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The Verdict: Still young, hungry and stocked

Tuesday, 10.05.2010 / 10:37 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Still young, hungry and stocked
The prognosticators should count out Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks at their own risks.

Just the other day I was looking through the latest issue of Michigan Avenue magazine. Now I know what you’re thinking: If Michigan Avenue is about and for rich, famous and beautiful people, what is a copy of it doing in my grubby hands?

Well, here’s your answer: Jonathan Toews, captain of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, is on the cover. This is quite an honor for the young man, but to me it set off an alarm system. Throughout the industry of athletics, pro and amateur, there is the notorious Sports Illustrated cover jinx. If you or your team appear on the cover of that venerable and popular weekly, bad tidings are sure to follow.

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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I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. Instead I perused several other publications that do not dwell on fashion trends, but on more basic stuff, like the upcoming National Hockey League season. Upon further review, I deduced the following: While demand for tickets to watch the Blackhawks at the United Center is high, there is room on the bandwagon for their 2010-11 title defense that commences in Denver on Thursday night against the Colorado Avalanche.

“So nobody’s picking us to win again?” said an amused Toews when asked to broach the subject recently. “That’s fine by us. That’s not the way we feel in this locker room; I can assure you of that. We like what we have here. That is not to discredit contributions of the guys who helped us win last year but aren’t with us anymore. Every one of them played a part in bringing the Cup to Chicago. But with the core guys who stayed and the new guys we have coming in, we like our team. A whole lot.”

Generally experts agree, with certain caveats. The Sporting News, for instance, states that “there’s plenty of talent in Chicago, even with the player purge General Manager Stan Bowman was forced to make.” Still, the magazine predicted the Blackhawks for fourth in the Western Conference behind, in order, Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose with the Canucks securing the Cup in the finals against the Washington Capitals.

According to USA Today, America’s national newspaper, “the Hawks remain a dynamic, prime Cup contender. But as Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford once said, it’s difficult to convince your players they can conquer Mount Everest a second time.” Thus, the Blackhawks are pegged for fifth in the West, with Detroit forecast as No. 1.

The Mount Everest theory is not a trifling matter. If you believe that the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to attain because it requires 16 victories throughout four rounds over two months, then it makes sense that winning two in a row defies the law of averages. The last franchise to do so was Detroit in 1997-98, before the inception of the hard salary cap that rendered it virtually impossible for championship franchises to retain all their assets.

But the Mount Everest hymn also touches on the possibility that a team’s chemistry and passion can be affected by a sense of satisfaction. Duncan Keith digested that scenario and did not dismiss it. “Could happen … if you’re mentally weak,” offered the Norris Trophy winner. End of discussion. Indeed, the Blackhawks displayed their toughness and spirit throughout last winter, which is why ESPN’s Barry Melrose touted them for months before they hoisted the Cup in Philadelphia. But this June, he likes the Canucks over the Caps. So it goes. Clip and save.
    
Sports Illustrated
selects the Caps over Detroit in the finals with the Blackhawks finishing third in the conference. Michael Farber, a writer of renown, opines: “It may not be the new faces in the room that prove to be the biggest adjustment for the young Blackhawks. Coming down from the most exciting summer of their lives might be harder.”

That overview is thoughtful, and the message is clear. Winning twice will be even more arduous, but the Blackhawks are still young, still hungry and still stocked with exceptional players — two of the top 10 in the league, probably four of the top 20, maybe five of the top 25 or 30. As the task of repeating becomes more grueling, so might they become better. Toews, for instance, lined his trophy case with everything except a kitchen sink last season, but would you bet more than a dime that he experienced a “career year?” Ditto for Patrick Kane. As Yogi Berra would say, their futures are ahead of them.

The Hockey News Yearbook bows to the Blackhawks as “an elite team” but designates them second in the Central Division behind Detroit and fourth in the conference behind No. 1 Vancouver. A year ago, the Blackhawks were accumulating votes from various precincts as potential Cup material. They validated that support, and now one could argue that their goalkeeping situation with Marty Turco and Corey Crawford is more settled than it was one October ago. You can look it up. Cristobal Huet was a tenuous No. 1, Antti Niemi was a mystery man, and still the Blackhawks were hailed as a “team to watch.”

What, then, does that make this team? If you are a newcomer trying to secure a roster spot, either via Rockford or wherever, and you witness the unconditional love enjoyed by the Blackhawks in Chicago, do you not expend every bit of energy to join the fun? If you were on the outside looking in at the parade on June 11 throughout the Loop, is there any doubt that this is quite a special place to play hockey? Might one of those snazzy Stanley Cup rings work with your wardrobe?

“I would think,” concluded Toews, “that if you’re a rookie and you see what it’s like around here, you would want to get a piece of it.”

Michigan Avenue magazine, by the way, did not offer predictions on the 2010-11 season. But it did note that the young man in the expensive suit “has a few more goals to score.” I’ll buy that and pass on the $7,300 wristwatch.