About two weeks after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 I was loitering around the office at my old newspaper in McAllen, Texas. Considering the timeframe and whom I was talking with—a fellow Chicagoan and Bulls fan—we were probably fantasizing about LeBron James and Dwyane Wade joining Derrick Rose in Chicago, though my sports mind was truly still on the Hawks.
A co-worker, not the least bit bothered by my lack of productivity, came from the mailroom and threw me a light package. Inside was the Blackhawks Stanley Cup championship hat I ordered.
It was finally in my hands. The hat that I had waited my entire life to put on was in my grasp. Though I was “working,” I was going to wear that hat all day, so I put it on in the middle of the newsroom.
This was supposed to be a moment of happiness, a moment of reflection and joy.
Nope. Instead, it was pure relief. Though I was 1,500 miles away at the time, every 2010 playoff game was torture. Remember, everybody knew 2010 was the last dance for that team. The title window was closing, and win or lose, much of the team was headed out the door. There would be no second chances for the Byfugliens, Versteegs, Ladds and Sopels. The guillotine of the salary cap was poised above that team’s neck, waiting to chop away any future hope for a Cup. I watched every playoff game with a now-or-never feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. It was draining, and made what should have been the ultimate payoff for a Blackhawks fan exhausting.
But in 2013, that blade is nowhere to be found.
The argument will be made that the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Blackhawks are under the most pressure of any NHL team. They are, after all, the team that saved hockey, and the one that started the season with a record 24-game point streak.
And it’s true, all of that would make an early playoff exit a disappointment. The fans would certainly feel that way, the players and management as well. So would I. I want to celebrate a Stanley Cup in Chicago, not 1,500 miles away in deep South Texas where I sat alone in a crappy sports bar wearing a Blackhawks jersey.
But that stinging feeling would fade. This team, Cup or not, is built to last.
As Tab Bamford wrote for us during The Streak, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has done a terrific job rebuilding the roster. Unlike Dale Tallon, who spent like a drunk 19-year-old at college trying to impress a random woman, Bowman has understood the limits of the salary cap. He has the core locked up and has pieced together a group of solid complements.
Chicago has a young core in place that has shown the ability to play with—and beat—the best teams in the league. And now, thanks to Bowman’s hard work, they have a pipeline of talented youngsters moving toward the United Center with the financial flexibility to retain the team’s superstar nucleus.
Okay, Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell and Ray Emery will probably be gone next season, but I’m not losing sleep over those three. (Though I’m sure many in Chicago will miss Stalberg’s dreamy face.) And when they do go, Bowman and the Blackhawks will have replacements ready.
Unlike in 2010, the Blackhawks’ future is bright.
That should make these playoffs more enjoyable. I won’t be watching every game afraid it could lead to an early exit, which would mean the chances for a Cup in the near future are gone.
I remember the playoff opener in 2010 when Antti Niemi was handcuffed by a bouncing puck and the Blackhawks lost to Nashville. My brain concocted the following chain of events: Niemi pulled for Cristobal Huet, Huet gets rocked, Blackhawks get swept, the gates of Hell swing wide open.
Will I overreact if the Blackhawks lose tonight to Minnesota? Probably. How will I feel if they somehow lose to the Wild? Terrible. How will I take it if the Canucks knock out the Hawks? Don’t ask.
But this spring, those feelings won’t last that long. I know these Hawks will be back again.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be here for a long time, and complementary pieces like Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya won’t be traded away to get under the cap.
This season is just the start for this group. And that might make this spring more fun. Putting on that championship cap might feel even better.