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Chicago Blackhawks

A professional hockey team in the Western Conference of the NHL.

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Commit to the Indian

  • Feb 13, 2013
Rating:
+3
Looking at a list of NHL teams, one can't help but wonder: Where are all the teams in the pacific northwest? It seems like a perfectly natural area for hockey to thrive, after all, being so close to Canada. Well, to know the full history of hockey entails knowing the things that happened before even the Original Six, and there WERE professional hockey teams there for awhile. Back in the 1910's, professional hockey was a lot more disorganized than it is now, and the Stanley Cup had a habit of drifting from league to league in a haphazard fashion that was as random as it was planned, if that makes any kind of sense. It wasn't even formalized until 1914, when the National Hockey Association and Pacific Coast Hockey Association made a gentleman's agreement similar to the American League and National League having their champions go at it after every season in the World Series.

The Stanley Cup was established in 1893, and Canadian teams fought over it pretty much exclusively for the next two decades. But back then, there were the NHA, PCHA, and the Western Hockey Association. And there was the Portland Rosebuds, who in 1916 became the first American team to compete in a Stanley Cup Final. They lost to the Montreal Canadiens that year, and the American hockey fans would have to wait until the following season to finally have a chance to hoist the Cup when the Seattle Metropolitans beat the defending Habs. Since this was basically the NHL's crazy anything-goes era, though, the Rosebuds folded in 1918. They were reborn in 1925 when the Regina Capitals moved to Portland that year, but were quickly bought by coffee magnate Frederic McLaughlin when he learned the National Hockey League was starting a wave of expansions into the United States. The NHL needed a team in Chicago, and so McLaughlin took most of the Rosebuds players to Chicago and renamed them after an infantry division he had been the commander of in World War I: The Blackhawk Division. An odd paper discrepancy left the team to be called the Black Hawks for most of their existence, but that was corrected in 1986.

McLaughlin actively ran the team, serving as his own general manager despite having no hockey background, and became a bit of a radical for his willingness to promote American players. A number of his players - Doc Romnes, Taffy Abel, Alex Levinsky, Mike Karakas, and Cully Dahlstrom - became mainstays with the team, and the Chicago Black Hawks were the first team to field a lineup of players who were all born in America.

The Hawks posted a fairly decent record in their first season, going 19-22-3 to finish in third place and losing the first round of the playoffs to the Boston Bruins. "Fairly decent" wasn't good enough for McLaughlin, though, and he got into a big fight with head coach Pete Muldoon over whether or not the Hawks were good enough to finish in first. McLaughlin threw a major hissy fit, fired Muldoon, and on the way out the door, Muldoon promised he would curse the team so they would never finish first! At least, that goeth the legend. Although hockey fans believed in the Curse of Muldoon for decades, the whole thing was in fact made up by Toronto Globe and Mail sportswriter Jim Coleman, who admitted to it years later. Coleman had been running a deadline, had nothing to write about, and created the whole story, figuring the Curse of Muldoon would be forgotten after about two days. Well, the Black Hawks went their first 39 years - and three Stanley Cup victories - without ever finishing in first. Good thing Coleman never mentioned that.

By the 1928 season, the Hawks had become the worst team in the league. Three years later, though, they made the Stanley Cup Finals, led by goalie Charlie Gardiner. While Chicago took an early 2-1 lead in the five-game Finals, they flatlined it for the final two and Montreal took the Cup. It wasn't until three years later that the Hawks made the Finals again, against the Detroit Red Wings. The Finals ran four games, with the last one being a double overtime thriller in which Gardiner kept the Red Wings blanked as Chicago held on for the 1-0 clincher.

Four years later, the Black Hawks…. Well, kinda, sorta sucked. They got into the playoffs, although it was a real squeeze with a 14-25 record. Once the playoffs started, they managed to stun the Montreal Canadiens. Going into the second round, they then pulled another stunner against the New York Americans. That vaulted them into the Finals, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. By then, goalie Mike Karakas was injured and unable to play, and the desperate Hawks lucked out by finding minor leaguer Alfie Moore of the Pittsburgh Hornets out of a nearby Toronto bar and pulling him onto the ice. Moore played one game and won, and tried it for the next game with another player who lost. For the next two games in the Finals, Karakas was outfitted with a special skate, and he proceeded to win both. The 1938 Chicago Black Hawks are still the worst team to ever win the Stanley Cup.

In 1944, Doug Bentley scored 38 goals. His lineman, Clint Smith, led the team in assists, and the Hawks upset Detroit and returned to the Finals. It had been a good season, even though the Hawks were quickly destroyed by Maurice Richard and the dominating Montreal team he led. Surely, things would be even better through the coming years, with another championship on the way, right? Perhaps it would have. Unfortunately, McLaughlin died in 1944, and his estate sold the team to a syndicate led by Bill Tobin, the longtime president of the Black Hawks. Not so bad, except for a few sleazy details. See, back when McLaughlin first bought the Rosebuds, he outbid a certain James Norris in order to take control. By 1944, Norris owned the rival Detroit Red Wings. Why does this matter? Because Tobin was his puppet. Also, because Norris had bought Chicago Stadium in 1936, which made the Hawks his own personal tenant. This scenario played out even worse than the Kansas City Athletics arrangement, where they kept sending their best players back and forth to the New York Yankees via trade. At least the Athletics weren't ignored. The Black Hawks were. If the Black Hawks and Red Wings made a trade, it was done with Fox News-like levels of lack of bias for Detroit. Red flew, and black was clipped and grounded as it became the face of NHL futility from 1945 to 1958. Between those years, Chicago only made the playoffs twice. This was during the Original Six era too, making it even worse than it sounds. Meanwhile, Detroit won the Stanley Cup four times in that timespan.

When Norris finally kicked the bucket, the Black Hawks were taken over by Norris's oldest son, also named James, and a Red Wings minority owner named Arthur Wirtz. This was looking at another royal screwjob which could have set up the Wings for absolute dominance, but I guess Norris and Wirtz wanted a new challenge because they took their new ownership seriously. After taking the Hawks through a financial reversal of fortune, they hired former Detroit coach and general manager Tommy Ivan, and got to work rebuilding. In 1957, the Hawks struck gold. Or rather, they struck a Golden Jet! Bobby Hull made his debut that year, and he would go on to become the greatest Black Hawk, known to all by the nickname Golden Jet for his golden blond hair and speed. The next year, the Hawks found Stan Mikita. Pierre Pilote emerged as a guy who had just the right knack for knowing exactly who was in scoring position, and Glenn Hall was heisted from Detroit as a superior backstop. Chicago was a contender again by the end of the 50's. In 1959 and 1960, they were booted by the Canadiens in the playoffs. In 1961, with the Hawks finally sick and tired of being Montreal's playoff stepladder, the Hawks formed a plan for defense designed to wear out Montreal's galaxy of superstars. It worked like a charm - Chicago beat Montreal, then they went to the Finals, where they avenged all the shit the Wings put them through and won the Stanley Cup for the third time. This third Stanley Cup Championship is still very special to Chicago. The Original Six era ran from about 1942 to 1967, and 1961 is the only year during the quarter-century that it never went to Montreal, Detroit, or Toronto.

Chicago was in eternal contention during the rest of the 60's, and they even made the Finals twice more, losing in 1962 to the Leafs and 1965 to the Habs. Pilote won the Norris Trophy (top defenseman) three straight times, and Hall was an All-Star for eight years. Hull and Mikita were one of the most feared lines in the league, with Mikita even winning back-to-back scoring titles and Hart Trophies. They had a strong supporting roster which, at one point, actually included Phil Esposito. Although the team was never quite able to pull themselves together the way they did in 1961, 1967 included another big moment for the team: It was the final year of the Original Six NHL, and at long last, the Chicago Black Hawks broke the (again, totally nonexistent) Curse of Muldoon by finishing first. They lost in the playoffs to eventual champion Toronto, though.

