CHICAGO – They donned Chicago Blackhawks sweaters once again and the music at the United Center on Sunday evening was their music, hits from the early 1960s sung by groups like The Marvelettes and The Tokens.
The video screens on the scoreboard played their highlights, both in color and black-and-white, as fans filed in for Sunday night's game against the New York Islanders. Down below, members of the 1961 Blackhawks celebrated the 50th anniversary of their Stanley Cup championship on a Blackhawks Heritage night to remember.
Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were there, now official ambassadors for the Hawks. Goalie Glenn Hall and defenseman Pierre Pilote came back, too – as did Ab McDonald, Eric Nesterenko and Bill Hay. Even Wayne Hicks, who was called up as a rookie during the playoffs that season, made it back to help a proud Original Six team celebrate a major piece of its history.
"It's a lot of fun to see some of the guys here, see what they look like (and) see if they look as bad as I do,'" quipped Hull, who proudly wore the ring from 1961 on one hand and a 2010 title ring on the other. "I wish I could see more of the guys, (but) it's just great to see the guys that are here."
Each was introduced to loud cheers, each will get a framed 1961 championship replica banner of their own and each stood side-by-side along the blue line as the crowd roared during singer Jim Cornielson's rendition of the U.S. national anthem.
The 1961 Stanley Cup title was just the third in Chicago's history and the first since the club won it in 1938. Like the current defending Stanley Cup champion Hawks, the Chicago team of the early 1960s had young stars in Hull and Mikita and a top-flight defenseman in Pilote. It also had one of the game's best goalies in Hall, who shut out the Montreal Canadiens twice in the semifinals to win that series in a six game-upset.
Still, none of them can believe it took 49 years for Chicago to win another Cup – especially when they look back at near-misses they had in the Cup Final against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1962 and Canadiens 1965.
"I was only a wet-behind-the-ears 22-year old (in 1961), Mikita was a 20 or 21 year old and we both thought that it was going to be one of many that we were going to win," Hull said. "We were kids and we beat the mighty Montreal Canadiens. Then to go out there and beat the Detroit Red Wings (in the Cup Final) with one Gordon Howe out there and Alex Delvecchio and the rest of that group … we thought, 'This is going to be a cake walk for the next 15 years.' As it was, it was the only one."
That's why Hull felt compelled to speak to the Hawks last spring, before eventually brought the Cup back to the Windy City.
"I said, 'Guys, you are this close,'" Hull said. "I said, 'Make sure you get it done, because you never know whether you'll get another kick at the cat.'"
McDonald, also pulling hard for the Hawks to win it all last season, felt likewise.
"I thought it would be about a year (before we won again)," said McDonald, who scored the eventual game-winner in Game 6 against the Red Wings. "I thought we'd win it in the next few years (after 1961), because we had a pretty good hockey club at that time. It just shows it's not that easy to win it."
It takes not only skill, depth and good coaching – but also some luck, which Mikita said was not always on the Hawks' side.
"We had eyes on (another Cup)," said Mikita, who played his whole career with Chicago and won four Art Ross Trophies, two Hart and Lady Byng trophies. "Whatever Gods were out there that didn't like us sure stepped in and we ran into hard luck. You had bounces that didn't go your way and things like that. It happens."
In retrospect, not winning for so long made the 1961 Cup even more cherished both for Hawks fans and the members of that team, no matter where they wound up.
"Well, you try and remember the good things and forget the bad things," said Hall, who was renowned for his longevity and for never using a goalie mask. "But it's nice to look back. We didn't get paid a bunch of money or anything, but the one thing we did is … the effort was there. You know, you can sleep nights if you know that you gave everything."
Some are still giving, whether as official ambassadors or just former players who still feel a strong connection to the team. That includes Hay, the chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I always look forward to coming back to Chicago," Hay said. "It was such an important part of my early life. My son was born here in 1962. I had two daughters that spent the first eight years of their lives here. I have very good memories about Chicago."
Except, of course, one painful memory in particular that still sticks with him.
"We should have beat Toronto in (1967), but Toronto beat us and that's the last time they won it," Hay said, smiling. "And I hope they go 100 years."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent