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The Verdict: Blackhawks' status still quo

Tuesday, 05.25.2010 / 9:53 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Blackhawks\' status still quo

After one quick trip around their United Center locker room Sunday, it was refreshingly apparent that the status of the Blackhawks had not veered from quo. Sweeping the San Jose Sharks was nice, but the ultimate prize was necessary.

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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Indeed, for sheer exhilaration, accompanied by squirming bodies and animal noises, you had to be at the free pre-game buffet, where us reporter types gathered around the trough. We are every bit as good at grazing as the Blackhawks are at hockey. It’s just that they know there is a tomorrow.

Now, whether the level-headedness expressed by this organization, from management to labor, is being shared outside the building is debatable. Not since 1961 have the Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup, yet fans seem to think the upcoming series that begins Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers is tantamount to empty net territory. Optimism is not indigenous to Chicago sports, for obvious reasons. But in an informal sampling, with a margin for error of 49 years, people around here figure it’s all over except for the parade.

This is rare in our precinct. Mike Ditka’s Super Bowl XX Bears were accorded such a buzz, as were all except one of the six Bulls’ teams Michael Jordan led to NBA championships. But when the Blackhawks last sought hockey’s highest calling in 1992, the city dwelled on familiar emotions, specifically fear and trepidation. That despite the fact that Mike Keenan’s squad entered the finals on an unconscious run.

After dropping two of the first three intra-division tilts against St. Louis Blues, the Blackhaws won the next three. They then swept two visceral rivals—the Detroit Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers—for 11 victories in a row. What tempered the excitement was the subsequent assignment: the Pittsburgh Penguins—Scotty Bowman's Pittsburgh Penguins—had home ice advantage and were defending Stanley Cup champions.

“Loaded. They were loaded,” recalled Jeremy Roenick, who bagged 53 goals during the regular season for the Blackhawks. “They had the best player in the world, Mario Lemieux; a fabulous scorer in Jaromir Jagr; plus Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Kevin Stevens…on and on. No weak links.”

Still, the Blackhawks roared to a 4-1 lead during the opener in the Igloo. The Penguins were out of sorts, but not out of ammunition. Not for long. They caught and passed the Blackhawks to prevail, 5-4, and the rest of their story was, at best, a learning experience.

“In Game 2 there, Mike benched Larms (Steve Larmer), Goo (Michel Goulet) and myself for a while,” Roenick went. “I’m not sure why. I guess we weren’t playing the way he wanted. Mike was also upset at the officials. I don’t think the power plays were in our favor, and he was hot.

"The next day, we’re back in Chicago and they give me this cast to wear around my left hand. I might have been hurting. At that point in the season, we’re all hurting, if you know what I mean. We’re all abusing our bodies. But they tell me to wear this cast. I say, ‘what is this?’ I guess it was Mike’s way of working the officials. You know, show and tell. Go on TV wearing this thing over my left hand and maybe it will have an effect. Naturally, I took it off the next day. I had to. I had to play.”

Alas, the Penguins won Game 3 by a 1-0 count, then the next game 6-5. They embraced the Stanley Cup and showed it off at the Stadium while the organ played what sounded like a dirge.

“Were they better than us?” Roenick mentioned. “Absolutely. Not four straight better, I don’t think, but better.”

Now, 18 years later, the Blackhawks return to the big dance, and starved fans think they can’t miss? Again, this attitude is not common to the NHL landscape, nor should it be when one considers how the Flyers qualified to grow playoff beards by a whisker. They won a shootout on the final day of the regular season after John Tortorella, coach of the New York Rangers, refrained from using his best offensive threat, Marian Gaborik, in the tie-breaker. The rest really is history. The Flyers, from their No. 7 seed, whipped New Jersey, then Boston after being down 3-0 in the series and 3-0 in Game 7 on the road, then Montreal.

The Blackhawks also are soaring, which might be prompting comparisons with the aforementioned Bears, who destroyed foes during the regular season, then shut out the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams before Super Bowl XX in New Orleans. The Bears took over that town. It was as though the New England Patriots were stage props even before they succumbed 46-10. Warning: whatever the Blackhawks do here on Saturday and Monday nights, they will not confuse Philadelphia for neutral territory for Games 3, 4 and 6, if required.

At the outset of the 1991 NBA final, the Bulls were supposedly out of their element against the Los Angeles Lakers. Sam Smith of the Tribune picked the Bulls, a prediction for which he was chided when the Lakers triumphed in Game 1. But the Bulls won the next four games, and five more titles in bookend three-peats. Under Jordan, they never even bothered with a Game 7 against Portland, Phoenix, Seattle and Utah twice.

In 2005, expectations for the White Sox were tempered until they gradually rolled over Boston, the Angels and Houston with increasing ease toward a post-season mark of 11-1 and a World Series. The Cubs of 1984, 1989, 2003, 2007, 2008…well, let’s put it this way. When they last won it all in 1908, I am told they were favorites.

Now, throughout Chicago and suburbs, so are the Blackhawks.

“I don’t see them losing,” concluded Roenick. “I played for the Flyers too, but the Blackhawks are too good.”

If Joel Quenneville and his boys of winter concur, you would not have known it Sunday at the United Center, where the Clarence Campbell Bowl sat there, looking for some love.