Expansion hit in 1967, and Glenn Hall was drafted by the St. Louis Blues. In the 1968 season, Pilote was traded to the Maple Leafs. Then the team got REALLY fucking stupid and sent a trio of young forwards to the Bruins in exchange for three of their guys. Business as usual from the outside, but the players Chicago sent to Boston included Esposito, one of the NHL's true legends. It also included Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield, solid contributors both - Hodge was even an All-Star. So this routine trade was a fleecing by Boston which helped create the core of the Big Bad Bruins teams of the 70's. Bobby Hull broke his own scoring record with 58 goals, but in 1968, the losses of Hall, Esposito, and Pilote proved to be too much to take, and the Hawks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1958. It was also the last time they missed the playoffs until 1998! Hall was missed, but not for that long, because the Hawks found a new goalie in Phil Esposito's little brother Tony, who was every bit as good as his sibling. He backstopped the Hawks to another Finals appearance, where they finally bowed out before another one of those dynastic Canadiens teams everybody loved so much. All through the 70's, while the Black Hawks didn't win the Stanley Cup, they did conclusively prove the Curse of Muldoon was dead with a capital D-E-D and buried. They won their division seven times.

Unfortunately, the team's core was starting to hurt. Bobby Hull was one of the NHL's marquee stars, which meant it was a bad idea for Hawks owner Bill Wirtz to piss him off for underpaying him. When the World Hockey Association came along in 1972, Hull bailed for their Winnipeg Jets. Mikita retired late in the decade. The Hawks tried to pull one over on the Bruins in 1976 by trading for Bobby Orr, but the Bruins clearly knew something the Hawks didn't, as could have (and SHOULD have) been signified by the fact that the Bruins were, you know, TRADING BOBBY FUCKING ORR! Orr's health was in serious decline, and by the time he retired in 1979, Orr had only played in 26 games for the Black Hawks, total. While the Hawks kept making the playoffs, well, in the NHL the playoff teams are decided by a single question: Are you a professional hockey team playing hockey in the National Hockey League? If the answer is yes, congratulations! You're in the playoffs! Yeah, they got to the Conference Finals in 1982, but they were Cinderella-ing it by then.

Fortunately, there was another talent influx just around the corner. Denis Savard was drafted in 1980. Later in the decade, they drafted Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour, who led them to the Conference Finals again in 1989 after a fourth-place finish and three first-round losses in the previous three years. They lost to the eventual champions, the Calgary Flames. In 1990 Savard was traded to Montreal for Chris Chelios, and in 1992 the Hawks returned to the Finals on the backs of Chelios, Roenick, Belfour, and Steve Larmer. Their eleven straight playoff wins set a record. They were blanked 4-0 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were the defending champions. Despite the sweep, the Finals were much closer than they looked and could have gone either way. In the first game, Chicago managed to give up two three-goal leads. Chicago lost the second game 3-1, but games three and four ended with respective scores of 1-0 and 6-5. That year, Chicago hosted both the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals. The Bulls won their title, the Hawks lost theirs. The Blackhawks coach was Mike Keenan who, in a weird coincidence was part of this same kind of situation again in 1994. He moved on to coach the New York Rangers by then, and in 1994 both his Rangers and the New York Knicks played in their league Finals. This time, though, it was Keenan's team that won.

