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5/29/2010
DESTINY’S KIDS - HERE COME THE HAWKS
CATEGORY: Blackhawks, Sports

1-10
Dustin Byfuglien of the Blackhawks celebrates his third-period goal while taking on the Sharks.

Growing up in Chicago in the 1960’s, one got used to successful, albeit disappointing sports teams. The Bears won one of the last “NFL Championships” in 1963 before the game changed forever with the merging of the rival AFL-NFL leagues and the birth of the Super Bowl (1966 season). Otherwise, they were competitive as long as Hall of Famers Gayle Sayers and Dick Butkus were healthy.

The White Sox finished second in the American League 5 times between 1957 and 1965. In the days before league playoffs, this left the Sox out of the post season, watching the hated Yankees play for the championship at the end of their incredible streak of 13 World Series’ appearances in 15 years.

The Cubs? Well, never mind…

But it was the Chicago Blackhawks National Hockey League team of that era that defined success for this sports hungry town. Packing the old Chicago Stadium - “the barn” or “The Madhouse on Madison” - to the rafters for every game and with the largest pipe organ in the world (the 3,663 pipe Barton monster that was so big, they couldn’t move it when the United Center was built) blasting for all three periods, the enthusiasm generated by the fans was felt throughout the city, especially around playoff time.

These were the Golden Years for hockey in Chicago. The team was blessed with 4 Hall of Fame players whose exciting style of play captured the imaginations of the city.

First among them was Bobby Hull. Nicknamed “The Golden Jet” because of his skating ability, Hull is considered one of the best hockey players ever to play the game. His fearsome slap shot - over 100 MPH - was the terror of goal tenders of that era. At that time, goalies, for some reason, didn’t wear masks. A look at the Hall of Fame Montreal Canadian goalie of the period, Lorne “Gump” Worsely’s face, does not reflect well on the intelligence of net minders at the time. Some of those scars are no doubt the result of a Bobby Hull slapshot making contact with Worsley’s scowling visage.

Hull had the singular ability of “winding up” behind his own goal, and then turning on the afterburners as he would wend his way through the entire opposing team to put the puck on net. The crowd would start buzzing the minute he had the puck behind his own goal keeper. Everyone in the building knew what he was about to do and still, opponents were hard pressed to stop him. Hull was one of the most popular athletes in town and was the face of the franchise before leaving skinflint owner Bill Wirtz for greener pastures in the short lived World Hockey League.

Stan Mikita - whose name became a pop culture reference when dudes Wayne and Garth would visit his fictitious donut shop in the Wayne’s World films - was as smooth as the ice he so effortlessly played on, and is considered one of the finest center icemen to ever don skates. Mikita helped perfect the curved hockey stick, sometimes bending the blade up to 3″. The “banana blade” not only made it much easier to handle the puck, but the spin it put on slapshots became so dangerous that the NHL eventually set a maximum curve of 3/4″.

Mikita, although not as flashy and spectacular a player as Hull, nevertheless endeared himself to fans with is wizardry with the puck. His like in the passing game was not seen again until 17 year old Wayne Gretzky hit the ice.

The two other Hall of Fame players who defined the team at that time - defensemen Pierre Pilot and goalie Glenn Hall - supplied the team with a defensive backbone that gave opposing offenses fits.

The core group of players were with the team for nearly a decade - an era that saw the Hawks win it all in 1961 and reach the finals twice more.

Alas, equal to the challenge at almost every turn were the hated Montreal Canadiens. (spelled the French way with an “e”) Nicknamed Les Habitants, and featuring talent that was even deeper than the Hawks, the Habs always seemed to find a way to deny the Chicagoans the ultimate prize of a Stanley Cup. There may have been no better team in this history of the sport in North America than the Canadiens from that era. Watching the Habs of that period was like watching a track meet. They didn’t skate, they flew - hence their moniker of the time, “The Flying Frenchmen.” Some of the Gretzky-led Oilers teams would probably give them a run for their money. But those teams were put together long after the league expanded, and before the league began to import the immense talent from eastern Europe and Russia. Still, a Gretzky-Messier combo would have given the Habs of that era a good run for the Cup.

