Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stanley Cup Champions

Something happened this past week that warrants a blog post and a recapping of the journey.

Being a sports fan with Chicago loyalties can extremely challenging at times, but the opportunity to celebrate a championship is certainly something to be happy about. While it was not a title for the Cubs, the Bears, or even the Bulls, the Stanley Cup championship season of the Chicago Blackhawks has been an exhilarating and rewarding experience, as a fan.

Just three years ago, they won it all, after a 49 year drought, and that was very exciting. Still though, as much as I wanted to revel in that triumph, I still felt a bit like a bandwagon fan. The Hawks were simply not really a team I cared about for many years until just a season before they won the Cup. After that 2010 win though, I stuck with them, despite the fact that the team would lose many players and have to rebuild to an extent. So, I stayed a fan, and saw them lose the past two seasons in the first round of the playoffs, despite showing a great deal of heart and character throughout.

The loss last year was pretty frustrating but optimism was there for this upcoming season. The unfortunate result of the 2012 Presidential election was of course also tough to deal with, and the NHL labor dispute, which threatened to cancel the entire season made things even worse. How long would it take to have something to feel good about again?

Lo and behold, the season was saved though as the parties reached in agreement, in what was a pleasant surprise. The regular season would be condensed, but there would still be a lot of hockey and a full playoff schedule, and a champion crowned in June.

To open the season, the Blackhawks traveled to Los Angeles for a nationally televised game, against the defending champions who would raise the banner and celebrate their win. I am sure the fact that the Stanley Cup was in the building and on the ice for the ceremony on Opening Day, gave the Blackhawks motivation to next see it back on the ice, for a celebration of their own, after their last game of the season.

Chicago went on to quickly and emphatically send a message in winning that game, and never really looked back. They set an NHL record for games with consecutive points, as they did not lose a single game in regulation for a couple of months. It was all very exciting to follow and it seemed like tons of people in Chicago and around the country were into it. The NHL can certainly be grateful that the Blackhawks were around to help people forget about the lockout. Even after that streak ended, the Hawks continued to be on a roll, with some additional lengthy winning streaks, and not letting up until they had won the President's Trophy, emblematic of having the best record in the league.

While the Blackhawks had earned home-ice advantage throughout the entire playoffs, there was still some anxiety about what would happen in the post-season, where things ratcheted up. Could their goalie, who happened to be named Corey, be up to the challenge? Past President's Trophy winners had been recently bounced in the first round of the playoffs, and that exact thing happened to the Blackhawks when they had last finished first in the regular season back in 1991.

Heavily favored in Round One against the Wild, the first shot of Game 1 by the Wild went into the net for a goal. Was this a bad omen? Thankfully though, the Blackhawks won that first playoff game in Overtime, and despite one frustrating Overtime loss, they easily won that series in five games.

Next, it would be a match against the Hawks' biggest traditional rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, a team that had achieved much success in the past several years, but would be leaving the Western Conference after this season. It was a great chance for Chicago to send them out in style. Game One was an easy win for the Blackhawks (on the same night that the gutty Chicago Bulls would be eliminated by the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat) and it seemed like this might be another easy series.

However, things took a bad turn in Game Two, as the Hawks played very poorly at home and lost. Two valiant efforts, (and a bad officiating call) on road ice in Detroit were not enough as Chicago lost three in a row for a the first time all year and were suddenly down three games to one. I admit, it all looked very dire and that point and it seemed like a Stanley Cup was nothing but a pipedream. I remember sitting in my car and hearing sports talk radio hosts speculate over whether fans would boo the raising of the President's Cup banner next season, considering what a failure the playoffs would be.

The Blackhawks stood firm and won Game 5 in Chicago, and went to Detroit knowing if they could win Game Six, suddenly they would have all the momentum. That is exactly what happened, as the Hawks came from behind in the Third Period, tying the series up at 3 games apiece, with Game 7 in Chicago. There was much drama involved that night, as the Red Wings tied the game in the Third Period before a seemingly go-ahead goal with very little time left was disallowed by a bad official's call. The team could have folded there (as other Chicago teams had before in other sports) but they came out in Overtime and won.

