By Ben Strauss-
(CBS) The Blackhawks’ season was bookended by celebrations. The first belonged to the Los Angeles Kings; the second was theirs, and happily shared with an entire city.
A Wrigleyville block party half a mile long was only one of Chicago’s spoils with a bigger parade coming later this week and plenty more intimate moments shared between fans and families whose loyalties are measured in generations rather than bar tabs.
Just seven months ago, the NHL’s season was in jeopardy. The Blackhawks were scattered around the world: Patrick Kane and his mother were in Biel, Switzerland; Johnny Oduya was skating in Thailand; Nick Leddy was in Rockford. But Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr settled their differences and an 11th hour deal was struck to avert the league’s second lost season in a decade.
There was little of the same bitterness that greeted hockey’s return after the missed season of 2004-05. The Blackhawks, particularly, seemed buoyed by the time apart from their fans. Their season ticket waiting list grew during the lockout and when the team returned to the United Center, diehards lined the parking lot to greet them.
On opening night, the Blackhawks watched the Kings raise a championship banner, then delivered a 5-2 win. It was the beginning of a record 24-game points streak to start the season.
In game No. 16, Marian Hossa, who was off the ice for seven months because of a cheap shot from Raffi Torres during the first round of last year’s playoffs, was the recipient of another bone-shattering hit that left him again lying on the ice in need of medical care. This one was from Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks. Hossa, though, was back three days later.
The Blackhawks also bade farewell to a long-time division rivalry with a regular season sweep of the Detroit Red Wings, highlighted by a 7-1 pasting on a Sunday afternoon in March. They would hear again from Henrik Zetterberg and company.
Ray Emery conveniently strained his groin in the lead-up to the playoffs after a 17-1 regular season, offering Corey Crawford a measure of breathing room as the No. 1 goaltender. Indeed, it was a charmed season until, of course, it almost wasn’t. The Red Wings pushed the Blackhawks to the brink of elimination and then overtime in Game 7, before succumbing to the Stanley Cup champions.
My favorite moment of the postseason came during an off-day between Games 4 and 5 of the Cup final, when the Blackhawks met the media at United Center. Jonathan Toews, famously nicknamed Captain Serious, had been mired in a postseason scoring drought with only a single goal in 20 games. A pep talk from Brent Seabrook followed by a tip in goal during Game 4’s 6-5 overtime win had replaced the somewhat dreary scowl he had worn at times during the playoffs with a broad smile.
Toews then laid down the gauntlet with the nip-and-tuck series even at two games, telling the Bruins and Zdeno Chara that the kid gloves were coming off. The play over the next two games backed up the tough talk.
In the end, the Blackhawks played 71 games during this abbreviated season that didn’t feel all that short. Forty-seven of them came either in the postseason or during the record-setting point streak. As the injury news trickles out from a riveting Cup final, between Hossa’s nerve trouble that caused numbness down his leg and Patrice Bergeron’s separated shoulder and broken rib, our appreciation will no doubt grow.
Was this better than 2010? As with most championship runs, it was both different and the same. The bandwagon was bigger, the drama perhaps a bit heightened, but so many of the faces familiar.
A friend in Sweden sent me an email after Game 5 saying he had seen a segment on the news about a farmer in Niklas Hjalmarsson’s hometown of Russnas, Sweden. Russnas has a population of about 90 people and 5,000 cows and, my friend said, the farmer had painted one of his cows in Blackhawks colors, black and red.
It’s not quite Wrigleyville, but who cares?
Ben is a contributing writer to The New York Times covering sports in Chicago and around the Midwest. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago magazine. Ben grew up on the North Side of Chicago and graduated from Ithaca College, where he majored in journalism and politics. You can follow him on Twitter@BenStrauss. You can read more of his work here.