As decade comes to a close, no organization was more successful, admired or copied in the NHL than the Blackhawks
In February 2004, ESPN The Magazine published an article ranking North American franchises among the four major sports - baseball, football, basketball and hockey - best to worst. The Blackhawks took the booby prize, prompting one fan, surrounded by a sea of empty chairs, to unfurl a sign during a game at the United Center.
For this decade, the Blackhawks can stake a claim as the most successful, admired and copied organization in the National Hockey League. They won three Stanley Cups, outskating the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings, both of whom earned two. Not since 1961 had the Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup. Black and white film clips confirm that it was slightly overdue.
Come 2010, in three living color trips to the Final, the Blackhawks were perfect. They were not 2-1, or 1-2. They were 3-0. Also, they were so good, and so wise, that they avoided a Game 7 in all of them. What comes after Game 6? A parade, not a Game 7. Why mess with the possibility of a freakish sudden death bounce such as occurred when they were eliminated in the 2014 Conference Finals by the Kings?
The Blackhawks gave President Obama a parking pass to the United Center. He might as well have given them a parking pass for the White House.
Despite playoff absences the last two seasons, the Blackhawks toiled in 19 postseason rounds, with a record of 14-5. Suffice it to say, the Blackhawks had the greatest decade in their history. Consider this: the franchise was born in 1926. Yet, of the top ten individuals in most playoff games, six own rings from the 2010, 2013 and 2015 championships: Jonathan Toews 128, Niklas Hjalmarsson 128, Patrick Kane 127, Duncan Keith 126, Brent Seabrook 123 and Patrick Sharp 117. Behind the bench, for 128, head coach Joel Quenneville operated masterfully.
Everybody knows what happened with the Blackhawks, but the complete transformation still borders on the occult. Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman in October of 2007, he hired John McDonough as President & CEO, and rather than ask for patience, they immediately uttered phrases that sounded somewhat odd in these parts. They talked about winning, winning consistently, winning it all.
A sleeping giant of a franchise gradually awakened. For too many years, the Blackhawks employed a conga line of coaches and players, many of whom frankly brought little to the table except a fork and knife. But under enlightened and progressive leadership, the mantra was continuity and commitment. In May 2009, before the Blackhawks had won anything - in fact, as they were losing the Conference Finals to the Detroit Red Wings - Forbes saluted the new ice age in Chicago as the "Greatest Sports-Business Turnaround Ever." Repeat. Ever. Prescient indeed. Free agents such as Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa chose Chicago, which became a destination point almost overnight.
Connectivity, another staple stressed by management, flourished below, on the ice. All aboard, everyone on board. Players and the front office trust each other and fans trust both. Five of the aforementioned core players were drafted and developed by the Blackhawks. Sharp came via a demonstrably one-sided trade that went Chicago's way. Although the rosters were altered because of the salary cap for all three Cup teams, a singular mindset existed and thrived, from the executive branch to the locker room.
This distinct and modern brand, the "One Goal" Blackhawks, was embraced locally, but also noted beyond. Sports Illustrated devoted three covers to the Blackhawks. In June 2010, an issue featured a member of the Kings being crunched by Marcus Kruger, who quipped "that was the only guy I hit all year." In 2013, after Kruger scored in Anaheim to end the longest game in team history, SI recognized "The Franchise That Brought Hockey Back" after a lockout delayed the NHL season.
Then in 2015, with Keith pictured scoring the clincher against Tampa Bay, the title was "Modern Dynasty. The Blackhawks: 6 seasons, 3 Cups, 1 Model Franchise." Imagine that. From the Model T to a Model Franchise. The Blackhawks were the rage of hockey, well into their decade-long United Center sellout streak that still grows, at 500-plus and counting. They annually lead the NHL in home attendance, and also draw thousands to road rinks. They're must-see on international telecasts and are by popular demand the main attraction for outdoor spectaculars.
One more magazine. The Hockey News recently speculated that Kane could emerge as the greatest Blackhawk of all-time. Interesting, because he's only 31 and still in what seems like a perpetual career prime. The sport is crisper than when opponents hung on or interfered with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. There's more space for genius, and Kane feasts on it.
Also, Kane benefits from a superior support cast, and we don't mean just teammates. Hull and Mikita had many of them. In concert with Kane is an organization exponentially more devoted to the cause. We'll never know, but the hunch is that Wirtz, whose credo is "you can't save your way to a better product", would never allow Hull to escape to an upstart league, strictly over money, with nothing in return except seven years of lawsuits.
Championship windows open and close cyclically. Take the New England Patriots. They've won six Super Bowls, yet with the same coach and quarterback went ten years between their third and fourth. But in the NHL, volatility is ordained. The Red Wings, who ruled before the Blackhawks, are retooling but a hockey-centric city rightly believes in General Manager Steve Yzerman to figure it out. All three California teams, all formidable earlier this decade, appear to be in that inevitable gear, transition. The Colorado Avalanche put only 48 points on the board in 2017. A year later, 95. Look at them now. Loaded.
The salary cap? It never plays a game, but it's undefeated. Parades are expensive. Teams that excel at those essentials - drafting and developing - reward players on those floats, then pay again for having to part with experienced talent. In some ways, the foremost rival for elite franchises is the salary cap, and the Blackhawks just did it better for a decade. Their 2020 vision has not changed.
Nor has the brand. The current NHL standings don't flatter the Blackhawks, but the standings will change. They always do.