With his team up 2--1 against the Wild early in the first period on March 5, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman remained silent as the tension built around him. On his left, in a suite overlooking center ice, was Norm Maciver, his assistant G.M., who said to himself, "C'mon boys, their D is gassed." On Bowman's right was Al MacIsaac, a club vice president, who shouted, "Open, right there! Right there!" Around them, a crowd of 21,836 filled the United Center to the rafters, oblivious to the 10-inch snowstorm that was blanketing Chicago. As his team swarmed the Minnesota zone, Bowman reflexively uttered a single syllable. "Bick," he said softly. With that, bruising third-line winger Bryan Bickell swooped into an open lane to the left of the net and wristed the puck past goalie Niklas Backstrom. One syllable; one goal. Bowman gets bang for his Bick. "It's a different guy for us every time," he said after the period ended with his team leading 4--1. "New story, same result. Not bad."
This is an article from the March 18, 2013 issue
Bowman was underselling. The Blackhawks have become a model of rotating heroes and a beacon of organizational renewal following the breakup of their 2010 Stanley Cup--winning roster. More than that, they are the best team, and the best story, in sports, forging an implausible and historic start that is a boon for a league battered by its third lockout in two decades. Since the 48-game season began on Jan. 19, NHL arenas had been filled to 96.7% capacity through Sunday—including 109.4% in Chicago, where the sellout streak has reached 203 games.
Seconds after the Blackhawks' eventual 5--3 win over the Wild ran their record to 20-0-3—the best start previously was 12-0-4 by the Ducks in 2006--07—a fan raised a sign: #23 ISN'T JUST ABOUT MICHAEL ANYMORE. In the building that sports a bronzed statue of a soaring Michael Jordan outside its employee entrance, the Blackhawks no longer seem like a secondary tenant. Indeed, their bandwagon has become a convoy. Paul Konerko, the first baseman for the White Sox team that went 11--1 in the 2005 postseason, says, "What [the Blackhawks] are doing is more difficult [than what we did] because when you're in the regular season it's easy to have a bad one here or there." In an interview with CSN Chicago, former Bulls forward Toni Kukoc compared the Blackhawks with the city's 1995--96 NBA champions, who won a record 72 games. "Both [teams] are a perfect match of experience, leadership, right attitude and chemistry," he said.
"The Miami Heat can win 15, 16 games in a row," says Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks' star right wing and an avowed fan of LeBron James, "but how many teams can really win an NBA title? Three? Four? I mean, the Kings won the Cup as an eight seed last year. In our league, if the 30th team beats the first team one night, it's not such a big deal. No game is a gimme." (After Chicago ran its record to 21-0-3 with a come-from-behind 3--2 victory over the Avalanche on March 6, King James himself took to Twitter to say, "Hey Chicago Blackhawks, u guys are AWESOME!! #streaking.")
Chicago lost for the first time last Friday, falling 6--2 in Colorado. The salary-cap-induced parity that prevails in professional sports these days is intended to stifle such streaks of excellence. Nevertheless, including a six-game run at the end of last season (3-0-3), the Blackhawks earned at least one point—i.e., did not lose a regular-season game in regulation—in 30 straight matches, second only to the 1979--80 Flyers, who went 25-0-10 from Oct. 14 to Jan. 6. At 21-2-3 after a 6--5 loss to the Oilers on Sunday, Chicago has earned 45 points in 26 games, six points clear of Anaheim.
Scoring alternately with flair and brute force, the Blackhawks have earned nine of their 11 wins on home ice by a single goal. "It's the most remarkable thing I've seen," says Stan Bowman's 79-year-old father, Scotty, a team senior adviser and the coach of nine Cup winners, including the 1978--79 Canadiens, whose 28-game point streak is the NHL's third longest. "Our teams in Montreal were powerhouse teams. We only lost eight games [in '76--77]. We only won two games of those 28 by one goal, so we didn't have the sweats [that the Blackhawks] do."
This streak was especially unlikely because of the compressed schedule, which figured to wear down teams and induce off nights. Chicago began the season with consecutive road games on consecutive days against the Kings and the Coyotes, who dismissed the Blackhawks from the playoffs last April. In fact, they played 10 of their first 12 games on the road, and they have already had four four-game weeks. After a 10-0-3 start, Chicago went on a franchise-record 11-game winning streak over the next 20 days. Says the senior Bowman, "We may never watch anything like it again."
As the Blackhawks' wins began to pile up, captain Jonathan Toews, whose mother hails from Sainte-Marie, Que., started to reserve part of his postgame interview time to answer questions from Francophone reporters following the team. Across the locker room, the hoard of scribes at Kane's cubicle grew bigger and bigger throughout the streak. Says center Andrew Shaw, whose locker is next to Kane's, "It takes me half an hour to get dressed."
