— HIA - No horn sounded and no lights flashed to signal the goal that ended the longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history. Fans at the Wachovia Center reacted with stunned, bewildered silence as the Blackhawks celebrated an overtime goal by Patrick Kane that gave the Blackhawks a 4-3 victory and guaranteed that Chicago would host the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years.
To truly appreciate what the Blackhawks accomplished you would have to go back several years, to when the team that is now the toast of Chicago was a mere afterthought in a sports-crazed city that always seems starved for a winner. The Blackhawks were last in the league in attendance. Their home games weren’t televised. This once-proud, Original Six franchise had only qualified for the postseason once since 1997.
Hopeless was the word that was most associated with the Blackhawks. That they now have had 100 consecutive sellouts at the United Center, that television ratings are smashing records and the franchise’s famed Indian head logo is omnipresent in Chicago was an unthinkable series of events back then. The idea of the poorly managed Blackhawks becoming Stanley Cup champions was unfathomable, which is what makes this one of the greatest rags to riches stories in sports franchise history. Just a few weeks ago, Forbes magazine called it the greatest sports business turnaround ever.
“We had to build bridges,” said owner Rocky Wirtz, who began the resurrection when he took over the franchise after his father “Dollar” Bill Wirtz died in the fall of 2007. “We didn’t have relationships with the fans, with the media or with our former players. Everyone was at war with everyone else. They needed to come together or we wouldn’t be here today.”
It looked like the Blackhawks long quest for the Stanley Cup would come down to a winner-take-all Game 7 after the Flyers' Ville Leino skated past two Blackhawks in the neutral zone before throwing the puck at the front of the net, where it bounced of a ’Hawks player before Scott Hartnell slipped it past Antti Niemi with 3:59 left in the third.
Much like they did in their impressive 7-4 triumph in Game 5 at the United Center, the Blackhawks had been the aggressors from the start, outskating the Flyers and out-shooting them 17-7 after the first period and 27-13 after two. But the ’Hawks played conservatively in an attempt to protect a one-goal lead in the third. Niemi made several sterling saves before Hartnell knotted the score, sending the record home crowd here into a frenzy and giving himself and his teammates all the momentum heading into the final minutes of regulation and overtime.
“We knew they weren’t going to go away,” said ’Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, who was named the winner of the Conn Smythe trophy as MVP of the playoffs. “To protect a one-goal lead for 20 minutes against a team like that, it’s tough to imagine them not getting a bounce and they eventually did.”
Then came the strangest goal of the series, which also just happened to be the last. Kane’s shot from the lower left circle sneaked under Philadelphia goalie Michael Leighton’s blocker and into the side of the net. Kane immediately dropped his gloves and threw up his hands. The Blackhawks held a surreal, muted celebration as the Flyers looked on.
Finally, almost a half century of waiting was over. The goal was official.
“We were just hoping to God Kaner was right and he was pretty sure the puck had gone in,” Toews said. “We took his word for it.”
Chicago had returned to being a hockey town, and one of the best hockey towns in America at that, long before Kane lined up his shot. Rocky Wirtz immediately began reversing the long-outdated policies of his father. He hired long-time Chicago Cubs president John McDonough as team president to ensure the ’Hawks would be marketed aggressively and would become more fan friendly. He reached out to exiled greats such as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Denis Savard and Tony Esposito, making them team “ambassadors,” much to the delight of fans. Home games were televised.
Using high draft picks stockpiled after years of losing, former general manager Dale Tallon drafted Toews and Kane in back-to-back years while assembling a young roster that would not only play a fan-pleasing style but would serve as the nucleus for an eventual Stanley Cup winner.
It all came together, like things rarely do with such a compressed timeline, like they had not come together for the Hawks in generations.
“So many great things have happened to this team and this is the height of it all,” Toews said.
It’s a great story, all right, but it doesn’t have to end here. The salary cap makes it difficult to keep teams together, but the Blackhawks are full of young stars that have been signed long-term. This team could make Chicago a destination for year to come. There’s no reason to think it will be 49 years before the ’Hawks do this again.