While players from the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers met Thursday with members of the media in the Windy City, the respective heads of the teams that will meet in the Stanley Cup Final made guest appearances on the NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Rocky Wirtz, who assumed control of the Blackhawks from his late father three years ago and has overseen a quick and remarkable turnaround, and Ed Snider, a fixture at the top of the Flyers organization since its inception into the League, were both given opportunities by Bettman to address their fan bases with Game 1 at the United Center two nights away.
"I promise you three good periods of hockey," Wirtz said. "The guys are all focused and we're going to give it the good old college try to win the Cup. We're excited and can't wait for Saturday."
"Our guys are going to give everything they've got in order to try to win this Cup," Snider said. "I'm only hoping they're able to do it. That's my feeling. I've been waiting a long time. I never thought it would be this difficult to get back."
Bettman opened his conversation with Wirtz by relating a story from this past Sunday, when he was in attendance for the finale of Chicago's four-game sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference Finals.
Walking around the concourse of the United Center, he came across a fan wearing a Blackhawks jersey with the number 1 and "Rocky" on the nameplate. It summed up the level to which the fans have embraced not only the players but the entire organization, a dramatic shift from when Wirtz assumed control of the franchise in 2007 with the Hawks near the bottom of the League.
"We've been very, very fortunate … everyone says they have the world's greatest fans, but the fans in Chicago have embraced this team," Wirtz said, noting that Game 1 against the Flyers will mark the Blackhawks' 100th consecutive home sellout.
While their recent success guarantees they won't be lacking for fans anytime soon, Wirtz pointed to a number of factors that helped the Blackhawks start luring people back to the arena even before the wins began piling up. They included embracing the historic past of the Original Six franchise, being awarded the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field and, perhaps above all else, the players establishing a bond with the community.
"Embrace your fans and really work with them," Wirtz said in describing the Hawks' basic philosophy. "Our players couldn't have been better. They're in the community. One of the big things they do is they live in the city. They are part of this vibrant city and it's terrific. They're around -- you can see them, you can touch them, you can feel them -- and they'll never stop and not sign an autograph. They're at other sporting events -- they had a Cubs game the other night and there were five or six players that were there on a beautiful evening in Wrigley Field. So just in general it's been very, very good."
A founder of the Flyers, Snider was around for their back-to-back championship teams in 1974 and 1975 -- when pressed by Bettman about the significance of Thursday, he recalled it was 35 years to the day of Philadelphia winning its second Cup on the road in Buffalo.
"The reality is it's an incredible feeling," Snider said. "It's such a difficult thing to do, and what you have to go through to win a Cup is mind-boggling. And I think it's the greatest, greatest sport in the world, as you well know, and I think the playoffs in hockey are mind-boggling and they're good every step of the way. And if you get through four rounds to win a Cup, it's quite an accomplishment."
The Flyers are back in the Final for the first time since 1997, and they've done it in remarkable fashion. Their second-round win against the Bruins saw them become just the third NHL team to come back from a 3-0 deficit in games -- with the subtext that they also became the third team to rally from a three-goal deficit to win Game 7. Goaltender Brian Boucher was hurt in that series and replaced by Michael Leighton, who went on to record three shutouts against the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"When we went down 3-0 in the last game I was sure, well we had made a good run, we had made the good effort, but fate was against us and we weren't going to be the third team to do it," Snider said. "I resigned myself to that fact. And here we are in Boston, down 3-0 early in the game, and lo and behold we come back to win that game 4-3, which to me even makes it more remarkable."
As has been documented frequently over the past six weeks, the Flyers only made it into the Stanley Cup Playoffs by virtue of a shootout win over the New York Rangers on the final day of the regular season. Of that afternoon at the Wachovia Center, Snider recalled, "I almost had a heart attack." Now his heart is full of mostly pride at what his team has been able to achieve on its postseason journey.
"This is the most amazing playoff I think I've ever seen," Snider said. "I could go on and on and on about all of the obstacles, all of the things that happened that have never happened before. It's pretty mind-boggling, and I told one of the reporters the other night after the game when we beat Montreal and won the series, that this is the most exciting playoffs ever for me other than when we won the Cup the first time."
Also on the NHL Hour, Bettman said he would have information regarding the 2011 Winter Classic during his Friday news conference. He expects to announce the date when the teams and venue for the next outdoor game will be revealed.