Wednesday, September 15, 2010

They're Baaaaack! Red Wings-Blackhawks Again a Premier Rivalry

Some thoughts as the Red Wings get ready to start training camp...

They're separated by about 300 miles but they may as well be joined at the hip this hockey season, and for many more.

When it comes to the world of sports, the Detroiter and the Chicagoan don't have much use for each other. Much of the vitriol comes from the cities' teams always finding themselves in the same division.

In basketball, the Bulls and the Pistons have had some of the most infamous knock-down drag outs in NBA history. Same division.

In baseball, the Tigers and White Sox scramble to beat each other every year, even if it is for the right to finish second to the Minnesota Twins. Same division.

In football, Lions-Bears matchups date back to FDR, George Halas as a player, and leather helmets. Same division.

In hockey, the for-too-long dormant Red Wings-Blackhawks rivalry has been awoken, and it's got the countenance of John McEnroe on the wrong end of a linesman's call.

Same division, natch.

Back in the day, Red Wings-Blackhawks used to be Red Wings-Black Hawks. Then someone in the Chicago hockey organization, many years ago, decided to consolidate the team nickname to the one word "Blackhawks."

But it hardly mattered how you spelled it---the Chicago hockey franchise was barely relevant for most of the 2000s.

It was during this time when the Red Wings routinely beat the brains out of the Black Hawks/Blackhawks. They were in the same division but not in the same class.

The Red Wings started winning Stanley Cups once again in 1997---won four of them to date---while the Blackhawks were so bad off they even traded their favorite son, Chris Chelios, to Detroit in 1999.

I know hockey doesn't always get the love from the fans or the media, so allow me to remind you that the Blackhawks trading Chelios to the Red Wings was akin to the Red Sox throwing up their hands and dealing Carl Yastrzemski to the Yankees at the trading deadline.

Chelios went on to win two Cups wearing the blood red jersey of the Red Wings, while the Blackhawks struggled to find color photographs of the last team in their history to hoist hockey's silver chalice.

The Red Wings-Blackhawks rivalry was among the league's best, once upon a time.

Maybe it sprouted in the playoffs in the mid-1960s, when the Red Wings assigned a minimally-talented forward/defenseman named Bryan Watson with the task of shadowing Blackhawks' star left winger Bobby Hull.

Watson was in Hull's face, chest, hips, and likely jostled him for space at the urinal during that playoff series, won by the Red Wings---largely because Hull was severely limited by Watson's blanket coverage.

It was Hull himself who had a name for his shadow Watson.

"Super Pest," Hull called Watson.

"Bugsy," Gordie Howe and Andy Bathgate of the Red Wings called their teammate, and that nickname stuck.

The rivalry went into hibernation in the 1970s---mainly because the Red Wings were the bad team---but was reborn in the 1980s, when the two teams met in the playoffs in 1985, '87, and '89. The Blackhawks won two of the three series.

They played each other twice in the playoffs in the 1990s---the Blackhawks winning in 1992, and the Red Wings winning in the Conference Finals in 1995.

Shortly thereafter, the Blackhawks went into the tank, while the Red Wings became a mini-dynasty.

They had gone 14 years without seeing each other in the post-season until the 2009 Conference Finals, won by the Red Wings. It was a series in which the young Blackhawks, many of whom had never experienced the NHL playoffs before, were schooled on post-season hockey by their elder statesmen opponents.

In 2010, their lesson learned, the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Welcome to The Rivalry---Part III.

We started with Bugsy Watson draped over Bobby Hull. Now we have young, exciting forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and company as defending champs, going up against the older, still proud, still-damn-good Red Wings.

As if Detroit and Chicago sports fans didn't have enough reasons to hate each other.

This is going to be a doozy for the NHL for years to come. Rumors of the Red Wings' death have been greatly exaggerated.

Thanks to a second round KO last spring, the Red Wings have had much more time off than they're used to getting. It got so weird that superstar center Henrik Zetterberg got married to a beautiful Swedish TV personality, and was STILL hunkering to get back to Detroit to get into hockey mode.

The Red Wings are rested, re-energized, and deeper than they were last year. They've added veteran center Mike Modano, veteran defenseman Ruslan Salei, and have welcomed back forward Jiri Hudler after one year playing in Russia.

The rookie goalie Jimmy Howard is now simply goalie Jimmy Howard, a playoff series win under his belt.

No one is injured (yet). All-World defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom not only is back for another kick at the can at age 40, he's another who enjoyed his long summer and who can't wait to get started.

The Blackhawks lost some key personnel from their Cup-winning outfit, but turnover is inevitable in today's salary cap world. Make no mistake---they're still a very good team.

Marty Turco is the new Blackhawks goalie, and you could do worse than to plug him in.

It almost makes you long for the days when the Central Division teams played each other eight times a season.

But we'll have to be satisfied with six, which promise to be six of the most raucous, cantankerous, thrilling regular season games in the NHL---this season and beyond.

Red Wings-Blackhawks is back as a legitimate NHL rivalry.

The War of I-94.

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