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The Verdict: A Banner Night

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

It isn’t every night that a game between the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings seems anticlimactic, but Saturday night wasn’t every night. You sensed this immediately upon entering the United Center, leaving behind a bright summer-y afternoon for a party to be conducted with lights dimmed. A sea of flashbulbs changed that. But what did you expect following 49 years of darkness?

“I don’t remember a ceremony like this for us,” said Pierre Pilote, the Hall of Fame defenseman from Chicago’s 1961 Stanley Cup champions. “I remember winning the Cup, then getting a letter from management telling us when to report to training camp. I don’t remember having the banner raised, or any big celebration when we began the next season. But I’ll remember this.”


Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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The Stanley Cup has been all around town since Patrick Kane tossed his gloves toward the ceiling of Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center on that wondrous Wednesday night of June 9. But not quite like this. Saturday night the Stanley Cup came to the United Center to say goodbye, but not before the giant silver jug would be accompanied by a momento that will hang from above through generations.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS. STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 2010. It is clean and regal, as elegant as the process by which it was unveiled Saturday night from the Zamboni end of the UC, cradled in the hands of five members from those 1961 Blackhawks—Pilote, Eric Nesterenko, Ab McDonald, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, who wore a No. 16 jersey, as he did back then. Across the ice, having been introduced earlier by emcee Eddie Olczyk, 13 members of the current Blackhawks who made it happen last summer then skated toward the 1961 legends. The old passed the torch to the new, who grasped it ever so gently and brought it to its launch point. Up the banner went. There it flies. For all to see.

The Blackhawks not only can play hockey. The Blackhawks can present hockey with all the trimmings. Saturday night’s gala occasion probably could have carried itself, but the presentation was, not surprisingly, far above routine. When the lights went out, a stunning video package took over on both the Jumbotron and the rink below, a shiny movie screen.

Then Olczyk called upon Rocky Wirtz Superstar, who had to wait just a moment for tumultuous merriment to cease. “ROCK-Y!! ROCK-Y!!” The man who might be the most popular sports owner in North America issued triple thank-yous to the fans. He was succeeded by notables from hockey operations. Is Joel Quenneville appreciated in these parts for being merely effective? We like our coaches to be entertainers too, but judging by Saturday night’s applause meter, Q doesn’t need to play an instrument too. Front office personnel, all the way up to President John McDonough, also were hailed.

Chicago is supposed to be the city that works. But the Blackhawks are the Chicago franchise that really works. They could have sold Saturday night’s pregame festivities as a separate ticket, and it is doubtful there would have been any complaints. Not when Jonathan Toews carried the Cup onto the UC pond, a first for him. Not when each of the new Blackhawks was announced. Not when the visitors filed out of their locker room for a 7 p.m. warmup. “DETROIT SUCKS!! DETROIT SUCKS!!” Actually, the Red Wings are quite good, as usual. Whatever they did during the extended ceremony while sequestered in their quarters did not affect their effort. They won, 3-2, and probably loved every party-crashing minute of it.

By mid-afternoon, hundreds of people began gathering on either side of West Madison St., which was closed off for a special occasion. Very special. Given the balmy temperature, it really should have been a shirtsleeve crowd, except that in Blackhawks country, clothes make the fan. Thus, red and white team sweaters clearly were the garments of choice. Names of present players were the dominant theme, although some of the observers had a sense of history. Thus you saw a Graham and a Belfour and a Larmer and an Amonte, among many others.

At about 4:40 p.m., radio voice John Wiedeman took his place at a podium outside Gate 3 to preside over a red carpet welcome for players who arrived, four each to a stretch limousine, each of which might have been bigger than the home locker room at the dear and departed Stadium. One by one the present Blackhawks were introduced as they navigated a short, cheerful walk toward the building’s entrance. They all traded hand slaps with observers, many of whom came equipped with cameras. A few of the rock stars, notably Patrick Kane, brandished their Stanley Cup rings (they’re not easily hidden).

After current members of the team were hailed, icons forever followed in limos that performed ten-point turns before pausing. Pilote, McDonald and Nesterenko, all of whom live out of town, were invited as were, of course, the Blackhawks’ four ambassadors—Hull, Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard—all of whom received their rings at a Friday luncheon. In brief remarks at that gathering, The Golden Jet repeated to front office staffers what he has said frequently: the phone call he took from McDonough about rejoining the franchise family “changed my life.”

And Saturday night, as an enduring emblem of their excellence one season ago, the Blackhawks changed the décor at the United Center. On Jan. 9, the 50th anniversary of the 1961 champions will be marked with a Heritage Night. But as Pilote noted, that was a long time ago, so long that highlights of the title run are in black and white. “This one,” he said, “was in color.”

Chris Osgood, the winning goalie, did not attend. He said he and his mates watched baseball while the Blackhawks and their fans did their thing. But coach Mike Babcock, alone on the Detroit bench, saw the banner bash in its entirety. “Awesome,” he said. “They did an awesome job.”
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