For this ongoing celebration of excellence, the Blackhawks moved back indoors on Opening Night, 2013. It is just as well. They do some of their best work at the United Center. Also, after two parades in four years, the city of Chicago suddenly is running out of a precious commodity that normally is used sparingly in these parts: confetti.
The Blackhawks have altered the local sports landscape, and there was electricity in the building Tuesday night even after the lights were dimmed for a stunning ceremony. Fans took their seats by 6:30, as requested, then followed Patrick Kane’s taped instructions about what to do with those wristbands. Put them on, then let a computer do the rest.
What a show. Sinatra never had a better warm-up for his act, and even he never knocked out records 17 seconds apart. When a clip of the Blackhawks’ miraculous clincher in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in Boston punctuated a video of an amazing season, the UC went up for grabs. Then the emcee, Eddie Olczyk, introduced Rocky Wirtz and loud became louder.
“ROC-KY!! ROC-KY!! ROC-KY!!"
He thanked fans who have been thanking him since he took over a floundering franchise in 2007, as those wristbands blinked red and white from the glass to the top row of the 300 Level. Scotty Bowman, the team’s senior advisor to hockey operations, has 13 rings now. When he won four straight in Montreal, city officials merely informed fans that the Canadiens procession through downtown streets would abide by the “usual route.” But as Scotty noted, these Blackhawks don’t follow textbooks on how to entertain. They write them.
“It is our life’s work to make you proud,” offered President & CEO John McDonough, who was next up. He very much includes the players in that equation, and they’ve done everything except win a Cup at home. Jonathan Toews, the special captain, allows that those frisky plane rides from Philadelphia in 2010 and Boston 2013 did provide the guys a certain bonding experience at 30,000 feet. Also, it makes for a delayed welcome when they suit up again the next season, which in this case is only three months since last season.
Hundreds of men, women and children showed up late Tuesday afternoon as the players arrived in limos on Madison Street and walked the red carpet before disappearing through Gate 2. It was warm, but not as warm as that memorable June night in New England, and the spontaneous combustion had not yet percolated to fever levels.
That changed when, a few minutes into the on-ice party, Duncan Keith wheeled out of the west end with the Stanley Cup. He placed it gently on a table at the center faceoff dot. Then, each member of the opening roster was introduced, including Joakim Nordstrom, a kid who made the club off a strong training camp. He has impressive tools, but he might have liked earplugs on this occasion.
“Oh, that was awesome,” said Nordstrom. “I’ve never seen or heard anything like that. I was saying to some of the guys that I was impressed with the crowds here during the preseason games. They told me to wait. I hadn’t seen anything yet. They were right. I didn’t know what my chances were of making the team when I first came to camp. But now that I’m around and see what goes on, I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here.”
Toews was last to appear, prompting a roar of sincere appreciation and approval. He skated over to the Cup, lifted it briefly, then returned it to his resting place. He did not milk the moment as theatrically as he might have. But, of course, we’re talking Toews. There was a game to be played against the Washington Capitals, and this one counted. Standing ovations are nice, but not as necessary as two points. And as wonderful as that finish to the 2013 season was, Captain Serious is now plotting to finish 2014 in similar fashion.
Experts everywhere are nominating the Blackhawks to repeat as Stanley Cup victors, a rarity in the National Hockey League. The burning question, the caveat to most forecasts, seems to boil down to this: can they handle the pressure? Well, last January, they took off on an abbreviated schedule like wild horses, daring to be saddled. Had they failed to win it all, the thud in Chicago would have been palpable. But the Blackhawks’ identity, besides the obvious components of skill and speed and depth, involves copious helpings of composure. This bunch just doesn’t panic very well.
Also, the core of the roster is back, moreso than after 2010, and the guys still seem hungry, perhaps because some of them have more mouths to feed. As Head Coach Joel Quenneville noticed, long before he couldn’t hear himself think Tuesday night when the spotlight found him, a few of the gifted kids he inherited five years ago are now husbands and fathers. Still pals, still driven, but more mature. When they hear banter about a dynasty, they roll their eyes.
The energy was high, and so was the tech, for Opening Night 2013. But the star of the show was that banner. Eight young hockey players carried it onto the rink along with their dreams. Then all the players who made it happen last spring skated over to gather their prize while the four newcomers to the Blackhawks respectfully held their positions at the blue line. Sticking close together, the mantra of this franchise, the boys of winter and members of upper management collected to observe with necks craned as the keepsake marking the 2013 Stanley Cup champions slowly arose toward its sweet spot, a penthouse if ever there was one, just below the ceiling of a facility the Blackhawks decided to redecorate again.
The Stanley Cup goes everywhere. The banner goes nowhere. Unless, of course, it becomes a bit crowded up there and must be moved over ever so slightly to accommodate more history.