The early 90's dominance of the Blackhawks was gone before too long with Bill Wirtz more than earning the nickname Dollar Bill for his frugality. Roenick, Belfour, and Chelios were all traded. Denis Savard returned, but only on his last legs. The Blackhawks got progressively worse, and in 1998, they finally fell out of the playoffs. They were one season short of tying the Boston Bruins for the record number of consecutive playoff appearances. Except for a surprise season in 2002 and a quick exit from the first round, the Hawks were gone from the playoffs for the next eleven years. Gone, also were the team's better players: Eric Daze and Tony Amonte. The best player on the team became Tuomo Ruutu, a solid player who was nonetheless incapable of carrying a team himself. They spent the decade missing the playoffs by a wide margin every season. When I first moved to Chicago in 2006, this was the Blackhawks team that greeted me, the one that I willingly adopted.

Bill Wirtz was a good man with a lot of people who were fiercely loyal to him, I should let it be known. He loved his team, too. Unfortunately, his business acumen wasn't able to evolve with the changing times, and it worked against him in a terrible way. While I made the choice to adopt the Hawks - really, I grew up having my heart ripped out by the Buffalo Sabres, so it wasn't like I couldn't take it - and became a diehard fan, Wirtz had so thoroughly run the team into the ground by then that Chicago had forgotten about them, in some cases literally. He made some PR moves which were outright shitty: In 2006, he let go of longtime announcer Pat Foley. He had home games blacked out, citing it as unfair to season ticket holders. He raised ticket prices to an extent at which they were among the NHL's most expensive. When an author wrote a book critical of Wirtz and tried to sell it outside games, Wirtz had the author arrested. The parts of Chicago that remembered the Windy City even had an NHL team were so apathetic to it that the Chicago Wolves of the minor league AHL were literally more popular than the Blackhawks. For awhile, the Wolves were able to sell themselves on a slogan which zinged the Hawks: "We Play Hockey the Old-Fashioned Way: We Actually Win." I remember being out one night in an underground music show chatting up a girl. I happened to mention that I'm a lifelong puckhead.
"Oh. Are you a Wolves fan?" she asked.
"Well, yeah, I guess. I'm a Blackhawks fan, really," I responded.
"Who are the Blackhawks?" The question didn't shock me so much as her earnestness in asking it did.

In 2007, Bill Wirtz lost a battle to cancer. The team was expected to pass to his first son, Peter, but Peter only held onto it for a few weeks because he wanted to stay with his day job, running Bismark Enterprises. So the team passed into the hands of another son, Rocky. Now, for years fans had been calling on the Wirtz family to sell the team to a radical, Mark Cuban-like owner. As it turned out, Chicago had its own Mark Cuban under its thumb all along. Rocky decimated his father's dated policies. He started airing home games again. Then he hired John McDonough as president, which was important to getting attention because McDonough had been the PR master responsible for turning the Chicago Cubs into a nationally popular team. He established a fan festival, announced a partnership, ironically, with the Chicago White Sox, and Wirtz got to work hiring long-alienated stars like Hull, Mikita, and Esposito to serve as ambassadors. Because of McDonough, the Blackhawks took to Wrigley Field for the second-ever Winter Classic against Detroit.

Meanwhile, general manager Dale Tallon was collecting all the right players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Brian Campbell, and others to form the core of a high-flying team which was temporarily coached by Denis Savard. After the 2008 season started badly, Savard was fired but immediately brought back as an ambassador. Joel Quenneville was hired. The Hawks missed the playoffs again, but they sent a message to the NHL. In 2009, they were back, and they made it to the Conference Finals only to lose to Detroit. (Again.) The next year, the Hawks hired Marion Hossa as a free agent, and made Stan Bowman - Scotty's boy - their general manager. They easily made the playoffs. Even having to start a backup goalie with the merely-decent-at-best Antti Niemi, the Blackhawks tore through the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks. In the Conference Finals, the long-frustrated San Jose Sharks looked to be the team that stopped the Hawks, but they ended up performing one of their famous tank jobs. In the Finals, they met the Philadelphia Flyers. The goaltending was shaky on both sides, but Niemi proved to be just a hair better in goal when it was needed. The Flyers were clearly the inferior team, and to have a chance, they needed to win the first two games and/or game five. They weren't able to. And so, when game six concluded with an overtime goal from Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks skated off the ice as the Stanley Cup Champions for the first time since 1961. The city went nuts.