The locals even burnished the streak with its own mythology. During overtime of a 4--3 victory over the visiting Blue Jackets on March 1, Toews finished an end-to-end dash with a gorgeous centering pass to defenseman Brent Seabrook for the game-winner. At no time during the play, from Toews's rush up the left boards to his needle-threading flip past two Columbus sticks, did the center appear to look at Seabrook. Word spread that Toews had found his defenseman by spotting his reflection in the glass. Toews is no embellisher. He is, rather, a polite but unrevealing interview subject. "No, actually I saw this big red jersey out of the corner of my eye before I got the puck," he says. "I just guessed he'd be there. It was a timing play, the kind of thing you work on in practice. We got lucky, that's all." That wasn't good enough for Sun-Times reporter (and former SI senior writer) Rick Telander, who asked Toews jokingly, "Can we stick with the legend instead of the truth?"
Toews was a boy captain when Chicago won its last Cup. Now he and Kane, both 24, are franchise anchors. But even with those two cornerstones, the Blackhawks faced drastic retooling after their championship. Ten players left the team in the 2010 off-season through cost-cutting trades and free agency, including such vital support players as defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (now with the Jets), who scored 11 goals in the run to the Cup, and forwards Andrew Ladd (also with Winnipeg) and Kris Versteeg (Panthers). "A lot of camaraderie and chemistry went out the door when those guys left," says Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "You don't just get that back overnight."
After Bowman reconstituted the team with such role players as forwards Daniel Carcillo and Michael Frolik and defenseman Johnny Oduya, the Blackhawks seemed to be jelling by December 2011, leading the league in points before losing nine in a row and spiraling into dissent. Barry Smith, an assistant under Scotty Bowman with both the Penguins and the Red Wings, was brought in from his post as the team's director of player development to run the struggling special teams. Quenneville, the league's active leader in coaching wins (645 at week's end), reportedly bristled at being forced to take on an assistant not of his choosing. He also asked Stan Bowman to replace Mike Haviland, an assistant he inherited from former coach Denis Savard in '08--09, his first year behind the bench. Smith has since returned to the front office, while Haviland departed after the season.
Bowman steered clear of marquee free agents over the summer and made few roster changes, trusting his complementary players—from his grinders to his sixth defenseman—to solidify the lineup. His faith has been rewarded. Chicago's second defensive pair of Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are playing more than 20 minutes a game, reducing the wear on the top two of Seabrook and Duncan Keith, a former Norris Trophy winner who has gone from tied for first in the league in total ice time per game (26:53 in 2011--12) to 30th (23:56). Frolik, 25, and center Marcus Kruger, 22, have blossomed into elite penalty killers, raising Chicago's rating from 27th to sixth in one year. Winger Brandon Saad and the feisty Shaw, the club's second- and fifth-round draft picks in '11, are averaging about 15 minutes per game. "Sometimes when you believe in people," says Bowman, "they catch a second wind."
The concept of renewal permeates the club. Carcillo's nickname is Car Bomb. Most sane teams would not have the ruffian on the ice in the final minute of a tied game, but the bruised Blackhawks were down three forwards in their win over the Avalanche on March 6 after left wing Patrick Sharp went down with a separated shoulder on a check from Ryan O'Byrne early in the third period. A seven-year veteran, Carcillo has 10 suspensions and fines on his résumé, along with 1,075 penalty minutes in 320 games and scars on his reconstructed left knee. When he sneaked a backhander through the pads of goalie Semyon Varlamov for the game-winner with 49.3 seconds left in regulation—his first goal since Nov. 13, 2011—Carcillo had no clue how to celebrate. "I forgot," he said, "so I just fell to my knees." When Bowman signed Carcillo as a free agent two years ago, the two men had a lengthy talk that didn't include hockey. "They treat you like a human being and not just a piece of meat [here]," says Carcillo. "They gave me a new lease on life."
Chicago did the same with goalies Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, sticking with the pair despite the off-season availability of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Since they lost Cup winner Antti Niemi to San Jose during the great purge of 2010, the Blackhawks have been unsettled in net. A second-round pick in '03, Crawford, 28, gave up two bad overtime goals in the playoff loss to Phoenix last April. Goalie coach Stephane Waite has since coaxed him to cut unnecessary movements and stay square to shooters. Through Sunday, Crawford had responded with a .925 save percentage and a 1.91 GAA, good for third and second in the league, respectively.
Emery, 30, took the Senators to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, but he was almost as well known for his combustibility—he smiled maniacally through a fight with Sabres goalie Martin Biron in '07—as he was for flashy clothes, cars and tattoos. While he was playing for the Flyers in February '10, doctors discovered avascular necrosis (a disease in which blood fails to flow to the femur, causing it to deteriorate) in his right hip. In April '10, doctors removed part of his right fibula and sliced through his muscle to graft the bone to his hip. "I had taken so much for granted until then," he says. "When they chopped me up and taped me back together, I reevaluated a lot of things." He played 10 games for Anaheim in '10--11, but left as a free agent after a weak postseason.
