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The Verdict: Oh, what a night!

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
PHILADELPHIA— At 1:57 Thursday morning, about three hours after these Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, John Madden hoisted the silver jug above his head and walked it out of a visitors’ locker room ripe with the aroma of champagne and smoke. The merriment had lasted almost as long as the game, so it was time to head to Chicago, where the party would have no expiration date. Besides, the new champions who had dug so deep since October for whatever it took had run out of cigars.

One by one, players who had nothing to do with the 49-year itch but embraced with such passion the organization’s fiat to scratch it, threaded their way through corridors of the otherwise deserted Wachovia Center, toward the team bus, all eyes on Stanley. There was a seat waiting for this venerable trophy on the charter flight, 10D, right by the card table, and before wheels were up at about 3 a.m., Chicago’s boys of winter made sure this most welcome passenger was secure, its seatbelt fastened tightly.

“HOW ABOUT THITH?” exclaimed Duncan Keith, the great young defenseman, dentally-challenged. “IS THITH THOMETHING OR WHAT?”

The red light behind Michael Leighton still hasn’t ignited. But at 4:06 of overtime in Game 6 of this stirring final series, Patrick Kane knew his shot from the left had slithered through the pads of Philadelphia’s goalie. An awkward moment ensued as the fastest sport on earth slipped into neutral, but then No. 88 threw his gloves in the air, and teammates began jumping on each other. The franchise and its fans had waited since 1961, so why fret about a slight delay until that final is posted? Blackhawks 4, Flyers 3. One Goal. Mission accomplished.

On the ice for another whirl before summer, the victors passed the Cup around, like the salt shaker at a team meal. Jonathan Toews, 22, a prodigy who won Olympic gold for his country in February, earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player throughout the playoffs, but the captain, not-so-serious now, held that Cup high. Marian Hossa grabbed it, then Patrick Sharp, then Brent Sopel, and on it went, a team picture with Stanley in the middle. The Flyers, a classy organization, made sure than hundreds of Blackhawk fans who found secondary ticket market prices agreeable could crowd the lower bowl well beyond closing time. The Blackhawks, so likeable for the way they engage their supporters, saluted those who made the trip and stayed.

The locker room is small, and it became smaller when waves of family and friends entered after the players had left the rink. Team management hired a plane to leave O’Hare Wednesday afternoon for fathers, mothers, wives, children, 165 in all. They were taken to Philadelphia’s finest steakhouse upon arrival, then to the Wachovia Center, where the Blackhawks secured five suites. There is no telling what this magnanimous gesture cost, especially from the man who resurrected the Blackhawks without ever uttering hoary homilies like the infamous five-year plan.

“Every one of these players and members of our front office staff has a support cast,” said Rocky Wirtz. “They belong here. There is no price attached to this. This is priceless.”

This is why Chicago, which once was a place where hockey players went to avoid crowds and commotion, is now a destination. In that locker room, the Blackhawks who were praised for their even tempers and level heads when it mattered, shed their sweaters and inhibitions for Stanley Cup Champion 2010 hats and unbridled revelry. They yelled, they sprayed, they sang “Chelsea Dagger,” and they hugged like they hadn’t seen each other for years and might never see each other again, or at least until Friday’s parade.

Wirtz was doused by Dustin Byfuglien, team president John McDonough looked like he’d been through a car wash, and Joel Quenneville gushed about how “coaching these guys was like coaching on auto pilot.” Coach Q is famously demure on his role in this miracle, but his point was valid. The will and desire of his athletes to excel, if for no other reason than not to disappoint their mates, represents chemistry of the highest order, a dimension that cannot be taught or fractured. As Toews stated, when asked where the party would reconvene in Chicago, “I don’t know…but wherever we go, we’ll go together.”

When the NHL really went international, there was all this talk that players not from North America might regard the Stanley Cup as just another piece of hardware. But on the Blackhawks’ roster of United Nations, that is folly. Antti Niemi, the frugal Finn in goal, regaled about how “this is huge home…huge at home.” Hossa was like a kid who finally got what he wanted on his third Christmas morning. Tomas Kopecky acted as though he had never touched the Cup in Detroit, which he had. And Niklas Hjalmarsson was pacing in place. “My town in Sweden has 90 people,” he said. “They watch tonight’s game at 2 in the morning, then go milk cows at 5. They are more tired than I am. Wait until I bring this Cup there. They will not be tired.”

For the flight home, the Blackhawks sat for takeoff and landing, but otherwise, it was two hours of mingling, aisle-to-aisle, pictures with the Cup, more hugging. The guys were almost wistful that they would not bond at 30,000 feet again anytime soon. Quenneville sat next to Scotty Bowman, who volunteered, “tough to win, a Stanley Cup.” Coach Q rolled his eyes at the Hall of Fame genius. “You’ve won 12!”

About 4 am in Chicago, the plane touched down at O’Hare. Fire trucks showered the charter with water cannons and Capt. Mellow was summoned to the front with Stanley. The door opened as Toews displayed the Cup for cameras, police officers, assorted others who were too happy to sleep on this historic occasion.

The red light still hasn’t gone on in the Wachovia Center, but in Chicago, the sun was climbing out of bed for another day and birds were chirping. The Blackhawks piled into busses for a destination to continue celebrating. Where they would go was to be kept quiet, but there was no secret how they would go. They would go together.
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