No embellishment, no crap. In the often-baffling nomenclature of hockey, that’s about as high as praise goes at the NHL level.
Curiously, this salute to the Chicago Blackhawks comes from Claude Julien, head coach of the Boston Bruins, the team that lost to the Hawks in the Stanley Cup finals barely nine months ago. No bitterness there, it turns out.
“They play the game the right way,” Julien told reporters in Boston on Thursday. “There’s no embellishment, there’s no crap, there’s none of that stuff.”
If Julien had to choose but one word to sum up, he would go with “respect” – and that’s pretty much the way all of hockey feels about the Western Conference team that could clinch a playoff spot Friday night in Ottawa against the stumbling Senators.
It didn’t happen in Boston, as the Blackhawks, the highest-scoring team in the NHL, fell 3-0 to a soaring Bruins squad that took a point in its 14th successive game, 13 of them victories. Chicago has only been shut out three times this year, all three without Patrick Kane in the lineup. Kane is expected to miss the rest of the regular season but would be back for what could conceivably be a Stanley Cup final rematch between the Bruins and Blackhawks.
Another Stanley Cup win for Chicago would amount to the first back-to-back championships since the Detroit Red Wings managed it in 1997-98. If it were to happen, it would be Chicago’s third Stanley Cup since 2010 – which would pretty much amount to a dynasty. This wasn’t supposed to be possible in the era of salary cap and hyperparity, yet there is something good to be said for dynasties in any sport. As the New York Yankees have long proved, fans worship or despise with equal delight – and both team and sport benefit.
The Blackhawks story is fascinating in that the team rose from its own ashes. Up until its victory in 2010, the Original Six club had gone 49 years without a Cup. Under super-tight owner “Dollar” Bill Wirtz – who still believed in local television blackouts even when crowds were thinned to the bone in his rink – the Hawks missed the playoffs four seasons in a row up until his death in 2007. When the club played tribute to him during their home opener, fans handled the moment of silence by booing.
They missed again in 2008 but since then the team has sold out the rink and largely beat out the competition, thanks to visionary ownership – by, of all people, Wirtz’s son Rocky – smart management, capable coaching and good fortune with trades, signings and, most important, at the drafting table.
“They are the best team in the league,” says Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean, despite the St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks all being slightly ahead of Chicago in the Western Conference standing.
The Hawks signed the likes of Marian Hossa and traded for stars such as Patrick Sharp, their leading scorer, but for the most part they built from within. They picked up Duncan Keith with the 54th draft pick in 2002. They added goaltender Corey Crawford and defenceman Brent Seabrook in 2003. And then they got really lucky. In the 2006 draft, St. Louis took Erik Johnson first over all, Pittsburgh Penguins grabbed Jordan Staal and poor Chicago was left to make do with a college kid out of Winnipeg, Jonathan Toews. The following year, drafting first, they took a little kid from Buffalo who looked about 12 years old, Kane. Now 25, he looks almost 13.
“Our top guys, they come to play every night,” head coach Joel Quenneville said before the Ottawa match. “I don’t think they’re looking for shortcuts. They want to be the best they can night in and night out.”
At the recent Sochi Winter Olympics, the two best forwards in the tournament were Toews, for Canada, and Kane, for the United States – a third would be Finland’s Teemu Selanne and a fourth would be Russia’s uncoachable, unpredictable, insanely skilled Alexander Radulov – and Keith was absolutely brilliant on defence for Canada.
This week’s late-in-the-season matches were good opportunities for Chicago’s likely trophy candidates. Toews, likely a Selke Trophy finalist, went up against Boston’s Patrice Bergeron – Bergeron responding by scoring two of Boston’s three goals in the shutout. And Keith, the frontrunner for the Norris Trophy, met Ottawa’s former Norris winner Erik Karlsson, who is also the league’s leading scorer among defence.
MacLean, perhaps surprisingly, would give the nod to Keith for his “skating ability and his instincts for the game.” While both Keith and Karlsson are elite skaters, MacLean added, “Duncan Keith has the advantage of experience.” And two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. What sort of hockey world is it when such praise comes from opposing coaches? “Sometimes,” added Boston coach Julien, “when teams play the right way they end up respecting each other.
“They were the better team and won,” Julien says of last year’s Cup final. “And I don’t think there is any reason for us to sit here and say they stole it, or it wasn’t fair, or it was bad refereeing or anything like that. “The best team in that series won it.”
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