The Stanley Cup belongs to the Blackhawks at long last. Finances may prevent a repeat, but that's a worry for another day
Every time the Blackhawks would score, the telephone would ring. His son was calling from Wilmette. Now his son from Highland Park was on the line. Abe Matthew was watching the 42-inch flat screen in his suburban den with his wife of 63 years, Nettie, his high school sweetheart whom he used to take to Chicago Stadium during the war ("Second balcony, the only seats we could afford"), and the phone was jangling, goalie Antti Niemi was kicking out pucks, defenseman Duncan Keith was motoring, winger Patrick Kane was whirling, and Matthew found himself doing something he hadn't done in 50 years.
He was biting his nails.
He has been a season-ticket holder since 1951. He remembers Chicago's 1961 Stanley Cup team, of course, and rattles off names—Hull, Mikita, Pilote, Hall, captain Eddie Litzenberger—as if they were old friends, which, in a way, they were. He sat through the darkness but rarely did it alone. When the boys were young, before they had their own families, they also came to the games. As sure as Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had a plan to shut down the Flyers' top line, Matthew had one of his own. He reasoned if his boys shared his love of the Hawks, a sturdy connective thread would forever be woven through his family.
June 20, 2010
See, the Blackhawks were not merely his team. They were part of his legacy.
Then shortly after 10 p.m. CDT on June 9, Kane scored the Game 6 overtime goal in Philadelphia. Hallelujah. Halley's Comet comes around once every 76 years. This Cup arrived in roughly two-thirds the time, although you wouldn't want to set your calendar by it. The goal judge and referees couldn't see the puck—Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who displayed a keen interest in pucks during the series, would have had to organize a search party to locate it beneath the padding on the base of the net—but when Kane flung his gloves skyward in ecstasy, Matthew demanded no confirmation that the 49-year wait was over: "One of the most thrilling moments of my life."
Then he did precisely what all 83-year-olds should do at 10:30 p.m., after their team wins a championship. He drove to a sporting goods store and bought a Blackhawks flag for his car, banners for his office—he still works daily at his automotive-accessories company—and Stanley Cup championship T-shirts for his sons and seven grandchildren.
The team had always been a family gift, only now it was officially licensed.
About the time Matthew was in the checkout line, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz was fielding questions near center ice at the Wachovia Center as a party swirled around him. Wirtz, a lumpy man, is gracious and approachable but hardly casual. He wears white button-down dress shirts with ties tugged right to the collar, including during a Cup parade on a day when Chicago was a sauna. He does not look like a man of the people but, given the cries of "Thank you, Rocky," might be the most popular owner in North American sports, living proof that one man really can change history.
Rocky was the right Wirtz.
His father, Bill, the NHL colossus who constructed the Blackhawks but left them as hollow as Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, died in September 2007. Rocky, who worked in the family liquor business, took control of the team instead of his brother, Peter, who had been a Hawks vice president. Dramatic reversals occur in the sports entertainment field all the time, but generally they involve a pro wrestler removing a foreign object from his tights and using it to bop an opponent over the head. The Hawks' turnaround was legit. Within two months of his father's death on Sept. 26, 2007, when the season-ticket base had shrunk to a skeletal 3,400 in the wake of four straight losing seasons, Rocky hired John McDonough away from the Cubs to be the Hawks' president. Thirty-one months later Chicago, with 102 straight sellouts, is the epicenter of hockey. Said Wirtz, "I didn't know if we could bring it back." The team was riven from fans, the renowned ex-Hawks players, the corporate community and the city, but the Blackhawks spackled over every crack and metamorphosed from irrelevant to incandescent.
"A lot of our fans, they gave us a chance when maybe we didn't deserve it," McDonough would say the next day in the team offices. "A lot of them came back. Not only did they come back, the generation that had followed Bobby [Hull] and Stan [Mikita] came back and brought their families with them. It was funny listening to the theme from Rocky [when the Flyers burst onto home ice for the start of Game 6]. Three years ago we were the million-to-one underdog.... We were the team that came off the canvas."
As Abe Matthew tossed and turned with excitement, the Blackhawks charter left for Chicago around three o'clock last Thursday morning. Kris Versteeg commandeered the airplane's intercom system and began rapping, an act the winger would reprise for two million of his best friends at the civic rally last Friday. Dustin Byfuglien, who reemerged as a force in the last two games of the finals with three goals and two assists, patrolled the aisle, videotaping bedlam at 30,000-plus feet.
Jay Blunk, the Blackhawks' senior vice president of business operations, was taking it all in when he fixed on one passenger who had not joined in the midair revelry. "So I look over and see Scotty [Bowman], sitting quietly, reviewing the game sheet," says Blunk. "As if he were about to coach another period."
