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Blackhawks Not Satisfied With 2008-09 Success

by Larry Wigge / Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville isn't sitting in Denver wondering how life as a scout is going to be this summer. After a whirlwind change from scout to Blackhawks coach four games into the 2008-09 season, Quenneville is busy deciding how he'll juggle the new players he'll have at his disposal for the 2009-10 season.

Quenneville has a way of making the most of a young, fast, hard-working team -- he took the Blackhawks to their first playoff berth since 2002 and got the team to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1995.

Quantum leap? Sure.

But that didn't stop Hawks management from signing the top free agent away from rival Detroit -- locking up Marian Hossa, who led the Red Wings last season with 40 goals, to a 12-year, $62.8 million contract.

The Blackhawks also lured center Tomas Kopecky from Detroit and center John Madden from New Jersey. That represents two Stanley Cup rings from Madden, one from Kopecky, plus Hossa's appearance in the last two Cup Finals.

The team also re-signed seven important young parts from last year's team -- Kris Versteeg, Cam Barker, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager, Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer and Aaron Johnson, along with goalie Corey Crawford, who likely will back up Cristobal Huet this season.

"It looks like we helped ourselves in some important areas," Quenneville said. "We should be excited about going forward. I'm excited when you look at what we added."

Those additions will complement the experience youngsters like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Versteeg, Andrew Ladd and Barker gained from their playoff run.

Quenneville said he's been busy trying to figure out whether to play the multitalented Hossa on a line with Toews and Kane or use him to fill in for the departed Martin Havlat with Bolland and Ladd. Nice dilemma, eh?

But the real buzz beyond Hossa is the team's added strength up the middle -- including Madden and Kopecky.

At the trade deadline last season, the Hawks felt a need for another center, so they dealt defenseman James Wisniewski to Anaheim for veteran Sami Pahlsson. Adding Kopecky and Madden at center at the expense of Pahlsson, who left for Columbus as a free agent, gives Chicago its most strength up the middle since Jeremy Roenick, Brent Sutter, Dirk Graham and Greg Gilbert helped the Hawks to their last Cup Final appearance, in 1992 against Pittsburgh.

While some might be wondering why the Blackhawks would replace GM Dale Tallon with Stan Bowman after the team's success a year ago, the same question was asked when Denis Savard was fired as coach early last season and replaced by Quenneville?

The fact of the matter is that going into the Blackhawks' second annual summer convention, there's plenty to talk about -- and that wasn't always the case before Toews and Kane arrived and the club was marketed around those two young players, as well as another group of home-grown talent the team has been producing through the last several drafts.

Just putting Toews and Kane on the ice wasn't the only right move made by a franchise in need of re-connecting with its fans ... and then some.

That was the theme the Blackhawks took after long-time owner Bill Wirtz passed away Sept. 26, 2007. Rocky, his son, took charge and hired John McDonough away from the Chicago Cubs to serve as club president. The new management team stressed winning back the fans.

"We wanted to be inventive, to be creative, to do things differently," McDonough said during the Western Conference Finals against the Detroit Red Wings. "Rocky knocked me out in my first interview with him and he said, 'Winning is of paramount importance. Nobody is sacred. We're going to have the resources to win. There's a romance out there between Hawks fans and the team that we want to re-ignite.'

"I told him, the first thing I'd do to get the fans back on our side is to put all the games on TV. He said, 'Go for it.'"

There was an emphasis on showing off the young talent in the Blackhawks' system -- Toews and Kane, along with other recent high draft picks such as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook -- while also repairing relations with estranged ex-Hawks stars such as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito.

In the process, the Blackhawks re-invented themselves. The fans saw the effort to try to win them over once again -- and it didn't hurt that the product on the ice was young and exciting.

There was a plan in place and an attitude of openness.

"While the Cubs may also be chasing that same elusive championship the Blackhawks are, I saw a chance that excited me with the Hawks," McDonough said. "Fans angry with the team spelled empty seats at a big building ... and I hate empty seats.

"I wanted this to once again be known as the Madhouse on Madison Street."

The if-you-build-a-team-with-a-plan theme meant building on youth and speed and filling in with free agents elsewhere. It got the Blackhawks back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and showed the rest of the hockey world how serious new management was.

Part of that came with the power play Wirtz and McDonough used to get the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 against the Red Wings at Wrigley Field. The rest came a few months later, when the Hawks played the Wings in the conference final.

"I remember when I was a youngster and I got chills when I'd go to the old Chicago Stadium and watch the players and the crowd and love every minute of the action," McDonough said. "Now I think management, the players and fans are on the same page. We've got One Goal (the team slogan) -- and that's a Stanley Cup."

Hossa admitted recently that he saw plenty of Chicago's young skill, speed and tenacity in mid-May when he went head-up against the Blackhawks in the Western Finals.

In advance of the team's convention July 17-19, he had this to say: "Chicago is hungry. They haven't won a Stanley Cup in a long, long time and they're showing improvement. Detroit is a great, great hockey town and has won a lot of Stanley Cups, but this is a young, hungry team that wants to go for it.

"That's why I chose Chicago. They have a chance to win the Cup."

Author: Larry Wigge | Columnist

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