I hate the Chicago Blackhawks.
I feel I should preface this piece with that, just so you have context for what I’m about to say. I try to be evenhanded and polite most of the time, but I know I’m not exactly great at hiding it. I’ve tried to figure out what it is about them that I hate so much. Is it Patrick Kane’s little troll doll face? Is it Duncan Keith’s general existence? Is it that Marian “Will Jump Ship For Cup” Hossa plays for them? (I fully acknowledge that all of these are absurd and petty, by the way.) Is it that I think many of their fans are both annoyingly smug and unappreciative of how lucky they are?
How do you not want to punch him in his little ratty “Showtime” face?
Or is it that they’re the closest thing we’ve had to a dynasty team in the last ten years?
Tonight, the Blackhawks won their third Cup in six years. In the last fifteen years, three teams have won the Cup more than once: The Red Wings (2002 and 2008, six years apart and with what I think are substantially different rosters); the LA Kings (2012 and 2014), and the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, and 2015). Both the Blackhawks and the Kings have kept more or less the same core the entire time, with the Kings’ roster in ’14 being almost indistinguishable from their roster in ’12. On the other hand, the Blackhawks, unlike the Kings, have not (yet) followed up a Cup winning season by missing the playoffs.
This year, there has been a lot of debate about what defines a dynasty team. Some define dynasty teams as repeating in back to back years, like the Islanders or Oilers of old. Others define it as winning more than one in a relatively small period of time, especially now that the league operates under a salary cap system. I define it as a consistently dominant team that you can never count out, and has won multiple Cups in a small period of time with the same core. And that is the Chicago Blackhawks.
Toews and Kane; Seabrook and Keith; Sharp and Hossa. These are the names inextricably linked with this period of the Blackhawks’ domination. And it’s undeniable that these are amazing players, but what makes the Blackhawks incredible (and infuriating) is the ever-changing cast of supporting characters.
Somewhere, Ben Smith is wishing he hadn’t gotten as high a salary as he did because otherwise he might be there instead of Desjardins.
The Blackhawks are a miracle of parts. Kane, Toews, and Hossa may be elite talents, but they aren’t usually at the top of any statistical lists. Corey Crawford has two Cups, but he isn’t talked about with the same reverence as Henrik Lundqvist or Carey Price or even the goalie he defeated in 2013, Tuukka Rask. What makes the Blackhawks as good as they are is the amazing balance and strength from all of their players.
Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Brandan Saad, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bryan Bickell: these aren’t the names on the marquee, but they are what make the Blackhawks so special. Stan Bowman and Dale Tallon before him have been exceptional at finding quality depth players. Part of this is that Bowman has been using advanced analytics long before this past year’s “Summer of Analytics.” He laughs at Corsi, because he’s been using SuperCorsi for years. What’s SuperCorsi, you ask? Only Stan Bowman knows.
What’s wonderful about a team like the Blackhawks is that they have been so dominant. They are amazing to watch and infuriating to root against, because they are so talented and so deep and so well-coached. In 2010, I rooted for them; in 2013, I pounded back a beer in bitter anger as they defeated the Bruins after the Bruins swept my team in the conference finals; and tonight I watched with awe, my dislike (and let’s be real: jealousy) fading away in pure admiration of what they have accomplished.
I have to confess I utterly sympathize with the Canucks in this video; that song now runs shivers of horror down my spine.
For Chicago fans, this victory has to be somewhat bittersweet. Anyone with a brain for numbers and a sharp eye will notice that the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation will become uncomfortable this summer, as Kane and Toews rocket up to a combined $21 million cap hit, out of a total $69 million. There was already talk last summer of trading Sharp, but management apparently decided to take one last run at the Cup while they had their core in place before they have to start trading pieces away to be able to pay a full roster. (Kane, Toews, Crawford, and Keith take up $32.5 million in cap space, close to half of the salary cap.) By my own definition, this is likely the end of this dynasty.
I don’t say this to be a downer; I say this to point out what a unique, brilliant moment this Chicago team has been. They got some amazing talent at the peak of youth when their salaries were still low; they got others like Hossa the ageless wonder; and they’ve managed to remain mostly healthy, even with Keith playing approximately every minute of every game in the playoffs.
Who’s ready for another rousing round of “who is a better leader, Toews or Crosby”?
It was just a decade ago that this degree of dominance by the Blackhawks would have seemed laughable (maybe that can be of some solace to Edmonton and Buffalo fans). Today, the beer hasn’t even yet gotten warm in the Cup and ESPN is already declaring them the favorites for 2016.
The Blackhawks’ evolution has been remarkable. Eleven years ago ESPN named them the worst franchise in sports. Their games were as poorly attended as the Panthers’ or the Coyotes’; they were among the worst teams in the league; they were dead in the water. But few people seem to remember that these days. Now they seem to be one of the most beloved teams in the NHL, with fans swarming opponents’ arenas to the point where Nashville and even Tampa have to go to great lengths to keep the Blackhawks fans out. Two years ago, Sports Illustrated rather grandiosely declared that the Blackhawks had saved the NHL.
That more than anything, I think, is what really speaks to this team’s position in history and as a dynasty. They are one of the most recognizable hockey teams to non-hockey fans, along with probably the LA Kings. For better or for worst (but mostly for better), they have raised the profile of hockey simply by being great. It’s dynasties that give everyone else something to live up to, and outsiders something to gravitate towards. Greatness breeds new fans.
So let’s lift a cup to the 2014-2015 Blackhawks and toast the end of a remarkable postseason and the end of an era. May their next one be just as great (if only so the rest of us have a common enemy).