Bowman, the club's senior adviser for hockey operations, certainly had reason to celebrate—his son Stan, 36, had just become the youngest NHL G.M. to win a Cup. When Blunk wandered by to ask what he was doing, Scotty commenced rambling about ice times and line combinations, reconstructing 64 minutes and six seconds of a vibrant Game 6 from a two-sided, 8½-by-11 sheet of paper. Bowman has won a record nine Cups as a coach. With the 4--3 overtime win over the Flyers he now has three more as an executive. Like Byfuglien's video camera, winning just seems to follow. Maybe you understand why.
"Scotty," said Blunk, interrupting the monologue, "I'm going to get a beer."
On Friday 10 red double-decker buses massed outside gate 7 of the United Center. The last parade bus clearly had pride of place. Wirtz sat midway on the left side of the top tier. Mayor Richard M. Daley, wearing a red Blackhawks polo, was two rows ahead. Jonathan Toews, the 22-year-old captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, was at the back with Kane. McDonough and Stan Bowman were among those in the front. The bus was crammed with the Stanley Cup, family, friends, Hockey Hall of Fame officials and basically everybody except Ferris Bueller. As the bus idled, Kane took a mid-morning pull on a bottle of champagne, a mimosa without orange juice. The Taittinger's was a gift from actor Vince Vaughn, who had sent a bottle to every Hawks player with an accompanying note. As Kane walked to the rear of the bus—the parade would start late, in part, because he had to field a call from President Obama—Wirtz tapped him on the shoulder.
"You're drinking the right champagne," he said. "We sell it."
As the caravan progressed toward downtown on the steamy, 86° day, the crowd stood five, then 10, now 50 people deep. It wasn't the heat, of course; it was the humanity. This might have been the largest celebratory gathering in Chicago history, a quarter of a million more than the throng that feted the White Sox' 2005 World Series victory. The cacophony was overpowering, a roar restored, but the timbre was different than the sound of an NHL arena. Inside a rink the rumble is a baritone, throaty. As the buses made the left turn onto Michigan Avenue, the noise was at a higher pitch, screams as much as cheers. Obviously school was out for summer. Pressed along the barricades on the street were squadrons of teenage girls, squealing their fealty to Toews and Kane.
This was not a Stanley Cup parade. This was John, Paul, George and Ringo disembarking at JFK in 1964.
Abe Matthew didn't go because he dislikes crowds but gave several employees paid time-off to attend.
A fireworks display over the Chicago River and Chelsea Dagger, that burrow-into-your-brain-and-lay-larvae song that accompanies every Blackhawks goal, concluded the rally. The bouncy do-do-da-doo tune was written and recorded by an alternative Scottish band, The Fratellis, which, according to its website, split up indefinitely in April. These things happen, in rock and in hockey, although The Fratellis had no apparent salary-cap issues.
The Blackhawks do. With only 14 players signed and the team already nuzzled up against a cap that is expected to be $58.8 million next season, Chicago surely will have to excise one significant piece of the current group, maybe more. The quickest path to salvation could involve burying backup goalie Cristobal Huet in the minors, which would still cost the team his $5.63 million paycheck but relieve it of the cap hit. Even without that millstone contract, Chicago might be obliged to trade one of its top-nine forwards, possibly the versatile and gifted Patrick Sharp, Versteeg or Byfuglien, who ramped up his value in the playoffs. (The problem was exacerbated by Toews' $1.3 million bonus for winning the Conn Smythe, an amount that counts against the cap in 2010--11. Said a half-smiling Stan Bowman, "I would have been happy if someone else had won it, to be honest.") Throughout the playoffs the fiscal implications of some bad contracts and newfound success hung over a team that appreciated that this, despite an exceptional core of young talent, might be its best if not only shot.
"You like to have this moment frozen in time," McDonough said. "You never want anybody to age. You always want to be Stanley Cup champions. And you don't want anybody to leave. It's kinda like a family. Certainly that's on our mind, but we're going to do the best we can."
The fun-with-numbers corner of life will consume the Hawks in the next few months, but looking ahead is never as rewarding as peering out through a shower of red, black and white confetti. In Chicago this is what matters: 2010 will never be about decimal points as much as the restorative power of a 35-pound silver trophy that is capable of turning men into nail-biting boys.
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"Three years ago, we were the million-to-one underdog," says McDonough. "[We] came off the canvas."
In Chicago, 2010 will never be about money as much as the restorative power of a 35-pound silver trophy.