PHOENIX—“I’m right there.”
With those much-awaited words after the Blackhawks practiced Wednesday afternoon, captain Jonathan Toews all but confirmed that he will return to the lineup for Game 1 of their Stanley Cup Western Conference Quarterfinals series here Thursday night. Toews cautioned that he still must see how he feels in the morning, but he quickly added that he would be surprised if he did not play after missing the last 22 games of the regular season.
"Captain Serious" also allowed that he fully expected to wear a target on his body, especially against a physical team such as the Phoenix Coyotes. However, that is part of the re-entry process for athletes, particularly those who deal with head injuries. Toews looked quite comfortable during drills between Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, but game conditions are another dimension, particularly playoff game conditions in a hostile rink where the home franchise is anxious to enrich its local fan base.
"THE VERDICT" WITH BOB VERDI
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.Recent Verdi Articles:
> Pocket pest Shaw up for the occasion
> Playoff berths precious, priceless
> Belfour undrafted, yet undaunted
Toews dutifully attempts to de-emphasize the significance of his forced sabbatical, noting that the Blackhawks have endured other absences since October. This type of statesmanship resonates throughout the locker room, because as Patrick Sharp volunteered, “it bothers us” that numerous experts dismissed the team’s chances without Toews. Not only did the Blackhawks survive, they conspired to thrive because, again from Sharp, “we have a lot of good players and a lot of pride in here.”
For inspiration—not that they need it—the Blackhawks merely have to consult their co-tenants of the United Center. The Bulls win so regularly without their version of Toews that the Wall Street Journal actually ran a story recently posing the question of whether they really needed Derrick Rose. Of course they do, just as the Blackhawks need Toews. But when you adhere to a system and reach for an extra bit of adrenaline, seemingly impossible missions materialize.
One that comes to mind is the 1972-73 season, when the Blackhawks faced the loss of Bobby Hull to the Winnipeg Jets of the invasive World Hockey Association. To the shock and amazement of the entire National Hockey League, the Blackhawks advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. They fell to the Montreal Canadiens but were supposed to stumble long before then. In the present era, where parity rules and anybody can beat anybody, the Blackhawks would prefer not to tempt fate by embarking on the second season without their captain. But only if he is right. Or, as he offered Wednesday morning, right there.
More about the Winnipeg Jets. After being absorbed by the NHL, they tried to make it big but never quite did. The Jets didn’t win a playoff series after 1987, and in 1996 they relocated to Phoenix. Trivia items: The Jets’ last game ever against Detroit was broadcast by Pat Foley on the Fox network, and it featured Eddie Olczyk as a member of the Jets, though not for long.
“We knew we were gone,” says Eddie O. “For the All-Star break we came here from Winnipeg as a group to ‘look around.’ It was minus-23 there and 72 and sunny here. Felt bad for the city of Winnipeg, but we could handle that.”
The Coyotes’ history in Arizona has been somewhat cloudy. For three years the franchise has been without an owner and under the auspices of the NHL. But this edition, Pacific Division champions, has flourished with a snug defensive style fortified by goalie Mike Smith and espoused by coach Dave Tippett, a former Hartford Whaler teammate of Joel Quenneville. They shook hands and exchanged stories Wednesday, but their socializing likely will vanish during what most informed souls foresee as a taut best-of-seven series. Man for man the Blackhawks probably have better talent. But the Coyotes are an exemplary unit in the ultimate team sport.
With its new and improved television contract, the NHL has an unprecedented opportunity to display its product at its optimum best on a national basis through Comcast/NBC Universal. The league and the network will have captive audiences in huge markets like Chicago, New York (twice, with the Rangers and New Jersey Devils), Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Detroit. Southern representatives such as the Coyotes and Florida Panthers will enhance the footprint, and although two proud Original Six franchises—the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs—are absent, the Ottawa Senators are in, as are the Vancouver Canucks. Hockey fans in Canada will watch the Stanley Cup saga even if it were contested entirely in the United States. It’s part of the heritage up there.
In the Valley of the Sun, if you listen carefully, a slight buzz exists. When the Blackhawks visit here during the regular season, they are routinely greeted by hundreds of red-shirted fans who are either on vacation, spring training devotees or transplants who couldn’t handle winter in Chicago. At least, before this past winter. Well, the Cubs and White Sox have long since left the region, and here come the Blackhawks for their first-ever playoff assignment against Phoenix or Winnipeg.
It was 92 degrees when the Blackhawks landed, but the Arizona Republic is printing columns of space never before devoted to hockey. The building is going to be full Thursday night, and unless something untoward occurs, Jonathan Toews will be right and he will be there.