the Blues showed they had more than enough heart of their own to match the Hawks. It was their turn to blow a two goal lead to the Hawks who tied game seven in the second period. From thereon the game was end to end with both goaltenders standing on their heads to keep their team in the game. Close to the end of the third period I resigned myself to the thought that this series would be settled by a fluke goal in overtime, just like game one.

Just as that thought crossed my mind, the Blackhawks suffered a defensive breakdown, allowing their former teammate Troy Brauer to roam unchecked into the goal crease where he buried the series winning goal into the net from two feet away.

Still the Blackhawks weren't finished. Brent Seabrook took a mean slapshot from the point that beat Brian Elliot, but hit not one, but both goalposts. The chances against hitting both posts without the puck going into the net are steep. It happened twice to the Blackhawks this series.

It was "divine intervention" as network announcer Doc Emrick called it. The hockey gods had their say. They ruled in favor of the Blues.

It was as great a series as any hockey fan could have hoped. Unfortunately, one team had to win and one had to lose. That's just the way the puck bounces.

But cheer up all you newbie Blackhawk fans, they'll be back and with a vengeance. The core guys, well most of them will return along with new stars like the two Russians, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi  Panarin, a Slovak, Richard Panik and a Finn Teuvo Teravainen. Things are looking pretty good with the farm club up in Rockford too so the future looks bright. Plus, no longer being the Stanley Cup champion means that every team in the league won't necessarily be bringing their "A" game against us next year.

Losing to the (with all due respect), despicable St. Louis Blues was a letdown for Blackhawks fans to be sure, but only a temporary one. If you're particularly bummed about this loss, take some advice from someone who understands this sort of thing: relax, take a deep breath, and finally, repeat as often as necessary the traditional mantra of the true Chicago sports fan:

Wait 'til next year.

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