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The Verdict: History, respect defines Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

In an ode to the Original Six, the Detroit Red Wings and Blackhawks will play their 800th meaningful game Wednesday night when the Western Conference Semifinals begin at the United Center.

If familiarity after 725 regular-season and 74 playoff tiffs has bred a feeling of combative contempt, there should also exist a healthy sense of mutual respect between two modern and stable organizations with zealous fan bases. The Red Wings and Blackhawks play a similar brand of hockey, but upstairs the styles are also classy.

“Mike Ilitch, their owner, is a lot like ours, Rocky Wirtz,” said Scotty Bowman, Chicago’s Hall-of-Fame Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations. “They both want to win, they hire good people and they let them do their jobs. Two really strong franchises, top to bottom.”


Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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Bowman won three Cups as coach of the Red Wings—in 1997 and 1998 (the last National Hockey League team to repeat) and 2002. He won with three different No. 1 goalies: Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek. One constant was the executive branch, overseen by Ilitch, who purchased the Red Wings in 1982, endured a rebuilding process, then quietly savored as his city declared itself “Hockeytown.”

When the Red Wings visited Wrigley Field for the splendid Winter Classic on New Year’s Day 2009, it felt like an epiphany for the rejuvenated Blackhawks, whose mission was to create a structure whereby contending with quality rosters would be an annual proposition. The Blackhawks, with a Cup of their own in 2010, are on their way, but with many miles still to skate. The Red Wings won again in 2008, under their current coach, Mike Babcock.

“Even with the hard salary cap that really affected their payroll, Detroit has stayed competitive,” Bowman went on. “They’ve drafted very well, they were ahead in scouting Europe, particularly Sweden, and now, this team is playing well. They’re healthy, for one. I saw two of their games in Detroit the last series against Anaheim. Impressive.”

In Game 7 at Anaheim, Babcock split up his two superstars, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The Red Wings stunned the favored Ducks, and Babcock expressed excitement about heading to Chicago. Nice restaurants, sharp uniforms, outstanding national anthem, he said.

“We’ll have a good time,” concluded Babcock, who knows what he’s up against. Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks’ captain, was voted most outstanding forward when Babcock’s Canadian Olympic squad earned a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Mention Toews, and Babcock’s eyes become high-beam headlights.

“Mike’s as solid as they come,” praised Bowman. “When I was in Detroit, he coached the Cincinnati farm club we shared with Anaheim. He eventually went to the Ducks, then Detroit. Mike’s paid his dues. Coached on all levels, every one successful.”

Like the Blackhawks, the Red Wings have lost talent to other teams. Two of Babcock’s assistants are head coaches in the playoffs—Paul MacLean with the Ottawa Senators and Todd McLellan with the San Jose Sharks. Jim Nill, a revered longtime assistant to General Manager Ken Holland, recently left the mother ship to run the Dallas Stars.

The Red Wings eliminated the Blackhawks, four games to one, in the 2009 conference finals, just a few months after the Winter Classic, but lost the Stanley Cup Final to Pittsburgh. Before that, in their 14th playoff meeting, the Red Wings defeated the Blackhawks, also 4-1, in the 1995 conference finals. Because of a labor-management impasse, that also followed an abbreviated 48-game regular season.

“The idea then was to keep players fresh,” Bowman recalled. “I used a bullhorn and stopwatch at practice to make our players aware of line changes. The series against Chicago, our four wins were by one goal, three in overtime. Very physical. It took something out of us. We went to the finals and got swept by New Jersey.”

With their late April push, these Red Wings qualified for their 22nd consecutive playoffs—the longest ongoing streak in professional sports. That meant all Original Six franchises in the postseason for the first time since 1996, and in the Eastern Conference, another special rivalry shall be renewed: Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers. Hockey fans throughout North America are in for a treat, although it might take Toronto a while to assimilate what happened to the Maple Leafs.

In Chicago, after another gray winter, people will leave warm weather to go indoors and watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs. By this time in 1961, the Blackhawks had long since downed the Red Wings to win it all on a snowy night in Detroit. Bobby Hull, a kid, exchanged angry elbows over six games with the legendary Gordie Howe. But to this day, The Golden Jet refers to Howe as “Gordon.” Respect.

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