Flash forward to the present where the team begins it’s ultimate quest for the Cup tonight as they play for the first time in the Stanley Cup finals since 1992. After nearly a decade of futility, the Hawks reached the playoffs last year and made it all the way to the Western Conference finals before bowing to eventual champion Detroit. It is sad commentary that it took the death of owner Bill Wirtz and his eccentric business decisions for the Hawks to blossom again and regain some of the fan base it lost in the previous decade.

ESPN.com’s Gene Wojciechowski explains:

The Hawks, one of the Original Six, haven’t won a Cup since 1961, haven’t reached the playoffs since 2002 and haven’t been worth watching until, well, now. Not that you could have watched them until now anyway. This is the first season in the 82-year history of the team that all of its games are on local TV.

With all due respect to Knicks knucklehead James Dolan and the Lions’ clueless William Clay Ford, no franchise has a richer history of ownership blunders than the Hawks. The late Bill Wirtz and his 41-year reign of ownership terror make Dolan and Ford look like amateurs.

The Wirtz Way: Don’t spend money. Don’t broadcast home games. Don’t help the media. And when in doubt, distance yourself from your legendary players. With Wirtz, the organizational motto was “The Customer Is Always Wrong.”

That era is over, thank goodness. It turns out, that Chicago fans were just waiting to be invited back into the fold. They led the league in attendance for the second straight year and it has become cool and chic to be a Blackhawks fan.

The city government has responded by putting hockey jerseys on landmarks like the marble lions who grace the entrance of the art museum. The world famous Picasso in Daley Plaza is graced with a (what else) surrealist representation of the blade of a hockey stick. The Field Museum’s Brachiosaurus is dressed up in Hawks raiment while even Michael Jordan’s statue at the entrance to the United Center is jersified with a hockey helmet complete with visor to boot.

A recent survey shows support for the team jumping a whopping 70% over the last two years among city residents. But what sort of team are they so excited about?

This is a team with a 22 year old captain, Jonathan Toews, who plays the game with a maturity and skill far beyond his years. It is a team stocked with very fast, mostly young forwards who have bought into coach Joel Quenneville’s system of dump and cycle until enough space is created for the hugely talented youngsters like Patrick Kane to work their magic in front of the goal. They have a Norris Trophy candidate (best defensemen) in Duncan Keith who plays nearly half the game on the ice (most players average about 18-20 min). He is partnered with the hard nosed Brent Seabrook whose toughness is born out by his willingness to drop in front of a shooter and block a shot traveling close to 100 MPH. As cool a customer in his own zone with the puck as Keith, the tandem is always on the ice when the opposing team’s best line jumps over the boards.

Keith is no wuss either. In the first period of the clinching game against the San Jose Sharks, Keith took a clearing effort right in the mouth, resulting in the loss of 4 teeth. Incredibly, he was back playing full bore after a visit to the dressing room. That’s not just tough. That’s hockey tough.

One other player deserves mention; the gentle giant Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced “(Bufflin”). At a towering 6′4″ and weighing in at nearly 270 lbs, Buff has been an immovable force in front of the net during the playoffs, scoring goals in the last 8 consecutive games. His mild mannered demeanor in interviews is belied by a ferocious approach to the game. His presence in front of the goalkeeper prevents the player from seeing the puck while he pounces on rebounds and puts the puck into the net with regularity. With smaller defensemen trying gamely to move his big body so their goalkeeper gets a good view of the puck, Buff simply occupies a lot of space and will be a headache for Chicago’s final’s opponent, the Philadelphia Flyers.

With the White Sox disappointing start and the Cubs merely treading water (and while the Bears prepare for a season with the usual high hopes but probable letdown), the Hawks and Bulls - two young, exciting teams - are gaining fans and pushing the major sports for popularity. Chicago will always be a Bears town. And the Cubs will always have a hold on the heart of the city.

But I’m sure we can make room for a championship hockey team somewhere.

By: Rick Moran at 11:39 am

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