This feature is taken from the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff issue of Blackhawks Magazine, the official game program of the Chicago Blackhawks. You can get your copy at all 2011 Blackhawks home playoff games.
When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961, two of their twentysomething superstars-to-be assumed that championship celebrations would become an annual rite of many springs to come.
“We thought we’d do it again and again,” recalled Bobby Hull. “Maybe two or three in a row or four of six. You know, multiples.”
“Being kids, we maybe didn’t realize how difficult it would be,” added Stan Mikita. “Not that it was easy to get one, although it’s not like what it is now. But if you had told me…”
Alas, almost half a century has passed, and the daunting task of retaining the most difficult sports title to earn and defend falls to these Blackhawks. They enter the 2011 playoffs not unlike the Chicago incumbents in 1962 — with a blend of youth and experience and targets on their backs. But the landscape has changed drastically. En route to the top in 1961, the Blackhawks upset the Montreal Canadiens, who were chasing a record sixth consecutive Stanley Cup. Now, dynasties are ancient history, like dinosaurs.
“A thing of the past,” said Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks’ senior advisor for hockey operations who coached Les Canadiens to four straight Cups in the late 1970s. “Especially in our game.”
But not exclusively. With the advent of free agency, unions, expansion and fiscal constraints, all leagues have drifted inexorably toward parity. Since the New York Yankees staged a three-peat in 2000, no baseball franchise has managed even back-to-back World Series conquests. Instead, eight different teams ran the table. In the NFL, the New England Patriots claimed successive Super Bowls, but nine others achieved one within the last 11 years. In the NBA during that span, only four squads have outdone the Los Angeles Lakers, who are seeking their second three-peat, an exception to be sure.
Basketball rosters are small, but more significantly, a soft salary cap affords NBA franchises flexibility to keep individual stars. Baseball has no cap but a comprehensive revenue sharing apparatus. In football, designation of a “franchise player” every year nourishes some continuity. Only in the NHL is there an unyielding hard salary cap, a system that is at once the envy of other sports while a source of stress for organizations and fans attached to it.
Bowman, who has been in hockey for six decades, says what the Blackhawks had to do during the summer “is unprecedented…having to part with half your players is something that’s never happened in the NHL or any other league.”
The Blackhawks kept their core and winning ways for the regular season. They aren’t looking for sympathy, only another parade. But certain parallels exist.
“We won the Stanley Cup in 2007,” said former Blackhawks defensive stalwart Bob Murray, who was assistant general manager for the Anaheim Ducks then and now is their GM. “And like the Blackhawks, we faced money issues because of the hard cap. They won with terrific young players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. Well, in 2007, we had Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner, all kids. Toews and Kane were playing on entry-level contracts and Chicago won the Cup with them. We had to pay up, just like the Blackhawks, but the system being what it is, we lost Penner to Edmonton free agency.
“That really hurt. The next year, we had 102 points, but we got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. The team changed. You just never come back with the same guys, even if you want to. Not to mention the toll that winning a Cup takes on a team. You play four series of best-of-seven, almost every other night, over two months. You don’t get to prepare yourself for the next season the way other teams do. They’re training for next year while you’re still playing.
“Even if you do everything right by drafting and developing players, it’s impossible to keep the same group together. You end up moving players you don’t want to move but have to move, and it changes your team. That’s just the way it is.”
Stan Bowman, Blackhawks vice president and general manager, drew considerable praise from peers for his off-season maneuvers under extenuating circumstances. Also, he touched on a not-so subtle ingredient that is unique to hockey: It is the ultimate team effort. In basketball, Derrick Rose of the Bulls will play 40 or more of the 48 minutes every night. In hockey, even future Hall of Famers are not that active. Witness the Blackhawks’ game in late March at the United Center against Murray’s Ducks. It seemed as though Getzlaf and Perry were on the ice more than the men in striped shirts, yet each logged “only” 25 or so minutes.
“What the teams have to do now to win a Cup is grueling,” noted Hull. “The Blackhawks played 22 games in the postseason last year. In 1961, we played 12. There were only six teams in the league, four in the playoffs. Now there are 30 teams and 16 in the playoffs. That’s where depth matters so much, and this year’s Blackhawks did a good job of filling in for guys who they had to part with.
“In 1962, coming off the Cup, we went through a little of that. Murray Balfour, who scored that huge overtime goal in Game 3 against the Canadiens, hurt his shoulder and wasn’t the same. We lost a couple guys, too. It was just different.”
Was the hunger still there? The desire to pay the price?
“I think so,” said Mikita. “I look back, and I think we gave it everything we had to try to repeat. But maybe we didn’t. And maybe we didn’t get a bounce here and a bounce there. When you get that deep in the playoffs, there is an element of luck.”
Glenn Hall, the goalie for the ’61 champs, rues the opportunities not seized.
“I’m like all the rest of the guys,” he said. “I thought we should have won more than one Cup. I thought, maybe after 1961, we might have gone a bit more for offense than we had and weren’t as tight defensively.”
Hull responded to that. “Spoken like a true goalie,” said The Golden Jet, laughing. “I respect Glenn’s opinion, because he is Mr. Goalie. But he’s right about what happened after, which is why I stressed to our young guys last year: You never know when you’ll get another chance. You never know if you’ll get another chance.”