Skip to Main Content

Relentless, Determined and Fun

by Bob Verdi

This story originally appeared in the 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks Yearbook. To view the full Yearbook, click here.

 

T

he building feels empty, but not the rebuilding. Fans who have been following these Blackhawks on TV and radio will someday pack the United Center again to see them live. The seats are vacant, yet the secret is out. This team is everything it wasn't supposed to be. Fun, entertaining, talented, deep, competitive. Easy to watch, hard to play against.

 

"People have doubted us," offered Andrew Shaw. "Let's surprise 'em." 

 

The Blackhawks who won three Stanley Cups in six years were a work of art. These Blackhawks strive to be about the art of work. Industrious as it is, imagine how this group would feed off the usual UC sellout crowds.

 

So many highlights so far. Was it the manner in which Kevin Lankinen has seized the opportunity to be the No. 1 goalie that caught your attention? Or the night Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin each scored their first National Hockey League goals 56 seconds apart? Maybe Pius Suter's hat trick, or perhaps his overtime winner at Dallas, assisted by Brandon Hagel and Lankinen? How about Philipp Kurashev's propulsive dash through all those Red Wings for the only goal Lankinen needed in his first shutout? Then there was Lankinen's second shutout, by 3-0 over the Florida Panthers, during which he miraculously stifled a three-on-none breakaway.

We've all been spoiled. The Blackhawks dominated the last decade, a model franchise in professional sports. It seemed as though contending annually for a championship would go on forever, but that just doesn't happen. It can't, not beneath the most stringent salary cap in the industry. 

 

There comes a time when reality must be addressed and the question posed. What's next?

 

That time is now for the Blackhawks, and the answer early in 2021 is encouraging to all, except perhaps those who projected the team to suffer a cold, uncertain winter. This is not Hockey 101. Captain Jonathan Toews missed the opening puck drop, but he along with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith were voted among the best 100 NHL players ever. That's not exactly starting from scratch, though it might feel so.

 

What's invigorated these Blackhawks is the wave of fresh faces performing with such verve and harmony. Upstairs it's also different. Danny Wirtz, son of Chairman Rocky, is Chief Executive Officer. Jaime Faulkner is President of Business Operations. Stan Bowman's domain is expanded as President of Hockey Operations and General Manager. Olympic legend Kendall Coyne Schofield is player development coach and youth hockey growth specialist. 

 

But it's those kids downstairs, precocious products of drafting and development, who shall not need introduction when standing room only at the United Center returns as the norm. It's as though all these young men skipped a grade in school, so accelerated is their learning curve. Adam Boqvist, MacKenzie Entwistle, Mitchell, Lankinen, Suter, Kurashev, Hagel, Beaudin, Reese Johnson, Lucas Carlsson, Wyatt Kalynuk. They are meshing with veterans under the composed and patient Jeremy Colliton, who is hearing the ultimate compliment for a head coach. Never mind that the players are playing the way he wants them to play. They're sounding the way he sounds. When that happens, something karmic is going on.

 

"Everybody can read," said Colliton. "In training camp, we spoke about expectations from outside this group. We're missing players, we're starting over, things like that. It would be easy to accept that. But the response has been 'We're going to work our way through this.' Relentless, determined. We have to play the right way, make the right decisions, to establish an identity. It's maybe boring stuff, but winning isn't boring. We're improving. It's happening, but it hasn't happened yet." 

Lankinen, who developed in Rockford last season, is 25, athletic and confident. A voracious reader, Lankinen was asked by Pat Boyle of NBC Sports Chicago: what would his biography be titled? Lankinen responded, "A Star Is Born." Defensemen Boqvist and Beaudin were first-round draftees in 2018. Suter was a league-leading scorer in Switzerland, just like Dominik Kubalik. Mitchell, a 2017 draftee, vaulted to the Blackhawks from the University of Denver. Kurashev was found in the fourth round. Hagel, a whirlwind of perpetual movement, is a free agent gem who craves the puck. Hockey is more fun, he reasons, when you have it than when you don't. 

 

"Brandon's the poster boy for what I hoped we would be," praised Bowman. "Kids like him have brought an enthusiasm and excitement we haven't had in a while. An older team is more about here and now, which is fine. With kids, it's more about where are we going next? Where are we headed? That said, without veterans setting an example on and off the ice, it would be a lot harder to get where we want to go."

 

On any given night, the Blackhawks can deploy half a lineup comprised of first- or second-year players, all of whom will be exempt when the NHL conducts July's expansion draft for the 32nd franchise. The Seattle Kraken shall not rob Chicago's cradle.

 

Fans got a preview on March 11, 2020, when Hagel and Beaudin made their NHL debuts the same night an all-rookie line skated: Hagel, Kubalik and Kirby Dach. The NHL promptly shut down because of COVID-19, but another wave of youth is now present, infusing energy in all phases, 60 minutes of commitment. 

 

Take the power play. Last season, not so hot. Maybe worthy of a participation trophy, like you receive for just showing up. This season, smoother entries, movement and puck control have ignited the pilot light. Two units, stylistically somewhat different, have clicked. The power play is not entirely reliant on Kane, even when his group is on. Meanwhile, the penalty kill also has earned designation as a special team.

As Mitchell volunteered, it's "pretty cool" to hang out with Keith. Indeed. It is imperative for Keith and Kane, two future Hall of Famers, to embrace their roles as mentors. Kane is "all in" on the rebuild Typically, the introspective Keith says, "These guys are closer to my son Colton's age than he is to me…but I can still learn from them the same way maybe they learn from me."  

