By Allan Muir
Say this about the Chicago Blackhawks and their record-smashing streak: they couldn't have timed it any better.
Coming on the heels of a bitter labor war that turned the NHL into a punchline and almost wiped out the season, this remarkable stretch has been an ongoing public relations gift to the league. It's like a Russian matryoshka doll in reverse, as each win opens up to reveal the potential for an even bigger one.
The Hawks have brought playoff-caliber hockey to February and March, with every game offering the sweaty-palmed, remote-throwing, superstition-observing, exhilarating experience of postseason play. We haven't seen anything like it during a regular season in more than 30 years and it's been absolutely fantastic.
Just like the budding rivalry between rookie sensations Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin that unfolded after the previous lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, this drama was exactly what the league needed to rebuild its image.
But the NHL wouldn't be getting half the bang if not for the NBA's Miami Heat.
It sucks to write that. There's nothing hockey fans hate more than dealing with the second-tier status of our game on the American sporting scene. Especially in a situation like this.
What the Hawks have accomplished on this run beggars comprehension. They've gone 24 games, fully half of this abbreviated season, without a regulation or overtime loss. Corey Crawford, the man who was almost single-handedly responsible for Chicago's first-round playoff ouster last spring, has transformed himself into an elite stopper and a viable Olympic candidate. Thirteen different players have scored game-winning goals, including fourth-line agitator Dan Carcillo in Wednesday's pulse-pounding 3-2 victory over the Avs. The Hawks have trailed just four times heading into the third period and have won three of those games in regulation. They lead the league in goals-against, takeaways, and thrills generated.
Truly remarkable stuff. And certainly worthy of national attention.
But as easy as it is for us recognize the weight of those achievements, it's only the context provided by the Heat and their own 16-game winning streak that has allowed the Blackhawks story to move to the top of the national sportscasts and into mainstream discussion.
Say what you want about Stephen A. Smith's condescending remarks, but they got people talking about the Hawks. The Dan Patrick Show spent time comparing and contrasting the two streaks. ESPN's SportCenter has done the same.
Wayne Gretzky went on the radio and offered to debate Michael Jordan over which run was more impressive.
"People are saying, 'Okay, who is the better team right now and who has the hottest streak? The Heat or the Chicago Blackhawks?'" Gretzky said on the Waddle and Silvy Show. "That only enhances our sport and makes it bigger and better."
Even Heat star LeBron James has helped the cause with tweets ("Hey Chicago Blackhawks U guys are AWESOME") and interviews in which he declares his admiration for what the team has accomplished.
"Their [streak] is more impressive than ours," James told WGN yesterday. "They're doing theirs without a training camp. They just had to go out there and do it."
That kind of praise puts the Hawks' streak into perspective for a larger audience. The importance of that can't be overstated.
"That shows they're getting some recognition around the sports world when you have King James talking about them," Bruins winger Milan Lucic told The Toronto Sun.
Of course, the irascible Brian Burke has a different take. He doesn't see the value in comparing the two.
"This is like looking up and seeing two Halley's Comets," he told USA Today. "It annoys me that people have to turn this into a debate about which streak is better. Just enjoy, because you are seeing something you won't see again."
Fair point, but Burke's missing the bigger picture. It doesn't matter which streak is better. For a sport that can only benefit from more attention, it's the debate itself that makes this a win.