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Blackhawks return to Hall bearing another gift

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

TORONTO – Besides arriving in this world-class city with a nine-game winning streak and the second winningest coach in National Hockey League history, the rampaging Blackhawks brought a special gift with them Friday afternoon.

For the third time in six years, the defending champions donated a Stanley Cup ring to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The 2015 jewelry, somewhat different than those earned in 2010 and 2013, was unchanged in one significant respect: all contain the name of Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks’ peerless captain.

John McDonough, the President and CEO, handled the presentation, noting that this sort of ceremony never gets old and bears repeating. Toews was resting up for the evening’s assignment against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but his parents were at the Hall. Just as they were present for the Blackhawks’ 2-1 conquest in Montreal Thursday night when Joel Quenneville secured his 783rd NHL victory, surpassing Al Arbour.

“This is wonderful, and the guys are doing great, but we realize it won’t go on forever,” said Toews’ mother, Andree Gilbert. “So (husband) Bryan and I are going to try to see Jonathan play in every rink in the league. We just haven’t told Jonathan about our plan.”

Phil Pritchard, Hall of Fame curator, beamed as McDonough designated the 335-diamond beauty for assignment in the display case. As Pritchard explained, the tradition of bestowing rings on the Hall began with the 2007 Anaheim Ducks. Since then, Pritchard and staff have worked backwards. For instance, the Hall is home to a fourth ring via Chicago: contributed by Bill Hay, member of the 1961 champion Blackhawks.

McDonough, who tends to look ahead, saluted Blackhawks fans in attendance – those red sweaters are everywhere, even Maple Leafs’ country. He left no doubt he’d like to return in the near future, and concluded that proximity of Pritchard is a sure symbol of good times. Pritchard is the man in white gloves often seen around Chicago with his pal and yours, the Stanley Cup.

It was there on Friday, too, poised for a photo with the top brass: McDonough, Executive Vice President Jay Blunk, Vice President of Hockey Operations Al MacIsaac, Assistant General Manger Norm Maciver and Mark Bernard, director of hockey administration/general manager of minor league affiliations. A former goalie, Bernard pointed to a stick of his hermetically sealed behind glass,

“I was a goalie, in 1997, United Kingdom,” he recalled. “Had four assists in one game. I think we won 6-5.”

The spectre of the Blackhawks leading the league in ornaments, valuables and precious metals adds another chapter to the book their fans feared, if indeed it were ever written, would be a fairy tale. Just on Friday, a Toronto newspaper advised the Maple Leafs to follow the Chicago model for building a team.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Chairman Rocky Wirtz was saying the other day. “All those years when we were off the map. Now we’re donating three of our Stanley Cup rings to the Hockey Hall of Fame in six years.”

The Blackhawks’ brand has exploded exponentially. In 2007, just after Wirtz took over a floundering franchise and hired McDonough, the Blackhawks were valued at $179 million, or 16th in the NHL, by Forbes Magazine. That was the least of any Original Six team, well behind the next lowest Boston Bruins at $243 million.

Just recently, Forbes listed the Blackhawks fourth in the league with a value of $925 million.

“Pretty amazing,” Wirtz went on. “I mean, we have a waiting list for season tickets of about 19,000, which means we almost could sell out the United Center twice for every game. We sell 400 standing room only tickets, or about half the number of total SRO spots. We could sell more, but there would be no place to put people.”

When they leave Chicago, the Blackhawks are also treated like royalty. On this brief trip to two hockey meccas in Canada, the team’s pregame skate at Montreal’s Bell Centre was a media event. At the hotel, parents and their children who should have been in school stood behind a restraining rope in sub-freezing conditions just to watch players board a bus. Ditto in Toronto.

Hockey players travel more elegantly than they once did. Back in the primitive times, if you went on the road with a team, you considered yourself fortunate to find heat in your room. In Montreal, the Blackhawks stayed in a hotel that merited six stars out of five. One feature of the palatial facility: heated toilet seats. I am not making this up.

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