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The Verdict: Connections abound in Conference Final with Sharks

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
SAN JOSE—Kerry Toporowski.

If you, as a fan of the Blackhawks, can remember that name, congratulations. Your table is ready. But if you haven’t a clue who Kerry Toporowski was, or is, be not ashamed.

On Sept. 6, 1991, he represented the other half of a trade that sent Doug Wilson from Chicago to San Jose. Wilson, who won a Norris Trophy while becoming one of the finest defensemen in Blackhawks’ history, joined an expanison franchise here, played well, then retired and climbed the executive ladder toward his current lofty perch as general manager of the annually excellent Sharks.


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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If you remember Toporowski but forgot how he fared in Chicago, your table is still ready. He never played a minute for the Blackhawks, or any other NHL team, but at the time of this deal that helped only one team, Toporowski had accumulated 545 penalty minutes in a season with the Spokane Chiefs. Thus he was deemed a lukewarm body worthy of supplanting Wilson, another star who never quite fit into the tyrannical regime of Mike Keenan, master of creative tension.

Put it this way. The current Blackhawks, who open the Western Conference Final against Wilson’s Sharks Sunday afternoon, took Friday off for a trip up to San Francisco. Included in the excursion was a tour of Alcatraz. When Keenan was running the Blackhawks, had he conceived of such a diversion, his charges would have dreamed about leaving him at the ultimate penalty box.

Granted, Keenan did guide the Blackhawks to their last Stanley Cup final assignment in 1992, but he was the antithesis of Joel Quenneville, a players’ coach who can be firm and fair without fear of missing the team bus back to the hotel.

When he was traded, the popular Wilson held a farewell press conference far away from the Stadium. The next grenade he tosses at his former employers will be the first, which might explain why he maintains cordial relations with a longtime friend from Chicago—John McDonough, president of the new Blackhawks who has stressed from Day One that he and the rest of his front office are out of the “grudge business” that precipitated unnecessarily awkward and usually acrimonious departures for several fan favorites. See: Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick, Tony Esposito, et al.

Wilson is enjoying a busy and rewarding month. Daughter Chelsea is graduating from USC, daughter Lacey is competing in the Miss USA beauty pageant as the representative of Massachusetts, and son Dougie is packing up while collecting his degree from Tufts University. Doug also will make time, of course, to observe the Sharks he has built into a powerhouse that erased the Detroit Red Wings from post-season competition in five games.

There is a spate of other crossovers among the Blackhawks and Sharks. Thus, you won’t be hearing that mantra from the Vancouver Canucks series about who hates whom. Respect is the theme now, although bonding can wait.

Brad Aldrich, the Blackhawks’ video coach, had dinner with father Mike, the Sharks’ equipment manager, and mother Susie the other night. But blood is thicker than beer.

“I’ll have a few with him during the summer,” said Adam Burish, referring to Joe Pavelski, San Jose’s scoring machine at center. Burish volunteered that he would never join any Vancouver player for a cold one even if it was free, but he and Pavelski were teammates at the University of Wisconsin when the Badgers won the NCAA championship in 2006.

“He was in the middle and I was on right wing, although we changed places once in a while. A good friend, but I’m not going to be doing any socializing with Joe during the next couple weeks. What if I have to take a run at him?”

Two of San Jose’s non-uniformed personnel are former Blackhawks. Dirk Graham, once a captain in Chicago where he has re-established residence, scouted the entire Vancouver series for the Sharks.

Trent Yawney was a defenseman and head coach in Chicago. He now is an assistant in San Jose, and he not only talks hockey, he actually teaches it. If you don’t believe that, ask Duncan Keith. Should he succeed Wilson as a Norris Trophy winner, Keith will mention Yawney as a valuable mentor and you can book it.

“Oh, I’ll be booed,” predicted Brian Campbell, a Blackhawks defenseman who toiled briefly for the Sharks in 2008 after Wilson acquired him from the Buffalo Sabres for the playoff push. “I really liked it here, it’s a great franchise and a great place to play, so I have nothing bad to say.”

Campbell has been buddies with Joe Thornton, another Shark luminary, since they were children. They’ll play golf together again this summer, but not in this area code will they exchange pleasantries. If Thornton tried to persuade Campbell to stay in San Jose, the messages were tactful.

“He was very professional about the whole thing and I appreciate it,” recalled Campbell, who had 57 million reasons for joining the Blackhawks as a free agent after his cameo here. “I didn’t like it (being booed) my first time back, but then I talked with people who have been through that before and I think sometimes it’s a sign of appreciation that they’re disappointed I’m not here anymore. I think you try to turn everything into compliments in some sort of way. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m right, but I’ll look at it that way.”

Campbell, who also had 57 million reasons not to return as early as he did from a significant injury, is pumped to be back in the conference final. But he is quick to remind that although the Blackhawks reached this level last spring, they still finished seven victories short of their ultimate objective.

The magic number is now 8. It was 16. HP Pavilion will be loud and threatening come Sunday. Might be the toughest place to play in the NHL. But everything is relative.

It ain’t Alcatraz.

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