Amazingly, the Blackhawks had won that brutal series after all and now had a date with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings and the person considered the top goalie in the league. Many across the country thought that the Kings would be too tough to dethrone. All the games were pretty competitive and could have gone either way, but the Hawks took the Western Conference trophy in five games. The last of which, in Chicago was especially nerve wracking, as L.A. tied the game with just seconds left. It would take double overtime for Chicago to clinch a berth in the Finals, on a hat-trick goal by eventual Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane.

The Stanley Cup Final was set against the Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins, who had won it all in 2011, and like the last series, many felt that Boston and their goalie, were just too strong. The Bruins certainly put up a heck of an effort in that series, months after their city was the focus of the world after the Marathon Bombing, and it was perhaps one of the best NHL Finals of all time.

Game One saw Boston twice take two goal leads on the road in Chicago, and it seemed like maybe they might be the better team after all. Chicago came back to tie the game in the Third Period though and after absolute nerve wracking experiences, the Hawks and Corey Crawford continued to survive all the way to a Third Overtime period, when an Andrew Shaw redirected goal gave Chicago Game One.

The Blackhawks got off to a quick start in Game Two, but only held a 1-0 lead, after a goal that probably should have been credited to them was not. Boston got stronger as the game went on, and you guessed it, the game went to Overtime. I was pretty used to seeing the Hawks win OT games on home ice at this point, so I was a bit surprised when Boston came away with that win, and tied the series up.

Moving to Boston, Game Three saw the Bruins and their goalie shut out the Hawks, winning easily and taking a 2-1 series lead. For the first time since the Detroit series, people began to wonder if it was really over.

Game Four was a wild, and uncharacteristically high-scoring affair. Twice, the Blackhawks took two-goal leads, but Boston kept coming back and scoring on their own, refusing to go away. A lot of Chicago fans were quite concerned when the Bruins tied the game in the Third Period. Once again, the game would go to Overtime, but this time it would be the Hawks who would send the fans of the home team away disappointed. The series would be tied headed back to Chicago, and the Blackhawks won another very competitive game to be on the cusp of hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Game Six in Boston lead to expectations that Boston would somehow find a way to win, sending this classic series to the maximum seven contests. The Bruins scored first and looked very strong in Period One, but Corey Crawford kept the Hawks in the game and the deficit at just one. The Hawks roared back to tie the game in the Second Period, before Boston scored after the halfway mark in Period Three, making it appear that there would be a Game Seven in Chicago after all.

The Blackhawks pulled the goalie with just a bit over a minute left in the game, and with Boston fans going wild, anticipating a survival victory for their team, Chicago tied the game. Wow. I had been expecting Game Seven, and now it looked like it was headed to Overtime, yet again. However, just a mere 17 seconds later, Dave Bolland put Chicago ahead over a shell-shocked Bruins team, and the Hawks were 58 seconds away from the Cup. It is hard to think of many endings in sports that could be more exciting for a team winning a title and more frustrating for the team that had just lost.

The Bruins would not even come close to getting a shot on goal in that final minute, and a wild celebration began on the Garden ice. There would be no Game Seven. There would be no Overtime. Destiny was not  to be delayed.

I have to say, that I had wanted to watch a different kind of celebration on television in Boston, back in November, but that was not meant to be. This was still pretty cool though, as Blackhawks players and fans in Boston, and back home in Chicago (the site of the celebration I did not want to see in November) savored every moment as captain Jonathan Toews lifted the Stanley Cup for the second time in four seasons.

So, all this was worth recounting and celebrating. It was a tremendous season, an amazing playoff run, and an unbelievable ending. Amid some difficult times and disappointments in my life lately, this magical season by the Chicago Blackhawks was something to feel good about and the team and organization demonstrated some great messages and perseverance. While I have not been to a hockey game in many years, (back when the Hawks were terrible and the United Center was nearly empty), I followed every game this season and watched every second of the playoffs, living and dying as a fan with every development. I no longer feel like I am just on the bandwagon.

There will be opportunities for a talented Chicago Blackhawks team to win even more Stanley Cups in the years ahead, and I think they may very well do so. However, this entire experience just makes me want to see the other Chicago teams accomplish the same championship feat.