They came in summer attire, waves of people on a shiny Sunday in May. They wore shorts and shades. Most of them had pale legs, a sharp contrast to those bright jerseys that would create a sea of red in the United Center.
This is what we do, or what we want to do when winter teams are good, bordering on great. Michael Jordan brought thousands and thousands of Chicagoans in from out of the sun for years, June after June, at the old Stadium, then at the new UC. And nobody complained. We complain about having to venture outdoors in the winter, but not indoors in the spring, not when there’s a reason to do so.
We shovel snow for brutal and dark months, lose tires and small pets in potholes, scrape layers of salt from our shoes and our cars, all in the name of waiting for the weather to turn. Then, when it finally breaks, when the temperature reaches the mid- to upper 80s as it did on Sunday, we forget the barbeque and the pool and the lawn to watch a game on ice.
But it’s a special game and these Blackhawks are a special team. You won’t have to wait 18 years for the next balmy afternoon around here, as so many hockey fans around this precinct have waited for the next Stanley Cup final. The Blackhawks are going, for the first time since 1992, after vanquishing the San Jose Sharks, 4-2, to sweep the best-of-seven Western Conference final.
Nobody saw this coming, not four straight, but that’s the way these Blackhawks operate. Quickly. Captain Jonathan Toews, the spiritual leader of this crew, paid scant attention to the Clarence Campbell Bowl in the post-victory ceremony. It might as well have been the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl, for he neither kissed nor hugged it. The real silver is still out there, although Toews was not too superstitious to chart the alacrity with which this franchise has gone from invisible to front page.
“First few times I played here my rookie year, building was pretty empty, pretty quiet,” recalled Toews. “What we’ve done—and we haven’t finished the job by any means—but what we’ve done so far seems like it happened fast to most everybody on the outside. And it has. But when you’re with these guys every day, and see how hard they all work, it doesn’t seem that fast.”
A second opinion would be sought from Antti Niemi, who once again outplayed a world-class goalie in a tournament that did not figure to have foes shaking hands a mere week after it began.
“Six months ago, if you said I would be here in this position,” Niemi volunteered, “probably not. For it to happen the way it has, in six months, almost everything had to go right, almost perfect.”
The Blackhawks started slowly Sunday, firing but one shot in the first 15 minutes or so. The Sharks gained a 2-0 lead in the second when Patrick Marleau clicked for a shorthanded score, shortly after a puck off his stick displaced Duncan Keith’s upper front teeth on what already was a sleepy Chicago power play. By this time, Andrew Ladd was missing from the lineup, too. He did not return, but Keith did and assisted on Dave Bolland’s tying goal late in the middle period when Evgeni Nabokov—the latest of those rich and famous masked man outdueled by Niemi—went down early.
By now, the frenzied fans were warming up in the air conditioning, pointing toward a crescendo along with their heroes. Niemi, of course, had not allowed a third puck to elude him, and gradually, the Blackhawks found openings against the Sharks, who did their darndest to clog passing lanes and crowd the neutral zone. The Sharks did not play so poorly in four games that they deserved to be swept, which is not the same thing as saying the Blackhawks did not earn the perk of making only one road trip in a series that could have required three.
The Blackhawks did not make many mistakes in San Jose; that two-on-none with an empty net ahead that resulted in an offside (!) was a gaffe winners can laugh about. In Game 3, with a 2-1 lead, the Blackhawks iced the puck late in the third period. The Sharks scored soon thereafter, but the Blackhawks prevailed in overtime. There were a few ill-advised penalties but generally the Blackhawks won the series with their heads, as well as their hands and heart.
Officially, Dustin Byfuglien, Mr. May, won Sunday’s grinder with a jam shot 14:05 into the third period with Dany Heatley, who didn’t do much for the Sharks, off for slashing. The UC was on fire now, fans standing even by the most expensive seats, counting down, screaming gleefully, waving towels. There was unrest at all levels only a couple hours earlier, when Brent Seabrook’s goal, swept out of the net by San Jose’s Douglas Murray, remained in limbo until referees consulted the eye in the sky for verification.
But now, two hours later, anxiety and anticipation were synonymous. The Blackhawks had yielded home ice advantage to San Jose on the very last day of the regular season, but on this Sunday afternoon, there was little doubt that a Game 7, if necessary, would not be. When Kris Versteeg punctured a yawning twine in the closing minute, the place exploded. Soon, the red carpet was unfurled for a ceremony and the Blackhawks could talk about the next step, Philadelphia or Montreal, without sounding presumptuous.
“It’s difficult not to get excited,” admitted Toews, who rations out his smiles. “The fans here are unbelievable, the organization…everybody wants it so bad. But that trophy, whatever it is they call it, the one there on the ice, it’s not what we’re after.”
It’s the Clarence Campbell Bowl, named for a former NHL president, and Captain Serious made sure it felt lonely on one of the sunniest Sunday afternoons in Blackhawk annals.