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Chicago Blackhawks players, from left, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. (Frederick Breedon)
Chicago Blackhawks players, from left, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. (Frederick Breedon)

Roy MacGregor

The Curse of Muldoon darkens Hawks' door again Add to ...

They're talking about Muldoon again.

It had to happen. The Chicago Blackhawks vaulted into first-place overall the other day, courtesy of what many are calling the greatest game played this season in the NHL - a 4-3 shootout victory last Sunday against the mighty Detroit Red Wings - and it's only natural that the curse would begin rearing its ugly, and silly, head once again.

The story begins back in the spring of 1927 - the very spring Chicago's feisty and surprising opponents last night, the Ottawa Senators, won their last Stanley Cup - and it has to do with the Blackhawks, only in their first season, stumbling in the playoffs and the owner responding by giving head coach Pete Muldoon the boot.

Coaches get fired all the time in hockey, but usually the cursing is done by a foul mouth, not a fouled coach deciding to put a hex on the team he was supposed to lead to victory. The Chicago Blackhawks will never finish first, Muldoon apparently said over various crossed animal bones and burning candles - and for decades people believed it.

Some surely thought about it again last evening as the Senators stunned the first-place Blackhawks 4-1, making it possible for the San Jose Sharks to reclaim first if they won their late night match against the Los Angeles Kings.

The Curse of Muldoon, it is believed, became the first widely publicized evil eye cast upon a major sports team - no matter that it was so much hocus-pocus itself that it had been invented by The Globe and Mail's Jim Coleman on a slow news day.

The Blackhawks last won a Stanley Cup in 1961, the longest fallow period of any team in the NHL, and some have come to believe that, for all intents and purposes, Coleman's made-up curse is still making mischief.

In fact, the once-mighty team that boasted Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull had fallen on such awful times in recent years that, prior to last season's resurgence, Chicago hadn't even made the playoffs for five years running.

But last year, with players so young they had to produce I.D. to purchase energy drinks, something began to happen. Bad years had produced good drafts - captain Jonathan Toews in 2006, peach-fuzzed superstar Patrick Kane in 2007, the Canadian Olympic team's 2010 defence duo Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith in 2003 and 2002, respectively - and under a new coach, Joel Quenneville, it all began to come together again.

The hidebound franchise that Don Cherry used to say was his favourite team - "no Europeans and no face shields" - now had shields and Europeans and a young core of draft picks that seemed to becoming true all at the same time.

By the time the new Blackhawks left their weekend victory in Detroit and arrived in Ottawa, the swagger was undeniable. The players were louder than most visiting players; the dressing room was as crowded with media as if it were the playoffs; and the players were pestered to explain what it was that was so different with a team that was once so easily dismissed.

"We've got a different belief," Seabrook said before the Ottawa match. "We believe we can win every game, any game."

"Definitely more confident," Kane agreed.

"We have an attitude going into every game," added Toews, "that if we play hard, we play the right way, get a few bounces, we're going to win that game. We never go into a game thinking that we're not going to win. It's the attitude you have to have. We've been playing that way, and have seen a lot of great results."

Pivotal to this newfound confidence has been the goaltending, the very thing that the early critics claimed would serve the memory of Muldoon well before this season was over. The team, it was said by those who refused to believe, was too young, did not know how to win, and with the departure of Nikolai (The Bulin Wall) Khabibulin to the Edmonton Oilers, did not have the necessary goaltending in Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi.

So much for the experts. Niemi, a Finn, and Huet, from France, lead the league in goaltending statistics, though Huet was unable to stop a determined Ottawa effort as Zack Smith, Ryan Shannon, Peter Regin and Mike Fisher all scored last night, while only Marian Hossa could beat Ottawa netminder Brian Elliott.

Even so, the players believe. "Whoever is in there," said Kane, "we feel confident with them."

"At the start," conceded coach Quenneville, "they were probably ordinary - but they've both been good."

They, like the rest of the team, have been far better than merely "good," and it has had its affect as the season now heads into what is commonly called the stretch. Teams, conceded Quenneville, are now "ready for us," as Ottawa certainly was this night. Youth has lost its element of surprise.

The Chicago Blackhawks, once subject to so much ridicule, are now subject to so much scrutiny - every team they meet in search of that one flaw that would prevent them from becoming just another victim to the young speedsters from Chicago.

"We knew it would be a challenge," Quenneville said.

"But," added Toews, "we're going to keep getting better. It's a long road, but I think we're going down the right trail."

Even if, every once in a while, that trail takes them past Pete Muldoon and Jim Coleman.

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