Thursday, April 23, 2009

Black Hawks: Been down so long it looks like up to me

Here we go again, Hawks fans. Brace yourself for another post-season swoon.
...Actually, "another" isn't quite right, since it's been seven long years since they've even had the opportunity to swoon in the playoffs. And to be fair to this Hawks squad, no one expected them to go all the way. They're an exciting team, but they're young. Still, there was every reason to believe the Hawks would win their first playoff series since 1996 after getting a two games to none lead on the Calgary Flames, who just happen to be the last team to lose to the Hawks in the post-season. But alas, the Hawks dropped games 3 and 4 in Calgary, and their senseless yapping has managed to wake up the Flames sleeping captain and star,Jarome Iginla. So the series returns to Chi-town even at two wins apiece. Given their history, I'm not liking the Blackhawks chances.
....No team in the NHL has gone longer between championships. A few have never ever won a Stanley Cup: St. Louis, Buffalo, and Los Angeles among the early expansion teams; the Washington Capitals, who have the most exciting player in the league in Alex Ovechkin, but now, thanks to the heroics of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist, are on the brink of elimination. And of course some more recent expansion teams like Florida, Nashville and Atlanta are Cup-less too. Maple Leaf fans rightly bemoan their forty-two year drought, which stretches back to 1967. And some teams--the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets--came and went without ever treating their fans to the game's ultimate prize.
....But the hapless Hawks? They have the longest drought of all. Their last Stanley Cup was in 1961--48 years ago. And counting. I was nine years old when they last won, and every year of my childhood I expected they'd win again. They were always stacked with talent. My father had seasons tickets, and they put on a show every game in the old Chicago Stadium, which was always sold out and rocking.
...What a lineup they had between 1962 and 1973. The Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, was in his prime, and became the first player to break the hallowed 50-goal barrier in 1966. The Blackhawks second line was the so-called Scooter line, perennially among the best lines in hockey: Stan Mikita at center, Ken Wharram at right wing, and Ab McDonald at left. The formula for winning in the playoffs then was the same as it is now: You need two scoring lines and a checking line. The Hawks had that. Their defense was anchored by their captain, Pierre Pilote, and Elmer "Moose" Vasko, one of the biggest players in the league. And their goaltender was "Mr. Goalie" himself, Glenn Hall. How good was this team? One season, 1963-64, the Hawks placed five players on the NHL's first all-star team: Hull, Mikita, Wharram, Pilote and Hall. The one interloper from the rest of the league was Toronto defenseman Tim Horton. Vasko was a second-team all-star. Yet Chicago still didn't win the Cup.
...Years later I ran into Glenn Hall when I was doing a story on goaltending, and we spent an afternoon reminiscing about that team. I, too, had been a goalie, and stylistically had been greatly influenced from watching Hall in my youth. But I'd never met the man who'd once played 502 straight regular season games, a record that will never be broken, and I knew little about his personality except that he used to throw up before every game. I always had heard it was out of nervousness, but Hall told me it was out of excitement. He never really felt ready unless he'd thrown up, so he'd make himself heave by putting his finger down his throat. He was quite funny about it, remarking that sometimes, if he'd had a glass of water, it would still be cool when he puked it. Indeed, he was so charming, unassuming, and amusing that afternoon that I now tell people who ask that Glenn Hall was my all-time favorite athlete to interview .
....I asked him why they didn't win more often in the '60s, and he shook his head in disgust. Other teams, he said, approached the playoffs with the idea they would cut down on their goals against. This was particularly true of the Maple Leaf teams of that six-team era. The Hawks, who were coached by Billy Reay, approached the playoffs with the idea they would increase their offensive production. He related one story about how he enraged Hull at a restaurant by calling him an average NHL player. "Average?" Hull snapped. "How do you figure that?"
..."Average," Glenn Hall repeated. "Bobby, you're the best offensive player in the league, and the worst defensive one. So you're average."
...Hull was so upset he overturned the table.
...But that was the way that Hawks team played, and, as a spectator, it sure was fun to watch. Mikita and Hull were two of the earliest players to experiment with hooked sticks--they'd steam them and bend the blades by prying them under a door--and before the NHL put 1/2 inch restrictions on the amount of curve that was legal, some of the sticks they used had blades bent like bananas. 2-3 inches was nothing. They used to have contests at practice to see who could shoot the puck highest into the stands. Before games Hull, Mikita, and Dennis Hull (Bobby's younger brother) used to get their laughs during warmups by shooting pucks over the net so they'd crash against the glass. The purpose was to rattle the goal judge into spilling his soft drink all over himself. Meanwhile, Hall--who played without a mask--would curse and mutter and eventually vacate the net in disgust, because with those huge curves, sometimes the puck would dive and weave like a knuckleball. The shooter had no idea where it was going. Hall told me he was certain Bobby Hull would have broken the 50-goal mark much sooner if he'd stayed with a straight stick. Why? Because he'd had one of the best backhands in the game, a shot Hull virtually abandoned once he switched to a curved stick.
....But the Golden Jet was the face of the sport, dashing, rugged, electric, his thinning blond hair flying in the wind. He was the first hockey player in 30 years to make the cover of Time magazine, and he was easily the most popular athlete in Chicago. After a salary dispute with skinflint Hawks owner Arthur Wirtz, in 1972 Hull jumped to the fledgling World Hockey Association, giving that league instant credibility. It also marked the end of the Hawks string of sellouts at the Chicago Stadium, and ushered in an era of Blackhawks futility that marked the entire tenure of Arthur's son, Bill Wirtz', ownership. A proud franchise was brought to its knees, from which it is only now starting to rise.
....There was one especially difficult loss that Hawks fans had to endure at the end of that stretch of time. It was in 1971. Hull and Mikita were still in their glory, but Glenn Hall had moved on, and Pilote and Vasko had retired. But the Hawks were, again, the best team in the NHL, and, with Tony Esposito in goal, were on the verge of their first Cup in a decade. Facing Montreal in the finals, the Hawks won the first two at home, dropped the next two on the road to an overmatched Canadiens team, who were backstopped by a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden. Game 5 in Chicago was another Hawks win, leaving them two games in which to close the Canadiens out and win the Cup. Montreal won game 6 at the Forum, 4-3, setting up the series clincher back in the Chicago Stadium. Home ice advantage in Game 7--this is what you play the regular season for. The Hawks absolutely dominated the first period, taking a 2-0 lead, that could have been twice that were it not for a couple of shots off the post and Dryden's heroics. But the game was well in hand. Then midway through the second period, Jacques Lemaire skated through the neutral zone and fired a slapshot from just beyond the center ice line. Esposito fanned on it. Beaten by a 90 footer. It completely changed the momentum of the game. The Canadiens soon tied it, 2-2, and in the third period ageless Henri Richard skated past young Hawks defenseman Keith Magnuson and beat Esposito for the game winner. 3-2. The Hawks, with the better team and home ice advantage, had failed again.
....Forgive me if it all seems as if it were yesterday. I was 19 in 1971, playing college hockey, rooming with a group of Canadians who were, of course, rooting for the Habs. It was a lonely thing being a Hawks fan in Princeton, NJ in those years--Rangers and Flyers country--playing on a team made up of Bostonians, Ontario-ans, and upstate New Yorkers. It's been even lonelier to be a Hawks fan in the 38 years since. And it looks like 2009 will not be the year that will make us forget that heartbreaking loss in 1971, and the glory years of the Golden Jet.


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