If one event endures from the Blackhawks' miserable 1999-2000
season, it's the gruesome fight on March 3 between Chicago
enforcer Ryan VandenBussche and Lightning tough guy Kyle
Freadrich. In a furious exchange of punches that then Blackhawks
assistant Lorne Molleken glowingly called "probably the best
fight I've seen in hockey," VandenBussche sent a couple of
Freadrich's teeth flying out of his mouth. Blood gushed so
profusely from both players' faces that children in the crowd
burst into tears.
Beginning with last year's preseason, when the Blackhawks were
widely criticized for sending too many thugs onto the ice, two
things held true about playing Chicago: 1) You had a good chance
of winning, and 2) You had a good chance of getting the pulp
beaten out of you. All told, the Blackhawks, who were 33-39-10-2,
amassed the second-most penalty minutes in the NHL and employed
more big-footed bouncer-types than the VIP room at the China
Enter first-year coach Alpo Suhonen, who spent the last two
seasons in Toronto, where few aside from forward Tie Domi did any
roughhousing and where Suhonen implemented the high-energy
offense the Maple Leafs thrive on. The arrival of the erstwhile
Finnish theater director (Suhonen produced and directed Cat on a
Hot Tin Roof among other plays for the Turku Theatre Company)
signals the start of a welcome new era for the Blackhawks, who
have missed the playoffs three years running. Suhonen directs his
players to keep moving and attack the puck at all times, and he
encourages improvising as a play unfolds. "It's dynamic hockey,"
Suhonen says. "You create a hole and then fill the hole."
Skilled players such as underrated right wing Tony Amonte (his 87
goals over the past two seasons are the most in the NHL), centers
Alexei Zhamnov and Steve Sullivan, and defenseman Boris Mironov
should get a boost from their new freedom. "There's so much
flow," says Sullivan of the team's practices under Suhonen.
Much of the team, though, isn't suited to Suhonen's style of
hockey, and until new general manager Mike Smith can assemble
more talent to replace the ruffians, Chicago will not be a
playoff team. For the moment, it will be progress enough just to
keep young Blackhawks fans from going home in tears.
Right wing Tony Amonte, who has played in 246 consecutive games,
is the league's current iron man.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 14 Solid group; Zhamnov needs to fulfill
DEFENSE 25 Inconsistent unit is short on talent
GOALTENDING 27 Thibault allows far too many soft goals
SPECIAL TEAMS 17 If Mironov comes through, PP could be
MANAGEMENT 20 Smith has plan and guts to carry it out