Spend enough time at the United Center watching the Blackhawks and you'll inevitably hear someone comment that this season's game-night excitement and buzz reminds them of the days when "the Blackhawks owned this town, I tell ya! You couldn't get a ticket unless it was left to you in somebody's will!"
With Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull returning the UC tonight, it's useful to look back at their time with the Blackhawks to see if there's evidence that the team was, in fact, the best in town.
Hull and Mikita were full-season teammates for 13 campaigns from 1959-1972 (Mikita played three games for the Blackhawks during the 58-59 season). In five of those seasons, Hull led the team in scoring while Mikita was second. In six other seasons, Mikita led while Hull was second. Their mutual excellence over more than a decade is the primary reason that both players have name recognition in Chicago that equals or exceeds the city's other pro athletes -- with the exception of Michael Jordan and the possible exceptions of Banks, Payton, Sayers, and Butkus.
In fact, it is difficult to find two men in any city who were as important to their team for as long a period of time; even the most famous teammates in sports history, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, were together for just 12 seasons, one fewer than the Hull-Mikita run with the Blackhawks.
Hull and Mikita each have Hall of Fame credentials and retired jersey numbers, which speak eloquently of their talents as individual players. However, the question remains: during their playing days, were 9 and 21 members of Chicago's top team?
12 winning seasons out of the 13 played from 1959 to 1972... three straight seasons with 45 or more wins (a team record)... four trips to the finals... and one Stanley Cup championship, which they earned by defeating the Detroit Red Wings in 1961.
Comparing teams in different sports isn't precise because regular season ties were a more significant part of hockey than the other sports. More than 10% of the Blackhawks games from '59-'72 ended in a tie (compared to 3% for the Bears and, of course, none for the Cubs or Sox).
Also, it was much more difficult to qualify for the playoffs in the other sports than it was in the NHL; the Cubs, Sox, and Bears had to finish first in their league or division to earn a post-season game while all the Blackhawks had to do was avoid finishing in the bottom third of the league (or, after expansion, conference).
Notwithstanding these considerations, the Blackhawks were indeed the talk of the town during the reign of Hull and Mikita. The tradition of the crowd noise crescendo that overwhelmed the National Anthem took root during those years, and those in possession of even standing-room only tickets counted themselves fortunate.
It is appropriate that both the Blackhawks and the Barnum and Bailey Circus performed in the Chicago Stadium; from 1959 to 1972 the Circus may have been 'the greatest show on earth,' but thanks in large part to the excellence of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, the Hawks were 'the top ticket in town.'
chicagoblackhawks.com contributor Van C. Oler is a freelance writer and Blackhawks fan who grew up in Wheaton and currently resides in Cincinnati, OH.