SAN JOSE—Isn’t it about time? Can the hockey players please come out and play? Shall we get ready to rumble, or at least drop a meaningful puck?
“Oh, yeah, everybody is anxious to get going,” assured Patrick Kane
after the Blackhawks concluded what was absolutely their last practice before Sunday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference final against the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion. I don’t want to say it’s been a long time between national anthems, but some of the playoff beards on these guys are becoming scraggly, even gray.
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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How odd that in a season when games were stacked on top of one another with a schedule compressed for the Olympics…now the two best teams in this section—some might suggest the two best teams remaining, period—are fielding questions about whether they will be rusty. In Pittsburgh, they’re still wondering whether Canada’s gold medal hero, Sidney Crosby, ran out of gas. Well, the Blackhawks and Sharks contributed a total of 14 players to the snowball fight in Vancouver, and lately they’ve been running out of things to do.
After eliminating the Canucks, the Blackhawks came directly to San Jose Wednesday. They’ve been here so long, they’re in danger of having to pay state tax. That would be helpful to California, which is $19.1 billion in the hole.
The Sharks aren’t exactly suffering from rink fatigue, either. They closed out the Detroit Red Wings on May 8. That’s May 8, 2010. At least the Sharks have been able to sleep in their own beds. The Blackhawks are merely collecting those small bottles of hotel shampoo that you can’t open. Good thing these guys get along.
“I suppose it would be better if we were at home,” continued Kane. “But we’ve been able to waste some time here. I think we’ll be fresh, and so will they. You don’t want to be too anxious, though, because that can work against you.”
In Vancouver, whenever the Blackhawks boarded their team bus for the rink or hotel or wherever, there were dozens and dozens of fans in the area, some with their faces painted. At least, I think they were painted. In San Jose, the landscape is not quite as frenzied. In fact, the atmosphere around practice is downright casual.
The Blackhawks have been conducting drills at Sharks Ice, a facility that is billed as the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi River. There are four rinks, and upstairs is Stanley’s, a sports bar that will hold up to 400 people for Sunday’s telecast.
Before the Blackhawks took to the North rink Saturday, the ice belonged to 14-year-old girls. In a side room, all the pieces were in place for a children’s birthday party. A woman was distributing tin hats and napkins around the table. I asked her who the guest of honor would be and she declined comment. She said it was a surprise party. Sheepishly, I returned to the North rink to watch the Blackhawks, along with a number of other civilians. This is the Stanley Cup semifinals, and the public is invited to watch practice.
Politicians are doing what politicians do when a mega-event is on the sports horizon. Mayor Daley of Chicago has put ribs and beef and beer on the line with San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who has promised a return package that includes Eggos. Does that sound like a fair trade to you?
Kane recently was counting up all the games since exhibition season. The Blackhawks had 82 dates that counted, plus the six he played in the Olympics, plus the 12 post-season tilts so far. And they’re doing all of this for Eggos?
Meanwhile, John McDonough, the Blackhawks’ esteemed president, picked up his team for the Game 6 clincher in Vancouver and he’s still on board. He even joined the guys on their field trip to Alcatraz. I imagine if you are a player and the big boss is on an important trip such as this, you would be encouraged and motivated that someone so powerful cares enough.
Then again, maybe McDonough is interested in witnessing history. During his entire baseball career, the Cubs never won a playoff game in California. Never. They were 0-for-San Diego in 1984, 0-for-San Francisco in 1989 and, after the turn of the century, the Cubs tried Los Angeles with similar results.
Another theme that is developing in this tournament involves the West vs. East issue. The survivors in the other conference are the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens, who finished the regular schedule as the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively. The Sharks, by one point, beat out the Blackhawks for No. 1 in the West. Thus some representatives of the media are tossing it out there that this series is the REAL Stanley Cup. In other words, whichever team wins the West will roll over the East.
Naturally, nobody on the Sharks or Blackhawks would touch that with a bathroom plunger. The Sharks have endured their share of playoff heartbreaks, and when Dan Boyle scored on his own net in a Game 3 sudden death shocker at Colorado in the opening round, fans in San Jose had that uh-oh feeling again.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have not won a Stanley Cup since 1961 and haven’t ventured to the finals since 1992. So, the Sharks and Blackhawks have to guard against overconfidence? They think the Canadiens or Flyers would be easy? That the next two weeks will require the really heavy lifting? Doubtful.
Conventional wisdom, not always plentiful, is that the Hawks-Sharks series will be a lengthy one, rife with speed and grit and matchups. Chicago fans are ready and waiting, and so are the folks in San Jose, where the newest drink at Henry’s Hi-Life, a popular steakhouse, is the Sharkarita…a teal-colored margarita.
Perfect to wash down those Eggos.