The team needed to dump some significant salary since then, so it's a good thing they got through the window. Even so, the Hawks are exciting again, and among the NHL's elite and popular. As of this writing, they are 10-0-3 on the current season, flying on an incredible streak which hasn't yet seen them lose a single game in regulation yet. They have 23 points so far, and are so far the best team in the NHL this year.

As you can see, the Chicago Blackhawks are one of the oldest and most storied teams in the NHL. As such, they've had a score of some of the league's greatest players suit up for them. Bobby Hull is chief among them, though Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Doug Gilmour, Steve Larmer, Ed Belfour, Max Bentley, Al Rollins, Duncan Keith, and Charlie Gardiner were no slouches, either. They've all won trophies, after all. All-Stars include Eric Daze, Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Havlat, Marion Hossa, Doug Wilson, Pit Martin, Doug Bentley, and seemingly their entire 1961 team. Glenn Hall, Keith Magnuson, Pierre Pilote, Bobby Hull, Denis Savard, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito have all had numbers retired. The Blackhawks as a team have won one Presidents' Trophy, their conference trophy seven times (they switched conferences, so they've won the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl five times and the Prince of Wales Trophy twice) and the Stanley Cup four times. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are currently the faces of the Blackhawks.

The Hawks' 49-year Stanley Cup drought is surpassed only by the 54-year drought the New York Rangers suffered from 1941 to 1994. That's one of their primary markers, in fact. That and the never-existed Curse of Muldoon come with the mystique of being one of the NHL's oldest teams. It was the Blackhawks who started the fan tradition of cheering wildly during the national anthem. The Hawks are also identified by one of the most recognizable and prettiest uniforms and logos in sports. It's an Indian head - controversial, yes, but ultimately even the most ardent American Indians' rights proponents around Chicago agree that, no matter what they think of it, it's one of the more tasteful and respectfully done ones. The third jerseys are some of the nicest-looking in the league. They were voted by The Hockey News as the best in the NHL, and one of the 25 best in professional sports by GQ magazine. The same basic design has been in place since about 1955, with only a few minor changes here and there. The fans constantly sell out games these days, and so Chicago is known to house the most devoted hockey fans in America. That's what people are trying to sell us on, anyway. The truth is, while there were pockets of diehard holdouts when I moved to Chicago during the bad years, I find the general fanbase to be possibly the most overrated since people began hopping on the New England Patriots bandwagon. When I moved to Chicago, I was seen as odd for being a hockey fan. If the Blackhawks fanbase was everything it's cracked up to be, the team never would have been allowed to be forgotten to the level it was.

Like all Chicago teams, the Blackhawks have a fierce rivalry with Detroit. The marquee rivalry of the NHL has long been between the Hawks and the Detroit Red Wings. These two teams can't stand each other, and they've met several times in the playoffs, including in the Finals. They played against each other in the 2009 Conference Finals. Detroit took that match. The Hawks beat the Wings in the 1934 Finals to win their first Stanley Cup championship, and again in the 1961 Finals for their third. The St. Louis Blues, far from being known as just "those expansion guys who stole Glenn Hall" have become a team of history and tradition in their own right, even though they're a lot younger than the Blackhawks. They have an ongoing rivalry against Chicago too.

In over 80 years of hockey, the Chicago Blackhawks have been to the highest highs and the lowest lows. They've won the Stanley Cup, and been the face of futility. They've exemplified everything wrong about dual team ownership. They've fielded legends, and gotten fleeced for other legends. They've won squeezers of games and gone on rampaging winning sprees. The story of the Chicago Blackhawks is a long one which has rarely been boring, and you'll be hard-pressed to find another team which contains the incredible ride the Hawks have taken their fans on.

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Quick Tip by . June 18, 2010
posted in Windy City Secrets
I like their logo and tradition.
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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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