After Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks blasted Andrew Ladd of the Blackhawks for being a “coward” recently, there was a palpable sense of indignation within Chicago’s hockey community. Where’s the Olympic spirit?
I say, rejoice! It’s about time the Blackhawks frustrated a segment of the population beyond their own fans. There was a period—an extended period, not a 20-minute one—when the Blackhawks were so unimposing bordering on irrelevant that they evoked little or no emotion among other teams. The Blackhawks were not called anything. The only call an opponent made was to the cab company, to make sure the Blackhawks were going to arrive at the rink for their scheduled beatdown.
The Blackhawks have been welcome guests for too long, not because they didn’t care or because they weren’t tough enough or because they couldn’t deal with hotel pillows. They just weren’t very good. In 1983-84, the Blackhawks won five of 40 away games, which is hard to do. Last year, when the rejuvenation of this franchise took hold, the Blackhawks won 22 games away from the United Center, their first above .500 mark on foreign ice since 1996-97.
Wait, there’s more. Or less. The Blackhawks had a losing record at home that season, which was another problem. Only recently have they managed to transform the United Center into a venue that inspires fear among visitors instead of frolic. It is a chicken-egg proposition now as to whether the Blackhawks feed off the energy of capacity crowds, or vice versa. But one issue has been resolved. The United Center, although three times as large as the bygone and cacophonous Stadium, has become a difficult proposition for adversaries.
The fact that the Canucks have become a visceral rival is a bonus, inasmuch as they are 2,000 miles and an international border away. The Blackhawks have participated in their share of hissing matches against certain teams through the years, notably predicatable ones—the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars—all of whom were familiar antagonists within Chicago’s division, conference, during the playoffs, or all the above.
Back in the day—way back in the day—the Original Six was all about grudges and paybacks nourished by short memories. Each team played 14 games, seven at home and seven on the road, against the other five. Weekend back-to-back series were common, and heated. The Blackhawks might go to Montreal for a Saturday night game, then return to Chicago for a Sunday night joust against the same Canadiens. It was not unusual for both teams to wind up on the same train from Canada to the United States.
With the NHL's expansion to 30 franchises, the schedule is as different as the travel. The Canucks and Blackhawks meet on but four occasions this winter—the next one is March 5 at the UC—yet there appears to be a mutual dearth of affection in place. Lack of familiarity has not translated into lack of contempt, no doubt in large measure because of last spring’s edgy Stanley Cup semifinal. The Canucks, who finished first in the Northwest Division, opened at home and were pegged as favorites over the Blackhawks, who took second in the Central Division. However, the Blackhawks won two games there and the best-of-seven series in six.
If the Canucks had all summer to get over it, they didn’t. On Oct. 21 at the UC, Willie Mitchell flattened Jonathan Toews with a mighty check that rendered the Hawks captain woozy and left him out of the lineup for six games. At least last year, when Vancouver’s Alex Burrows went for Duncan Keith’s head, it was merely to rearrange the star defenseman’s hair. Last Saturday night, Ladd popped Kesler in the face and cut him. You can’t fix that with a comb. Then there was Christian Ehrhoff’s cross-check on Toews and Mason Raymond’s jolt to Brent Sopel on an icing play.
“He’s a coward; he’ll always be a coward,” Kesler said of Ladd after the Canucks’ 5-1 conquest at GM Place.
"We all had a pretty good laugh at it," countered Ladd. "It's pretty to tough to take when we square off and he takes one shot and then decides he wants to bail on the fight..."
“We don’t like those guys very much,” added Vancouver defenseman Shane O’Brien.
Well, guess what? Feel free to assume that the Blackhawks don’t want to be liked, except by family, friends and fans. The Blackhawks have been liked by opponents for too many winters. One could surmise that, during a rather bleak stretch from 1998 to 2008 when the Blackhawks studiously avoided the playoffs in all but one season—talk about hard to do—this team was among the most popular throughout the league. Everywhere except Chicago.
Now, the Blackhawks have a pulse and a contender and a thing going with the Canucks, of all people. An Original Six franchise vs. an Original 14 member. Two quality squads, with an attitude. What’s not to savor about this situation? Consider that, beside current events, there is little history between them, an almost blank canvas. Before last spring, they hadn’t met in the playoffs since 1995. And before that, not since 1982.
That was the post-season when the Canucks lost Game 2 at the Stadium in such a way that infuriated their coach, Roger Neilson. After yet another penalty whistled by Referee Bob Myers, Neilson reached for a stick and a white towel and raised them in mock surrender. A few of his players joined the protest. He was fined, but when the Canucks returned home for Game 3, there had to be 16,000 fans waving white towels. His squad feasted on the excitement, swept the next three, and eliminated the Blackhawks.
Neilson later became an assistant coach with the Blackhawks and joked about the gesture. “I wasn’t mad at Chicago,” he said. “I was upset at the officiating.”
Now, the Blackhawks and Canucks are grumpy at each other, a plot that represents a distinct upgrade for fans in both regions. It’s a long-distance rivalry, one that defies geography, but if they meet again this May, no introductions will be necessary.