The Pittsburgh Penguins are defending Stanley Cup champions. Can you name their general manager? The New Orleans Saints captured Super Bowl XLIV. Raise your hand if you know who put that team on the field. Sometimes the brain behind the brawn operates in the background.
Which brings us to Stan Bowman, who is about to complete his first season generally managing the Blackhawks. Spend ten minutes with Bowman and you become convinced that he would gladly choreograph a title run while toiling in relative anonymity. Despite being the son of a living legend and occupying the hot seat during a hockey renaissance in Chicago, Bowman eschews the vertical pronoun for the organizational “we”, freely admits that this franchise began its upward mobility before he took over the big office and gives no indication that he will suffer a rotator cuff injury from patting himself on the back.
“This is a work in progress that has been building for years,” said Bowman. “It’s been a steady climb that didn’t just happen, but has been a result of a lot of hard work. After a good year last year, we set out to win our division. And regardless of how we end up this year, whether we win our last game in the playoffs or don’t, we want to continue to build on the foundation so we are competitive for a number of years.”
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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In his own understated way, then, Bowman is talking those off the ledge who cling to this myth that the Blackhawks must produce a Stanley Cup come June or find the window of opportunity slammed cruelly shut from here to eternity. Fans are anxious and frustrated, understandably so. The Blackhawks have not ruled the NHL since 1961, the longest ongoing famine in the league. But here’s the reality: the salary cap is not a local law. It’s everywhere, in the United States and Canada.
“Detroit and Pittsburgh have done it and so have the San Jose Sharks, although they haven’t won a Cup,” said Bowman. “You can keep your core players and consistently be one of the top teams. That is what we have done and will continue to do. No matter what happens in the playoffs, during the offseason we will have to make changes, maybe as many as six or seven players. But everybody has to go through that. Meanwhile, we have identified our difference-makers and they’re not going anywhere.”
Unlike the NBA, the NHL salary cap is as hard as a Chicago winter. No loopholes, no fudging. But as noted by Scotty Bowman, Stan’s dad who owns more Stanley Cup rings than he has fingers, there is no cap on non-uniformed talent. While in Detroit, Scotty witnessed how Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings’ owner, wisely built an executive branch that was every bit as formidable as the machine on ice.
“When I was there, looking at Chicago from a distance, I felt they weren’t keeping up with the times,” said Scotty, now a senior hockey operations advisor with the Blackhawks. “I thought the business was expanding faster than they were. Now, you can see the change here. This is a good staff.”
And energetic, beyond and below Stan, 36. The average age of the Blackhawks’ front office is an amazing 31, even after they hired an ancient team historian. The players are young, too, and not by accident, unified in purpose or for dinner.
“I see it on the road, how our guys genuinely like each other and want to spend time together,” said Stan. “That’s important. We don’t have any bad apples. We try to do our homework. You never know when you draft someone how he will react when he starts making a lot of money and receiving accolades. But there are indications if you study his background, his history. Part of it is luck, too. Patrick Sharp was underutilized in another system (Philadelphia.) It’s a stretch to say we envisioned him being the goal-scorer he is, but he’s become one, a top five forward and a solid guy.
|Scotty Bowman named Stan after the Stanley Cup. |
“There’s another big difference in hockey compared with basketball. Your best guys in the NBA play maybe 40 of 48 minutes every night. But our best guys, no matter how good they are, may play only 20 of 60. That’s why hockey is the ultimate team sport, and why it’s so important to have the right people in place behind your stars. Depth is so vital. We like what we have now, and again, we want to keep building on that when we make the changes we have to make because of the cap. We’ll address that in the summer, along with our goalkeeping.”
Stan Bowman has lived in Chicago for 15 years, the first five in business after graduating from Notre Dame. Being a computer analyst meant a more normal existence, but hockey was in his genes, so when GM Mike Smith offered a job with the Blackhawks, Stan (named for Stanley, as in Cup) jumped.
“I was always a fan,” said Stan. “And the fan in me now feels like a lot of our fans feel, I think. This is a fun team to watch. We like to play with the puck. It sounds simple. Who wouldn’t? But your players have to have the skills to play that style. Some teams might play so as to frustrate the opposition, by being positionally strong in the neutral zone and limiting opportunities.
“Ideally, when we’re on our game, we are creating with players who want the puck on their stick up front and defensemen on the back end who don’t give it away. Our defensemen, you’ll notice, don’t just pump it off the glass to relieve pressure. They’ll turn backwards and try to make a play to their partner. We don’t spend a lot of time dumping it in and chasing the puck. We like to control the tempo, we don’t give up a lot of shots at our end. Our coach, Joel Quenneville, respects his players and they respect him. They know when he’s not happy, and if they respond because they don’t want to let him down, well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
(Answers to the quiz: Ray Shero and Mickey Loomis.)