November 27, 2007

In a city of struggling teams, Blackhawks are suprising stars

There’s only one team with a winning record in Chicago right now, and it comes in the surprising form of the Blackhawks.

Hoc-key? Unexpectedly, astonishingly, yes.

The city’s last collective memory of hockey glory is mired in the 1980s, when current head coach Dennis Savard was lighting up the old Chicago Stadium with his spin-o-rama moves. And although the puckheads of decades past have been a little slow to rise from their indifferent slumber, they are starting to recognize the faint stirrings of something like hope.

The kindest way to describe the Bears’ season so far is “wildly ineffective.” The Baby Bulls are failing to pick up where they left off in the spring. The Fire were predictably stopped short of the MLS Cup final. The Cubs have yet to find a willing buyer, and the Sox—well, the less said about them, the better.

Maybe it’s just me, but Chicago needs a bit of hope right now, both for the resurgence of a team and a sport neglected by fan base and owners alike for the past decade, and for those dreading the prospect of another basement season for the Bulls or another deferred postseason dream for the Bears. The Blackhawks, for once, can help the city of Chicago retain its sanity rather than drive it into hibernation, and here are five reasons why you should be paying attention:

1. Youth. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, two rookies who went first and third in their respective entry drafts, have put up impressive performances and numbers in the first quarter of the season and are early candidates to win the Calder Memorial Trophy (read: NHL equivalent of the ROY award). Even though their 1988 birthdates mark the two forwards as the babies of the team, the Blackhawks also skate the youngest blue line in the league, with four defensemen aged 24 or younger. It’s hard not to identify with these players, who not only represent our generation, but also carry the expectations of the hockey world.

2. Experience. (Youth, after all, cannot be expected to shoulder all the burden.) The Blackhawks are anchored by seasoned veterans like Robert Lang, Martin Lapointe, Magnus Johansson, and the goaltending tandem of Nikolai “Bulin Wall” Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime. Complementing both the embryonic and the aging members of the team are a core of players who are entering their prime—forwards Patrick Sharp and Jason Williams are having breakout seasons so far, and once Martin Havlat returns from injury, he should add another dimension to the offense.

3. A strong start. The Blackhawks have opened their season 12–9–2, currently sitting fourth in the Western Conference. Their power play stats are strong, penalty-killing stats even stronger, and they lead the league with 10 shorthanded goals—twice as many as their nearest challengers in that category. In the Central Division, they sport a 7–4–1 record and are in second place behind the Detroit Red Wings. In fact, they’ve won all four of their encounters with the Red Wings so far this season, with another four left to be decided. The renewed competition between these two Original Six teams is certainly helping to fill the seats at the United Center. And for long-suffering Blackhawks fans, I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than hearing a 20,000-strong chorus of “DEE-TROIT SUCKS! DEE-TROIT SUCKS!” and knowing that it’s not just a defiant chorus—that the words at least reflect some momentary truth.

4. An end to the blackout. After the death of owner and notorious penny pincher Bill Wirtz, who refused to televise Blackhawks home games, his son and successor Rocky Wirtz has finally introduced the organization to modern times by negotiating a seven-game TV deal with Comcast SportsNet, with expanded coverage pending in future seasons. Wirtz has taken other steps to revive the presence of the team, such as slashing prices on all December home games and installing former Cubs president John McDonough, who will hopefully bring to the United Center the savvy he showed in elevating Wrigley Field to a prime destination.

5. Cheap seats. Who can say no to $8 student tickets? An advantage of the Blackhawks being a team “on the rise” is that game-day availability for this deal isn’t a big problem, except for Red Wings games. Although the pricing can only guarantee you a nosebleed seat, there’s a lot to be said for the live experience of a hockey game. You can actually see the puck, for one, and team organist Frank Pellico never fails to entertain before the match and between periods.

Aside from the club’s official website and Chris Kuc’s solitary—albeit devoted—beat and blog coverage for the Tribune, there’s not much being said about the Blackhawks these days, despite their early accomplishments both on and off the ice.

Then again, I counted 16 separate features published on the Tribune’s online supplement following the Bears’ 37–34 win over the Broncos Sunday evening, which is excessive, though predictable. Who wants to read 16 articles when it’s so easy to discover the Blackhawks’ talking points for yourself?