Friday, January 02, 2009

Yes, Blackhawks Are Still In The NHL -- And They're Not Going Away Anytime Soon

It was a classic sports line, often imitated but never duplicated.

The utterer was New York Giants manager Bill Terry, and he was speaking of the teams who might challenge his club for supremacy in 1934. Terry listed a few teams, none of which were the Brooklyn Dodgers. A reporter asked him if he feared the Dodgers.

"I was just wondering, whether the Dodgers were still in the league?," Terry said to chuckles.

I'll imitate the line, yet again, right here.

"Are the Blackhawks still in the NHL?"

Yes, they are. It's finally been confirmed.

The Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks haven't played each other in a playoff series since 1995, when Detroit edged past them in five games, on the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Game 5 was a thriller, an overtime heart-stopper at Joe Louis Arena. Slava Kozlov's goal catapulted the Wings into the Finals, where they would be swept in that infamous series with the New Jersey Devils.

The Blackhawks haven't won the Cup since 1961. It's now the longest Cup-less streak in the league -- 47 years and counting. Remember, the Wings' streak was "only" 42 years when they finally broke it in 1997.

So it was fitting that Bobby Hull -- and Ted Lindsay -- were on hand to drop the ceremonial first puck yesterday at Wrigley Field, prior to the NHL's Winter Classic. The two of them represent hockey of that early-1960s era, Chicago-Detroit style, and Teddy represents both. Lindsay and Hull were actually teammates for several years after Jack Adams traded Lindsay to Chicago in 1957. But Lindsay retired (for the first time) in 1960, missing out on the '61 Cup.

Also fitting is that today's Blackhawks are competitive again, just in time for this year's winter showcase game. They're still in the league -- big time.

Chicago and the NHL have been strangers lately. Oh, the Blackhawks have been in the league, but in the same manner that the Lions have been in the NFL. Not even their presence in the Red Wings' division has sparked any juice, because until last year, the Blackhawks were no match for their midwestern rivals.

It's not a real rivalry if one of the teams keeps kicking the snot out of the other.

Last season, the Blackhawks won the first four Detroit-Chicago matchups, and it raised eyebrows and invited questions. Namely, why can't the Red Wings beat these guys, when they're handling everyone else with relative ease? In the second half of the season, the Red Wings began to figure the 'Hawks out, but the gauntlet had been dropped: these aren't your father's Chicago Blackhawks.

But they ARE trying to be your grandfather's Blackhawks.

Patrick Kane is one of the new leaders of Chicago NHL hockey

It'll be terrific if the Blackhawks, with their young and impressive talent, are, indeed, back in the league. The NHL needs as many Original Six teams to be successful as possible. For these are still the game's core fans, and they are spread all over the country -- Detroit's especially. And they, in turn, help others get interested in the NHL.

The Boston Bruins are doing their part. Don't look now, but they're the best team in the NHL, point-wise, thanks to a current 10-game winning streak. The New York Rangers are in first place. The Montreal Canadiens are second, behind the Bruins. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing below a .500 clip. So that's five of six Originals playing very good hockey. Commissioner Gary Bettman must be ecstatic. And he should be.

Strangely, the Red Wings and Blackhawks don't really have that much of a playoff history, in terms of anything beyond some first or second round series in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
The Final Four matchup in '95 was the first meaningful series between the clubs since the 1960s, when just qualifying for the playoffs meant you were automatically in the Final Four.

But that doesn't discount the importance that a healthy Blackhawks franchise holds for the league, and for the fans in Detroit. Think of it: an actual divisional opponent that you can get excited about! Much more compelling than anything the teams in Nashville, Columbus, and St. Louis can offer.

The Chicago Blackhawks are still in the NHL. It's just been confirmed, despite their 0-2 mark against the Red Wings this week, and 0-4 this season. It isn't a guaranteed two points anymore when you play Chicago; you have to bring your "A" game. In fact, you have to do that when you play all of the Original Sixes, save Toronto.

It's about time, eh?

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