Emery signed as the backup to Crawford two years ago, and he went 15-9-4. He has won 10 of his 11 starts this year, including a 45-save gem in Calgary on Feb. 2 that the Hawks tied when winger Marian Hossa scored with 2.1 seconds to play. Quenneville later called it "one of the best games I've seen a goalie play."
No player has remade himself more thoroughly than Kane, a Hart Trophy candidate who at week's end led the team with 12 goals and 15 assists, and who has vastly upgraded his defense as he has matured away from the rink. The first pick in the 2007 draft, he scored the overtime Cup winner in '10, nearly a year after he and his cousin had been arrested after a dispute with a Buffalo taxi driver. Kane became a Deadspin poster boy that season when he was photographed twice in stages of moderate undress and less moderate inebriation. The Blackhawks publicly defended him. "I looked at it differently," Bowman recalls. "I wondered how good things could be when he matured. I wasn't scared; I was excited."
Bowman had reason for optimism. He and his wife, Sue, put Kane up during his rookie season of 2007--08, and he developed a fast bond with the couple's two boys, gladly playing goalie in the basement for their oldest son, Will, then 5. But that year, Bowman was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and suggested that Kane move out. "He didn't need to see me struggling or my wife crying," Bowman, whose cancer is now fully in remission, recalls. "But then he said, 'Why would I want to leave?' I didn't want him to leave. He was a great friend, a big brother to my boys. He has a good heart. The best of Patrick is really something."
The lockout was a blessing for Kane. He signed to play with EHC Biel in the Swiss League. His mother, Donna, who often makes the eight-hour drive to Chicago from Buffalo, went to live with him. "I cooked, we watched movies, we relaxed," Donna says. "We had fun."
"That was good for me," Kane says. "The biggest thing about this year is that I didn't want to disappoint my parents.... I probably thought things were going to be easy. I probably enjoyed it too much.... Hurting myself was one thing; hurting people close to me woke me up."
It showed this season, when Kane broadened his game. "Patrick has the puck more than he's had in the past," Quenneville says. "Every offensive situation is a chance to score, because he's not giving up on plays. A lot of times he's the first guy back, so I can trust him in more situations." Kane ranks seventh in the NHL with 25 takeaways. And he is back on the wing after Quenneville moved him to center for much of last season, where he seemed misplaced, winning just 42% of his draws and frequently losing the angle on his backcheck when he had more ice to cover. "My game looks different now," he says.
The renaissance of the Blackhawks began in 2007, when owner Rocky Wirtz took over from his late father, Bill. Chicago had been to the playoffs just once in the previous nine years, didn't televise home games and had only about 3,400 season-ticket holders. Rocky Wirtz brought Cubs president John McDonough into his office and begged him to fill the same position for his moribund franchise. It took five hours of schmoozing, but McDonough took the job. "It was the greatest challenge in sports," says McDonough, 59, who had been with the Cubs for 24 years. "It was worse than I thought. They had no receptionist, no HR person. They needed a lot of work."
On his third day in the job, McDonough called Bobby Hull—the Hall of Fame wing had split acrimoniously from the team in 1972 when he signed with the WHA's Winnipeg Jets. Hull came back. So did Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and other luminous alumni who had been similarly neglected under the regime of Wirtz's father. McDonough rehired Pat Foley, the popular broadcaster dismissed by the old administration, and began inviting club business and hockey staffs to each other's meetings. The fog began to lift. In 2008 the club began its run of sellouts. Chicago TV ratings have gone up 805% since 2007--08. The game in Detroit on March 3 drew 1.9 million viewers to NBC, the most ever for a non--Winter Classic regular-season broadcast. Everyone wants in. When pending free agent Oduya was up for an off-season raise, he told Bowman, "My agent [Don Meehan] isn't going to like this, but I know I want to come back to Chicago, so let's just get this deal done."
Three days before the Blackhawks finally lost in Colorado, Toews had a sobering thought. "The wins now are great," he says, "but we know they won't mean anything if we can't reset our sights on winning in June." The Blackhawks' run encompassed the entire first half of this lockout-shortened season. Now that the bubble has burst, they seem well-constituted to rebound. "The guys pick each other up," says Quenneville. "It's not one player or one line, and that's how you avoid slumps—you have any number of people who can step up each game."
And just like that—from completely locked out to totally locked in—Chicago has given the league a much needed boost. All it took was some faith, some grinders and some imagination.
For analysis—including the latest news and notes from around the NHL—from SI's staff of hockey experts, including Adrian Dater, Stu Hackel, Sarah Kwak and Alan Muir, check out SI.com/mag