SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It was fitting, in a way, that training camp for the Chicago Blackhawks started Wednesday at the University of Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena.
As players completed their annual physical tests, there across the vast parking lot was Notre Dame Stadium, where the Fighting Irish spend fall Saturdays trying to live up to their storied history and tradition.
If anybody knows that feeling, it ought to be the Blackhawks.
After winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in four seasons, the reigning NHL champions come into the 2013-14 season looking for more, and this time they've got the whole "Stanley Cup hangover" notion in the crosshairs.
"You get asked those questions a lot, about the 'Stanley Cup hangover,' but we're looking at it in a positive way," defenseman Duncan Keith said the day before camp officially opens. "We're looking at it as a challenge to get off to a good start, and I think everybody on our team is excited about the opportunity that's ahead of us … this start of the season, to come out flying and show that we're ready to play."
As they get ready to tackle that challenge, the rest of the hockey world looks at them and wonders the same thing: Is this a hockey dynasty in the making?
The Blackhawks don't want anything to do with that kind of talk, at least not right now, but the more they try to deflect the "d-word," the more it sounds like it's written on a dry-erase board somewhere inside United Center.
"It's important for [general manager Stan Bowman] to send that message, and for [coach Joel Quenneville] to send that message, that the chapter on the 2013 Stanley Cup championship team … that chapter is closed," Blackhawks president and CEO John McDonough said Wednesday at a press conference to announce a contract extension for Bowman. "It's time to move forward. I'm very proud of our organization, but we're not satisfied with where we are. We're not close to being satisfied. We need to get a lot better."
A lot better? Seriously?
"I know that sounds absurd in the face of two Stanley Cup championships in four years, but this is an organization with lofty expectations," McDonough said. "There are not a lot of easy days at the United Center, as Stan can attest, but it's all for the sake of our organization getting better every day."
The media will start throwing around the "d-word" if the Blackhawks again rise to the top, but you won't hear it from them. You will, however, hear the team talk about keeping the focus narrow. It's how they dominated so thoroughly last season and how they plan to improve each year for the foreseeable future. Things stack up favorably on paper too.
This season, Chicago will have a roster that's not very different from the one that needed six games to defeat the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. It will again be led by their core group of stars, headlined by captain Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.
Call them the Blackhawks' "Four Horsemen," in keeping with the Notre Dame motif.
Chicago did lose a few pieces in the offseason -- center Dave Bolland and forwards Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg -- but it's a team powered by stars in their prime. Unlike 2010-11, the Blackhawks have a wealth of highly rated prospects vying for supporting roles plus an impressive collection of unheralded-but-dependable veterans.
Bowman signed Quenneville, goalie Corey Crawford, forward Bryan Bickell and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to contract extensions this summer. The GM is keeping the band together because it's the key component of his blueprint for success.
"I'm not really good at defining the word 'dynasty,'" Bowman said. "We're striving to be a team that's competing for the Cup every year. We want to sustain this level of success not just for this season or next season, but for a number of seasons. Ultimately time will tell, but we're just getting started here."
In other words, they'd like to become a full-fledged hockey dynasty, even if they don't put it in those terms. The addition of a hard salary cap in 2005-06 was supposed to even the playing field among the NHL's 30 teams, and it did, but there are always exceptions. Bowman's Blackhawks are that exception, at least to date.
They've not only survived the major roster overhaul that followed the 2010 title, but they've set themselves up nicely for the immediate future and long term. Should they become the first NHL team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 and 1999 to repeat as Stanley Cup champion, the debate will end.
The Blackhawks will be crowned a "dynasty" whether they acknowledge it or not. And there's really no reason to think they can't repeat.
After doling out the contract extensions of this summer, Bowman turned his focus toward the elephants in the room, Toews and Kane, each with a contract that expires after next season. Bowman boldly told the team's website they would certainly be retained and didn't back down from that prediction Wednesday.
Why such confidence?
"They want to win," Bowman said. "They want to win next year and the year after and I could make a commitment to them that that's our focus from year to year. The specifics of all the details, that's all something that you can get caught up in, but when you find two talents like that, that are quality people, there's no doubt that you're going to make it work."
In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Blackhawks played 71 games to win the Cup, 33 fewer than in 2010. Theoretically, their legs should be pretty fresh. Their drive is the lone concern after a very short summer, but Quenneville didn't sound worried.
"These guys … they love to win and they want to be the best they can be," Quenneville said. "They have that ability to make people around them want that same type of an appetite. Guys who have been around the room or are coming into the room, they all look up to these guys in the right way … [seeing] these guys never accepting just being good enough. They want to be the best."
Perhaps even a dynasty.
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