When the Philadelphia Flyers and Blackhawks combined for ten goals through the first two periods in Saturday night’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final at the United Center, we groped for reasons why. Is the wind blowing out?
Given that pace—red lights every four minutes—the teams were closing in on one of the weirdest Blackhawk playoff games in history, and you know how we like history. In the 1973 finals, after falling behind in the series 3 games to 1 against the Canadiens, the Blackhawks returned to the Forum as supposed stage props for another championship coronation in the cathedral of hockey. But with Len Frig registering the biggest friggin' goal of his life, the visitors stunned Les Habitants, 8-7, forcing a Game 6 back in the Stadium.
The Canadiens won there, 6-4, to run their total of goals to 33 for a six-game series, a record that stood until the Edmonton Oilers amassed 44 in winning the conference final against the Blackhawks in 1985.
After the second intermission Saturday night, a more conventional playoff game broke out and the Blackhawks defeated the Flyers, 6-5, on a goal by Tomas Kopecky, inserted into the lineup for the first time since May 9. Andrew Ladd was, or is, idled by an upper body injury, so coach Joel Quenneville reached into his tool box for yet another sharp weapon.
If the Blackhawks never score another goal, and thus fail to win another game in the series, this team still will stand as one of their deepest in memory. The Blackhawks last won a Stanley Cup in 1961, and have been vanquished in three subsequent finals (1971, 1973, 1992), but for pure quantity of talent, this edition is exceptional—down to the fourth line and third defensive pair.
Previous rosters contained the obvious go-to men, although that 1973 squad was a surprise to all because the Blackhawks had lost Bobby Hull to the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association. But the Blackhawks received great production from the MPH Line of Pit Martin (29 goals), Jim Pappin (41) and Dennis Hull (39), along with Stan Mikita and Cliff Koroll. Then they picked up Ralph Backstrom for veteran savvy and post-season adrenaline.
There was no salary cap in those days, which is not to say there was no budget. Now, of course, every franchise operates according to a hard ceiling—the Flyers and Blackhawks are right up against it—and the fear locally is that Chicago’s estimable assemblage of players will suffer through attrition come summer.
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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Changes are inevitable, but such is the case everywhere, and the Blackhawks in October still will possess a young core that is as good or superior to any other team’s. Still, it does make one wonder. Rocky Wirtz, the Blackhawks’ chairman, is a strong proponent of cost certainty, as was his father, Bill. But, with his passion for winning, what would Rocky be like without that salary cap? He probably would not be hockey’s George Frankensteinbrenner, but we’ll never know, although you tend to believe Rocky might do whatever it takes. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen, Rocky comprehends that there is no salary cap on front office expertise, from whom to how many.
On the subject of history, there is surprisingly little between the two rabid sports cities of Philadelphia and Chicago. The Bears met the Eagles in a playoff game at Soldier Field on New Year’s Eve day of 1988, winning 20-12 in what was tabbed an instant classic because of a thick fog that overtook the lakefront early and never left. Spectators and TV cameras had to guess about yard lines and ball carriers. Mike Ditka could not look across the field and see Eagles’ coach Buddy Ryan, or vice versa, which was just as well. They were not pals.
The Cubs defeated the Phillies, 26-23, at Wrigley Field in 1922, a marathon that was one of a kind until May of 1979, when the same teams staged a déjà vu all over again. The Phillies scored 7 in the top of the first inning, the Cubs 6 in their half. And on it went. Dave Kingman hit three home runs for the Cubs, and Mike Schmidt two for the Phillies, who survived, 23-22, in 10 innings. The latter, Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame third baseman, launched 50 home runs in Chicago.
When the Harry Caray statue was erected, discussions ensued about possible other monuments to those who had enjoyed extraordinary careers at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ management was open to suggestions, save for one from a wisecracking reporter who volunteered, why not a statue of Mike Schmidt?
“Wait a minute…I remember Philadelphia,” Hull said the other day at the United Center. As well he should. After The Golden Jet jumped to the WHA, all you-know-what broke loose. The NHL and the Blackhawks contended that he had violated the terms of his contract, litigation reached a fever pitch, and lawyers got rich. Eventually, the definitive decision was rendered at the United States District Court in Philadelphia on Nov. 8, 1972. There, in a suit that involved other “defectors” such as John McKenzie, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham basically tossed out the reserve clause that bound athletes to their teams in perpetuity. The landmark verdict sent reverberations throughout hockey, and baseball was next.
With Hull free to leave and perform elsewhere, the Blackhawks endured some lean winters. Their string of losing 16 consecutive playoff games from 1975 to 1980 remains a record, but time heals. The decibels seemed to be at a season-high pitch Saturday night, and nothing moved the needle more than the jumbotron snapshot of the four Hall of Fame ambassadors—Hull, Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard.
The Blackhawks are a family again, and the magic number for a group hug had dwindled to 3.