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Blackhawks creating excitement in Windy City

by Larry Wigge
There's a feel in Chicago. It's not for “Da Bears,” or the Cubbies. It's the rebirth of the Chicago Blackhawks.

It started last season with the performance and production of a quick-skating, hard-working, exciting young group of players headed by Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, a Calder runner-up.

The Hawks, who have not made the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons, finished the 2007-08 winning four of their last five games and went 7-3-1 in their last 11 games, finishing just three points behind Nashville for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

This weekend the Hawks will give fans a chance to see some more new and exciting things in the tradition of the team with its first hockey convention from July 18-20.

General Manager Dale Tallon made the upcoming Blackhawks schedule even more exciting with the selection of power forward Kyle Beach in the first round of the 2008 Entry Draft. Then, he added two more very interesting pieces to the roster on the first day of free agency by signing the best defenseman in that group,  Brian Campbell, while adding goaltender Cristobal Huet to compete with or steal the No. 1 netminding job from Nikolai Khabibulin.

"We felt we had to make a statement," Tallon said. "We've created a buzz in this market. We've started to sell more and more tickets, more sponsorships and we decided we'd try to make an impact to continue the momentum. Plus, we had to send a message to our young players that we're committed."

The Blackhawks improved from 201 goals (tied for next-to-last in the NHL with Columbus) in 2006-07 to 239 goals last season, which was 10th in the League. But the team was still down in the standings in power-play production, ranking 24th – completing just 15.9 percent with a man advantage.


Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 88
(10th West/20th NHL)
Change from 2006-07 +17
Home Points 48
(9th West/15th NHL)
Away Points 40
(11th West/23rd NHL)
Tallon knew that his team had to tighten up defensively and in goal, but the biggest hole in the lineup wasn't from a defense that scored 38 goals last season, but rather not having a quick, mobile defenseman to jump start the offense. Someone to push the puck up ice to the forwards. Someone to quarterback the power play.

The addition of the fast-skating and skillful Campbell, a two-time All-Star, immediately makes the Hawks stronger in those areas. Campbell scored 19 points in the 20 regular-season games he played in San Jose down the stretch.

Campbell had family concerns and wanted to be closer to his Ontario summer home, so he passed on the Sharks, even if San Jose center Joe Thornton is a good buddy. Ironically, it was Kane, one of those young bloods in the Chicago lineup, who paved the way for Campbell to sign an eight-year, $56.8 million contract with the Blackhawks.

Don't be concerned that Brian is 29. He's the best skating defenseman in the game – and those quick feet are sure to give Chicago a chance at making the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02.

"At the All-Star Game, Patrick told me how exciting it was to be in a city where the fans were really being turned to the game again," Campbell said. "Then, a couple of weeks ago, we met in a restaurant in London, Ontario. He said, 'Hey, man, we'd love to have you in Chicago. You could help us a lot.' I told Patrick, 'Tell Dale Tallon and the executives there to make me the right offer ... and I'd love to go.' "

On the first day of free agency the past couple of years, Tallon had the money, but didn't have the excitement, the buzz, to help sell some of the top players in the game on coming to Chicago.

Campbell said that wasn't the case this time.

"I haven't played a lot there, but it's clear that Chicago is one of the best sports cities in the United States," he said. "It's one of those cities where you go around to a lot of people in the League and they say they can't wait to go to Chicago.

"And after talking to a lot of people when I moved from the Eastern Conference in Buffalo to the West in San Jose, when I saw Chicago's interest, I knew this was the right spot for me."

You know, the first time Brian Campbell does his spin-o-rama move, Hawks fans are going to be reminded of better days when Denis Savard used to dazzle with that maneuver.

Said Tallon, "I think it's clear to say that we stepped up to the plate and that our fans and the rest of the league now know that we'll do whatever it takes to get to where we want to go."

When you have an on-the-edge offensive defenseman with the skills of Brian Campbell, it's obvious that teams are going to follow that stepping to the plate analogy by hitting a home run. It worked for the Sharks in the regular season, but not quite in the playoffs. Getting to the playoffs is Chicago's No. 1 goal right now – even if Campbell wants to rise to an elite level among today's defensemen.

"It wasn't long ago when I couldn't even get out of the press box before the NHL shifted toward speed and skill after the lockout," Campbell said during the San Jose-Dallas playoff series. "Confidence can do wonders for a player. After the lockout, I was getting a chance to show people that even if I wasn't the biggest guy in the world that I could play against the other team's top lines, that I could kill penalties and handle a lot of minutes.
"To me, the next level is being more like (Detroit defensemen) Brian Rafalski or Nicklas Lidstrom. I try to watch guys like that. I watch everything they do. For me, it's all about trying to get in the elite category. That's my next goal."

With the excitement he'll see in Chicago, there's little doubt Brian Campbell will be given every opportunity to reach that goal.

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