The 49-year wait is over. For the first time since 1961, the Blackhawks will return the Stanley Cup to Chicago. They did it with an 4-3 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6. The clinching victory took old-time Chicago grit. But there was a most original feel to this Original Six redemption song.
Kids did this. Kids stared down history, ignored it, rewrote it. Kids blew past expectations and predictions. Kids did it without any memory of watching Stan Mikita play for the Blackhawks, or Denis Savard, or even Ed Belfour(notes).
The kid from Buffalo, Patrick Kane(notes), didn’t need time to recover from his whirlwind Olympics. The kid from Manitoba, Jonathan Toews(notes), didn’t need a hand on his shoulder or a kick in the breezers to know how to be a captain. The kid from Minnesota, Dustin Byfuglien(notes), didn’t need a few more years to complete the transition from defense to power forward. The kid from B.C., Duncan Keith(notes), didn’t need another decade to learn how to match up with Chris Pronger(notes). The kid from Finland, Antti Niemi(notes), didn’t need any previous trips to the NHL playoffs to harden his nerves enough to backstop a champion.
These kids, as young as 22 and as old as 26, didn’t need to sit at the knee of the ghosts who still float around Madison Street. All these kids needed was an ice surface and a chance and each other.
Tradition and history are wonderful things, but sometimes they are too revered, too worshiped. Sometimes tradition and history serve as shackles instead of springboards. Every time these Blackhawks felt the creep of the old days, and the old ways, they seemed to get younger. Every time the whispers came – “too raw” … “not seasoned enough” – they skated faster, forechecked harder, pushed back more forcefully. “Kids aren’t as young as you think they are,” says Mikita, who was 20 when he won the Cup. “They’re given responsibility, and either you do it or you don’t.”
They did it, all right. They did it in the regular season, when their rivals, the Red Wings, suddenly got healthy and made a late-season run at them. They did it in the playoffs, when pundits wondered if it was Nashville’s time, or Vancouver’s time, or San Jose’s time. And they did it in the Stanley Cup Finals, when the Flyers evened up the series, and the ’Hawks roared back in Game 5 with a flurry of passing and shooting that steamrolled the more veteran opponent. The Flyers taunted and tested, as the Flyers always do, and the Blackhawks didn’t bite. They acted and reacted as if they’d seen it all before. “The whole series impressed me,” says Mikita. “If a guy got smacked, he walked away and said, ‘I can get this guy; I don’t have to do it now.’ ”
The entire city of Chicago seemed to get younger over the course of the season. Did you see Michael Jordan at Game 5? There was something about seeing him in a Toews jersey, beaming and soaking in the moment. He looked happier than he did at his own Hall of Fame induction speech. That moment was about the past, but this one was about the future. It wasn’t a passing of the torch, because Jordan will always be Jordan. It was a sharing of the torch. It was a welcome to a future where other stars will shine in Chicago and other numbers will hang from the rafters. Maybe LeBron will come to town, maybe not. But no need to worry; a new era is here at United Center. And it has been ushered in by hockey players. Kids.
That includes older kids. One in particular: the child of “Dollar Bill” Wirtz, the respected but too frugal former owner. Rocky Wirtz had the courage to go against history and tradition, and try something new where his late father would not. He gambled on young talent. He put home games on TV. He even did away with the beloved organ music. And when the Hall of Famer didn’t work out as coach, Wirtz replaced Denis Savard with Joel Quenneville.
This coach is no kid. Not at all. With his bushy mustache and his non-smile – has he ever smiled? – he looks like an old-school grouch. But when the old lines got stale in Games 3 and 4 in Philly, Quenneville experimented. He mixed it up. He broke up his top stars. The strategy paid off. The team never looked back. Now they are Stanley Cup champions, with only two forwards over the age of 28. One is John Madden(notes). The other is Marian Hossa(notes), who, at age 31, finally turned the page on two straight Stanley Cup Finals defeats. He must feel like the youngest player in the NHL.
Now the Madhouse on Madison is a king’s castle. Next winter you can see all the older guys flocking to the Billy Goat Tavern after work, throwing back a couple and then hustling down the street to the rink like schoolchildren out for recess. Ironic, isn’t it? The Billy Goat Tavern is named after a curse that allegedly keeps a team from winning a title. But curses don’t really exist. They’re just excuses. The old men at the Billy Goat Tavern probably won’t be talking about curses next season. Instead, they’ll be talking about blessings.
But before then comes the summer. The ’Hawks players will parade the Cup to Buffalo, and Manitoba, and Minnesota, and B.C., and Finland. They’ll get the same questions over and over: How did you lead a moribund franchise not only into the playoffs for the first time in eight years, but to the Western Conference Finals and then to the Stanley Cup title? Didn’t you realize the history you were up against? Didn’t you understand how difficult winning a championship is supposed to be?
Surely the Blackhawks heard all the reasons why they couldn’t, or shouldn’t. But kids these days – they don’t listen.
Thank goodness for that.