 

Until this season is complete, one never knows how to identify landmark moments. But a strong candidate would be Game 12 at the United Center in early February. Two nights after bowing via a shootout, 4-3, to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Blackhawks played the second of a back-to-back against their temporary Central Division rivals.

 

The Blackhawks' fiery power play stung Carolina with three goals in the first period, but the fleet Hurricanes stung back, scoring twice within eight seconds of the second period's first minute. As is his wont, Colliton remained calm on the bench, a disposition duly noted by his charges.

 

We all seem to embrace animated coaches and managers, but there is a long list of Hall of Famers who rarely expressed themselves for public consumption. Billy Reay won 536 games with the Blackhawks -- still the most in franchise history -- sparsely imparting much emotion.

 

Anyway, the Blackhawks took another lead, 4-3, on Kane's goal early in the third period, only to be tied again three minutes later. If that was a harbinger of an unhappy ending, the Blackhawks didn't oblige. Alex DeBrincat tallied twice thereafter, once on an empty net, and the Blackhawks snatched a 6-4 victory against a team widely predicted to be headed toward big things.

 

"These guys play so hard," Kane said, toasting lodge brothers after his four-point night. "Jeremy's setting the culture here where he wants the hard work and he wants guys skating hard and guys winning battles. I think a lot of these guys do that so well.

 

 "Especially lately, it's been a fun group. We've been pretty much in every game and battling, hanging around, whether it's good goaltending or timely scoring. Just trying to figure out our game and now it's like, 'OK, we're in these games, let's how to figure out how to win them.'"

DeBrincat followed with a commentary on the Blackhawks season-opening trip to Florida, which wasn't all sunshine and palm trees: merely one point while yielding five goals in each of two games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and two against the Florida Panthers.

 

"We kind of took those first few games and threw them out," said DeBrincat. "We knew we were better than that. We've done a good job of battling each night, giving ourselves a chance to win. I don't think we're a team that's going to beat other teams by skill, but we've been playing the right way, working hard, buying into the system."

 

Working hard? Isn't that what professionals are supposed to do? Absolutely. It's not a given, it's an imperative. But when a group of athletes realizes it lacks that extra gear, that go-to switch so often relied upon by the Blackhawks who won three Stanley Cups with a galaxy of stars, then the task demands working harder than the other side.

 

To wit: after that victory over Carolina, the Blackhawks' next assignment was in Dallas against the Stars, Stanley Cup finalists, a heavy bunch. With dedicated forechecking, the Blackhawks rode Malcolm Subban's netminding to their first road conquest, 2-1 in overtime. Before DeBrincat's second goal won it, the Blackhawks confined Dallas for almost two straight minutes in its own zone during the third period. The Blackhawks brought on fresh players in that stretch, all sharing the same mission. That's a "gear" worth noting too. 

Kane mentioned a word -- "culture" -- that is part of the modern sports vocabulary, but it could apply to a stunning season for the Blackhawks many winters ago. In 1968-69, they finished last in an all-Original Six East Division, yielding a generous total of 246 goals in 76 games. That summer, Pit Martin, a thoughtful center, aired it out in an interview, chiding the team for a carelessly loose, one-way system. For his trouble, mates tabbed him "Perfect Pit."

 

The current Blackhawks started this season without their top two centers, Toews and Kirby Dach, No. 3 overall draftees, 13 years apart. Dach returned earlier than expected in March from a wrist injury. Similarly, the Blackhawks convened in 1969 for a training camp fraught with imponderables. Bobby Hull was sitting out a contract rhubarb with management, and bona fide sniper Kenny Wharram was forced to retire with a heart condition. Desperate to tighten up defense mechanisms, the Blackhawks took a fling on Tony Esposito, a goalie acquired from the loaded Montreal Canadiens for a mere $25,000 waiver fee. Besides Esposito, a gaggle of other rookies was present, attempting to make the club: Keith Magnuson, Cliff Koroll, Gerry Pinder, Paul Shmyr, Jim Wiste. They all did, not that the roster overhaul sent shivers throughout the NHL.

 

Those Blackhawks embarked on the 1969-70 season in even worse fashion than this year's edition. They lost their first five games before salvaging a tie in the sixth, at which point Stadium customers howled for Reay's fedora and the head within. Magnuson, a defenseman fresh out of the University of Denver, exuded spirit and Koroll, his college teammate, showed well on right wing, but as the saying goes, you are what your record says you are.

 

Gradually, everybody took to a new way of playing, a mandate facilitated by Esposito, who was brilliant, solidifying the Blackhawks' most problematic position. Hull signed a new deal after missing 15 games. Still, the Blackhawks began January with a 15-15-5 mark, pedestrian progress while other East foes feasted on dates with six 1967 expansion franchises in the West.

 

What ensued was magic. The Blackhawks went on a binge, losing only seven of their next 41 starts. Esposito won the Calder Trophy and notched 15 shutouts, still a modern standard, and the team allowed 176 goals, exactly one fewer per game than the previous year, while scoring 30 fewer. On the last night of the regular schedule, the Blackhawks polished off an unprecedented last-to-first revival and Reay was indeed removed from the bench. The veterans and kids who bought in carried him off the Stadium ice on their shoulders.

 

Now, nobody is saying that Lankinen is the next Esposito or Mitchell the next Magnuson, but you never know. Stranger things have happened, and once did, just across the street from the United Center.