April 16, 2014
The road ahead is long — torturously so, particularly following the Blackhawks’ gleeful sprint through the shortened 2013 season, and an all-too-short second summer of love, with the Stanley Cup in tow.
There’ll be a half-dozen preseason games in which virtually none of the returning players have their jobs on the line. There’ll be dog days in December and January in which the games feel almost meaningless, and the trips start blending together. And there’ll be a schedule nearly as compressed as last season’s, only nearly twice as long — and with half the roster spending their three-week Olympic “break” in February playing even more hockey halfway around the world.
Then, assuming all goes right, there’ll be another grueling postseason, up to two brutal months long.
There are many reasons why no team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since the 1997-98 Red Wings. Injuries. Roster turnover. League-wide parity. Bad luck. But more than anything, it’s just hard — the hardest trophy to win in all of sports, to hear hockey people tell it. It’s indeed a long road — a grueling, physically and mentally demanding marathon that requires fresh legs and focused minds, both of which are hard to come by when it seems like just yesterday that the road finally ended.
But there’s a flip side to that, too. Winning makes all that sweat and sacrifice feel worthwhile, and that’s not a feeling athletes want to relinquish.
“Complacency? There shouldn’t be any complacency,” Scotty Bowman told the Sun-Times. “You get pretty hungry when you win the Cup.”
He should know. The Blackhawks senior advisor won nine Stanley Cups as a coach, and was behind the bench for those Red Wings in 1998. And the way he sees it, the Hawks are set up to do exactly what his teams did five times in his illustrious career — repeat.
“You’ve got a formula once you win it,” Bowman said. “You know what it takes to win. I think that offsets anything else.”
Of course, when Bowman was hoarding Cups, there was no salary cap, and there was little parity in the league. It’s different now. In the nine seasons before the Hawks became the first team to win a second Cup in the cap era, nine different teams skated off with the trophy. Maybe after losing half the team to a salary purge, the 2010-11 Hawks never had a chance, stumbling to an 11-11-2 start and falling in the first round. But this year, the Hawks return their lineup nearly intact, with only Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik and Ray Emery gone, and a slew of groomed young talents ready to step in.
And for a team loaded with twentysomethings that have done it all in this league, the chance to make more history is a rallying cry and a focal point after a blurry, whirlwind offseason.
“That can be motivation,” captain Jonathan Toews said Wednesday as the Hawks opened training camp at Notre Dame. “We’ve got to focus on the start of the season and not make any mistakes like we did last time. We want to put ourselves in a position come playoff time to be that team again, and compete for it again.”
To do it, the Hawks will have to overcome plenty of obstacles — obstacles that no team has been able to overcome in 15 years. But before stepping on the ice for the first time as defending champions, the Hawks feel prepared for each one.
Complacency? Not a chance, the Hawks insist.
“You get asked those questions a lot, about the Stanley Cup hangover,” Duncan Keith said. “But we’re looking at it in a positive way. Everybody on our team is excited about the opportunity to come out flying and show that we’re ready to play. Just because it was a short offseason doesn’t mean we can’t be ready to go, physically and mentally.”
A lack of focus? Not here, the Hawks insist.
“There’s a humble swagger that this organization has,” team president John McDonough said. “Never get caught up with where we are. We’re not entitled to one more fan, we’re not entitled to one more win, we’re not entitled to one more viewer, one more listener. It’s going after that with this voracious hunger every single day that hopefully distinguishes us.”
Burned out? Not us, the Hawks insist.
“It’s a little different playing a short season, but four rounds of playoffs are still four rounds of playoffs,” Patrick Sharp. “You saw that took a toll on a lot of players, not only on our team but teams we were facing. It’ll be a change playing the full 82-game season, but I think we’re all excited for it. We’ve got a young team and we’re excited to get going.”
Bowman knows better than anyone in the sport’s history how tough it is to repeat. But he thinks the stars have aligned just right for the Hawks. They’re a (mostly) young team, which should alleviate the physical concerns. Three or four new faces in the lineup should keep things fresh. Realignment and the chance to play in every Eastern Conference building for the first time in at least two years should add some juice to the typical midseason doldrums.
And the formula for two Cups and its constants are still there. All that’s left are the variables.
“2011 was a complete makeover, and that was real tough,” Bowman said. “It was the first time it had to happen, and it’s going to happen more often. But this team is still together, and they have the momentum. You just have to cash in on that momentum.”
Destiny and dynasty are off in the distance, tantalizing, and they can either motivate or overwhelm. The long and arduous road ahead starts with one step over the boards and on to the ice in South Bend on Thursday morning.
“You start talking about repeating and playing for a Stanley Cup, but that’s way down the line,” Sharp said. “Obviously, that’s a goal of ours, but it’s such a process, and today’s the first step. All you can ask for is that you’re on a team that has a chance to win, and I believe we have that every year.”