You know you have a captive audience when two coaches are accorded a royal welcome. So it was Sunday when Stephane Waite, the Blackhawks’ goaltending guru, and Jamie Kompon, the team’s new assistant coach, were first to hit the ice shortly after noon at Johnny’s IceHouse West.
College basketball has its “Midnight Madness” when drills commence for the upcoming season at an ungodly hour, but to those couple hundred hockey-starved aficionados gathered in the stands, the opening practice for their beloved team arrived not a moment too soon, albeit three months delayed.
John McDonough, the Blackhawks’ president and CEO, declared that “we take nothing for granted” and thereby must “earn our way back” after the National Hockey League lockout. Several fan initiatives, he announced, are forthcoming. But on Sunday, it was those fans providing the initiative with serial sounds of satisfaction as their favorite players emerged, one by one, from the locker room.
When Duncan Keith, the outstanding defenseman, raised his stick as if to extend thanks for your patience and understanding, it felt like mutual admiration as usual. ‘Game On’, and the first one for the Blackhawks will be Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles against the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings.
“I haven’t been this excited in a long time,” gushed the head coach, Joel Quenneville. He brought a wide smile with him to work, but so did they all. Players like to play games, a lot more than they like to practice, but you wouldn’t have known it by the mood in the rink as a short training camp opened for 15 forwards, nine defensemen and two goalies. The task is daunting—48 games in 99 days, a “48 game playoff season,” as characterized by McDonough. But it will be the same for all 30 franchises, and on this Sunday in January, the boys of winter seemed to relish the idea of hanging out and shooting pucks well past Coach Q’s agenda.
“We’re just all thrilled to be back,” said Patrick Kane before a phalanx of reporters and TV cameras. To his right, captain Jonathan Toews also commanded a rapt audience while his neighboring teammates remembered what it used to be like. Reaching their stalls is tantamount to crossing the blue line through opposition traffic. Being positioned next to Toews is not the best or most peaceful seat in the house, but nobody was complaining, not at this late date.
An “amazing pace” is how Quenneville responded to a request about his extended forecast for the truncated regular season that will conclude on April 27. Coaches dwell on teaching and repetition, but tutorial sessions will be few and precious now. So he will gladly take his chances on the veteran core of this roster and its depth. The Blackhawks will play 10 of their first 12 games on the road, including a six-game tour later this month. Overall, they must deal with ten back-to-back assignments, and although a majority will finish with a second game at home, the importance of every shift is magnified.
Anything can happen in a short season, and to confirm that, one need only consult the oracle, Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame senior advisor to hockey operations. He coached the Detroit Red Wings in 1995, when a similar impasse precipitated a 48-game schedule. With much pomp and circumstance, the Blackhawks christened the United Center on Jan. 25. But the Red Wings dominated the Central Division, losing just 11 times and amassing a league-high 70 points.
“The rules were different then, and I don’t think as many guys went to play elsewhere as they did this time,” said Bowman. “We’ve had something like 150 players go to Europe or Russia in the last couple months, although very few goalies. You might see some rustiness there, and that could influence how their teams play in front of them. If you’re a golfer and you don’t hit balls for a while, you feel it.
“Injuries also play a big part in what happens. If you have a guy who misses two weeks now, he could miss seven or eight games. And with all your games in your conference, there is a premium on winning and winning in regulation. You go into overtime, or a shootout, and that third point comes into the equation.”
Bowman’s Red Wings were building a formidable unit in 1995, and were clear favorites to bring the Stanley Cup to Detroit for the first time since 1955. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, finished third, then eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games after losing the first two at the United Center. The Blackhawks swept the Vancouver Canucks to qualify for the Western Conference finals against Detroit.
The Red Wings won in five angry games, three of which went to sudden death, including the clincher when Vyacheslav Kozlov scored at 2:25 of the second overtime in Detroit for a 2-1 conquest. Bowman recalls that the Blackhawks “probably” took something out of his squad during an intensely physical series. Still, the Red Wings were deemed destined to prevail in the finals against the New Jersey Devils.
“But that was a good team, a big team, playing defensively, which skill players don’t like,” Bowman went on. New Jersey, a fifth seed that finished only four games over .500, upset Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to advance. The Devils had little history. The franchise debuted in Kansas City, moved to Denver, then New Jersey. Jacques Lemaire was their 15th coach in 20 years. They had 11 American-born players and a goal differential over 48 games of plus-15, compared with Detroit’s plus-63.
“And we got swept,” Bowman said. “Four straight. We won the Cup in Detroit two years later. But that short season in 1995, it was wide open and New Jersey wound up coming out of the pack. You could see that again. You saw it last year with a full schedule. Los Angeles. This league is very tight.”
So is the bond between the Blackhawks and Chicago. While hockey was away, the waiting list for season tickets to the United Center grew by 250 applicants. And now hockey is back. Practice Monday at 11.
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