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Hockey’s “unbelievable” gold standard earns more silver

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
(Getty Images)

Hairy and hugging, the Blackhawks broke into song Tuesday morning. They stood by their stalls, a conga line of arms around shoulders, to serenade themselves.

“We are the champions!” they crooned, wearing as proof T-shirts and hats hot off the presses. “We are the champions!”

Not long ago, this franchise was invisible. Now Chicago’s boys of winter are indivisible and, as always, ahead of the curve. Their United Center locker room will undergo a complete makeover this summer, so after winning a third Stanley Cup in six years on Monday night, the guys fast-forwarded the reconstruct. A few ceiling tiles were popped out of place, the carpet took on serious moisture, and cigar smoke furnished an aroma of success.

Families and friends surrounded tubs of bubbly and beer, hours after a milestone 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning before 22,424 fans. It was a standing-room-only crowd, even for those who secured precious seats but rarely used them. So call it a standing-often crowd, wetly whooshed into the building under a tornado warning, then reluctant to leave after the players concluded their season as you just knew they would.

The Blackhawks are as dependable as your best friend, your dog, your couch. After 105 games, 23 in the playoffs, they clinched before their beloved for the first time since 1938. And even then, the Stanley Cup was in Toronto because there was no way those Blackhawks would upset the Maple Leafs, especially after finding their emergency goalie for the series opener in a local bar.

Monday night, the silver was there for the organization that is hockey’s gold standard. The mere visage of a table brought to center ice elicited an ovation. Duncan Keith, who scored the winner on his own rebound, earned the Conn Smythe Trophy by unanimous vote. Then guardians in white gloves carried forth the 35-pound Stanley Cup. Captain Jonathan Toews hoisted it, as he did in 2010 and 2013, then did what great leaders do.

“When he told me this morning that if we win I would get it next, I almost cried,” said Kimmo Timonen, 40, an elegant professional who will retire with a smile on his face. He handed off to Antoine Vermette, a French gentleman, an expensive trade deadline acquisition whose contributions were priceless. Then Brad Richards, who assisted on both goals Monday night, including Patrick Kane’s late in the third period to create the only two-goal separation during an entire Final against a maimed but spirited Lightning crew.

“A year ago, I’m down on myself, feeling like I’m the lowest human being on the planet,” mused Richards. “Now, I’m passing the puck to Patrick Kane with a truly special group of people.”

Richards was drenched in the locker room, where spraying one another verified the Blackhawks code: sink or swim together. Rocky Wirtz, the chairman who was accorded a momentous roar when he lifted the Cup on ice, told the young men of the pride he felt in their work ethic. They thanked him by putting him through a car wash from green bottles. John McDonough, the President and CEO, extolled the guys for making history. They reminded him that school is out, and gave him the business too. That suit is also history. Then Head Coach Joel Quenneville said a few words before enduring an animated chorus of return volleys.

“I told you they don’t listen to my speeches,” said Q, smiling with towel in hand. Soon he ducked into his office, where mother Gloria beamed as her son pointed to the board, where players’ names are attached by metallic strips according to lines or defensive pairings. One by one, Coach Q pointed out individuals, citing their roles, occasionally applying the word “freak” to compliment the likes of Toews and Keith. Then the boss stopped at Andrew Shaw.

“His back seized up this morning at the skate,” said Q. “Couldn’t move. Didn’t know whether he could go tonight. Spent the whole day here, with our unbelievable medical staff and trainers. Did he go tonight? Did he do what these guys all do? Sacrifice for each other? We fall behind in a lot of series, down 2-1 or whatever. But they adjust, get better as it goes along and find a way. They find a frigging way. Unbelievable. Nothing they do surprises me. Nothing.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman anointed the Blackhawks a dynasty. Wirtz amended that slightly to a “reinvention,” because the rosters of his three champions have undergone change, sometimes radical. Scotty Bowman, awaiting his 14th ring, thought strongly either way. He coached the 2002 Detroit Red Wings to their third Cup in six years, but they had an outsized payroll.

“Now with the salary cap, it’s all different,” said Bowman, the senior advisor. “The 10 days off before the Anaheim series -- important. But to do that, you have to sweep Minnesota. Top-four defensemen, terrific. And how about the goalie?”

Corey Crawford, excellent again, outplayed a more celebrated counterpart, again. Crawford, the Rodney Dangerfield of masked men, said he didn’t care about that stuff because he really doesn’t. Toews saluted him during his monologue, as well as the mates who logged small minutes. Andrew Desjardins, another big catch whose arrival was announced in small print, said it hadn’t sunk in yet. Then those demure Swedes took a group picture, and a few headed for the hot tub, now one of many puddles in the room.

“This isn’t normal,” noted Johnny Oduya. “We feel it’s meant to be, because that’s the way it is around here. Three in six years. This isn’t normal.”

Beside him, Niklas Hjalmarsson, who would rather stick his face in front of a puck than a camera, quietly inquired about the location of the cigar stash. Brent Seabrook, the rock, embraced a police officer. Teuvo Teravainen, half the age of fellow Finn Timonen, stared at his Chicago father figure.

“He helped me a lot,” said the prodigy, rubbing his bare chin. “Now I can shave this beard off.”

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