Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Our Cup Runneth Over

The 2010 Stanley Cup Finals will open this Saturday in Chicago. The match up between the Flyers and Blackhawks does not lack for intrigue and promises to be an entertaining series for hockey fans for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s nice to have a Final with a couple of traditional NHL teams and not have one of them be the Detroit Red Wings. While the last couple of Finals with the Wings and Pens have been fun to watch, I think most hockey fans outside of Michigan have grown tired of seeing Detroit on the big stage. And as much I like watching Crosby and Malkin, I'm more than happy to see some new faces in the Finals.

Especially when both teams have a rich hockey history. No Hurricanes, Lightning, Panthers, or Mighty frickin' Ducks this year. It's the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. Old-time hockey, like when we got started, you know? Jeez. Toe Blake, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore…

And they both come in on a roll. The Blackhawks have won six in a row and the Flyers have won eight out their last nine. What's that old cliche? Oh yeah, something has definitely got to give.

Both teams also have great stories about how they got here. The Flyers did the impossible in the second round, overcoming a 3-0 series deficit AND a 3-0 goal deficit in Game Seven to stun the Bruins. They should have been playing golf two weeks ago. Instead, they're playing for the Stanley Cup. The Hawks meanwhile have pulled off one of the most impressive team turnarounds of late. From 1998 until 2008, they made the playoffs just once. In February 2004, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in professional sports . But after owner Bill Wirtz died in September, 2007 and his son Rocky took over, things began to change. The Hawks added talented young players through the draft and supplemented them with key free agents. They reached out to their fans and got the Windy City interested in hockey again. Most of all, they put a better product on the ice, reaching the Western Conference Finals last year and this year the Stanley Cup Finals. They provide hope to destitute sports franchises everywhere (yes, even our local basketball squad) and are a tough team not to like.

Which brings me to my final point. Sorry North Star fans, but these are not the Blackhawks of the early to mid-Eighties. That rivalry, as bitter and beautiful as it was, died the day the North Stars left town. Had the NHL done the smart thing and put the Wild back into a new version of the old Norris Division with the Hawks, Wings, and Blues, perhaps it could have been rekindled. But those waiting for wisdom from the NHL powers that be should have learned long to lower their expectations. The closest thing the Wild have to a divisional rivalry today is with the Vancouver Canucks and even that is pretty weak beer. It's nothing like the glory days of "Secord Sucks!" and Dino flipping off Hawks fans as he left the ice. These days, most Wild fans are far too demur and it's difficult to imagine that Northwest Division battles with Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Colorado will ever stir the sort of passions that a good North Stars-Blackhawks brouhaha did back in the day.

But that's no reason to hate on the Hawks of today. They're an exciting and entertaining team who play a style of hockey that's both enjoyable to watch and pretty dang effective. After years of being put to sleep by the trapping, left-wing locking Wild teams of Jacques Lemaire, the Blackhawks are just the tonic for disappointed Wild fans. They're the team the Wild could have been. They're the team the Wild perhaps should have been. And they're the team that will be hoisting the greatest trophy in all of sport, Lord Stanley's Cup.

Well, as long the omen of Marian Hossa doesn't back to haunt them. Being on the losing end in the Finals two years in a row on different teams is a coincidence. Having it happen to you three straight years is a curse.