The Verdict: It's all about respect
Bobby Hull described the ongoing epidemic of Blackhawks fever in Chicago as the healthiest he has ever witnessed, and we second that notion without reservation. But besides the obvious—a Stanley Cup victory—that does not explain fully why this franchise has created an era and aura of such unbridled affection. Thus, we settle on a simple word, respect.
Even in the worst of times, hockey people exude a respect for the game, and by extension, to those who support it. We are not here to diminish other sports, only to state that when it comes to dedication and selflessness—direct descendants of respect—the individuals within hockey historically are never worse than tied for first.
It can’t be about the old saw that these guys are all from small towns in Canada, because these guys in the modern NHL hail from everywhere. And their values can’t be traced to modest rewards from humble beginnings, because payrolls have grown markedly since Hull raised the bar by jumping to a new league in 1972 for the then grandiose sum of $150,000 per year.
So, perhaps we should obey the declaration of Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks’ cerebral general manager, who aptly categorizes hockey as the ultimate team endeavor, requiring all the tangibles and intangibles that embody an airtight spirit of purpose.
On the new Blackhawks, Rocky Wirtz Superstar is the prime mover. Upon becoming chairman of the family heirloom in October, 2007, he basically torched the business model he inherited for a diametrically different approach. Yet, from day one until Friday’s remarkable rally, he has cited with dignity grandfather Arthur, father Bill and uncle Michael for building a foundation. Not once has Rocky uttered a disrespectful word about his bloodlines while mixing in with regular folks, sitting among them at the UC. He just rolled up his sleeves and did it his way.
The locker room, while not populated with characters akin to the 1985 Bears, oozes character. Jonathan Toews, the captain, was the most valuable player during the post-season, and for that he earned a substantial bonus. Yet, he has treated his Conn Smythe Trophy as if it were radioactive, because it is about an individual. When the plane landed from Philadelphia Thursday morning, the award fell into the hands of a member of the public relations staff while Toews brandished the Stanley Cup.
Brian Campbell is on the books for $7 million-plus per year, yet he was on the ice sooner rather than later after a serious injury he could have milked. Duncan Keith contributed seven teeth to the cause, but he missed only a few minutes while needles dulled the pain. He has a 13-year contract in his pocket and could have management in a chokehold. But that’s not what hockey players do. (See: Jeremy Roenick, who teared up on national TV and got bashed in Philadelphia for his emotions.)
When a fuss ensued about Keith’s devotion to duty, he was nonplussed. Shades of Bobby Jones, a bygone legend from golf, a sport that also breeds accountability. Upon being praised for calling a penalty on himself with nobody else watching, Jones intoned, “that’s like congratulating me for not robbing a bank.”
Understand that, besides personal clauses such as Toews’, hockey players make peanuts and per diem during playoffs. The Blackhawks went 22 games in the post-season—the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints played 19 total—yet shares for each will not reach six digits. Playoffs are when owners make their money, with the league taking a hefty bite. Peter Luukko, chief operating officer for Comcast-Spectator, told the Philadelphia Daily News that each of the Stanley Cup final games hosted by the Flyers brought in $3.5 million, not counting $900,000 per date on food, drink and merchandise.
The Blackhawks had 11 home playoff games, and if you don’t have a neighbor who is wearing some type of regalia from the Stanley Cup champions, you haven’t ventured outside lately. So you figure it out. But Rocky Wirtz’ motto is spend money to make money, so rest assured he will reinvest whatever is necessary and beyond. There is a hard cap on roster talent, but no limit on how the Blackhawks fortify the infrastructure, or how they treat players, whether it’s charter flights for relatives or five-star hotels and royal victuals.
The routine is as follows: the Blackhawks board a private plane that is a buffet with wings, then receive meal money, then are asked how they want their steak cooked. Upon landing, they have a team dinner, followed by breakfast in the morning, then lunch, followed by a pre-game snack. On the flight afterward, more food. The NHL is the Never Hungry League. Yet, have you ever seen a fat hockey player? Nor have I.
You won’t see many sassy ones, either, which circles back to this matter of respect. The Blackhawks couldn’t wait to win the Stanley Cup for themselves or their fans. The 35-pound silver jug is coming to an establishment near you, because that is the creed of hockey players. They have this inherent quality about them, an earthy and genuine side. They stand for more than the National Anthem, and that’s what separates them from the pack.
Fans have lost faith in so many of their sports heroes. The pedestal exists no more. You still like the games, but not so often the athletes who play them. Hockey people are different, though, always have been. And when they win a Stanley Cup and want you to share it, that’s why you can’t move on a Friday in June in downtown Chicago. You just show up to return the commitment you’ve been shown, by the men and women who work for the Blackhawks and the boys of winter who made it happen, a home parade televised locally.
It was quite a story, and not just a hockey story. It was about mutual admiration, another direct descendant of respect.