Blackhawks stand alone among Chicago’s major sports teams
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media December 26, 2013 10:55PM
Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) celebrates his goal with Nick Leddy (8), Jonathan Toews (19) and Kris Versteeg (23) during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Updated: December 27, 2013 12:10AM
Their league-mandated Christmas break lasted only three days, but you missed the Blackhawks, didn’t you? They’re an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity.
As Chicago’s five major professional sports teams prepare to turn their calendars, the
Hawks stand alone in having distinguished themselves as championship-caliber.
Wow, what a profound statement. They have won two of the last four Stanley Cups, dummy. The lessons they learned from the painful salary-cap purge of 2010 enabled them to keep the 2013 title team pretty much intact, and only four members of the core group — Marian Hossa (34), Patrick Sharp (32), Johnny Oduya (32) and Duncan Keith (30) — have seen 30.
The word ‘‘dynasty’’ hasn’t been mentioned near West Madison Street — or anywhere else around Chicago — since Michael Jordan left to join the car pool. And it
can’t even be brought up casually at a time when salary caps, free agency, roster rules and the draft work against creating a dynasty in any sport.
But whether they’re rebounding from irritating losses to the Wild and Maple Leafs with dominating victories against the Ducks and Kings, scoring 19 goals in a three-game stretch against the Panthers, Stars and Flyers or holding the Devils to 12 shots for an entire game, the Hawks give the distinct impression something special is unfolding this season.
It starts with Patrick Kane, who as a more serious-minded 25-year-old has emerged as the top performer in town, an MVP candidate who brings it every night.
‘‘He was capable of dominating games before, and he was just a boy,’’ said teammate Kris Versteeg, a 2010 salary-cap casualty who was reunited with Kane last month in a trade that demonstrated the Hawks’ deal-from-strength organizational depth. ‘‘Now he’s playing like a man — and he’s still growing.’’
The savvy marketing moves that rescued the franchise from oblivion and led to packed houses at the United Center are still part of the narrative. But the bigger story is how the Hawks have come to embody team president John McDonough’s guiding principle as a sports executive: Winning is the best marketing tool ever invented.
They can’t touch the beloved Bears for media/marketing exposure; Martellus Bennett had a radio gig and a commercial spot before he played a half-season here. The hometown-hero angle that endears Derrick Rose to Bulls fans is also absent, and quietly efficient general manager Stan Bowman will have to win more than two Cups before he rivals the Cubs’ Theo Epstein as a front-office genius.
And Pat Foley is not Hawk Harrelson.
Somehow, though, the Hawks have emerged as the best-run, most successful sports operation in town, and it’s not even close.
The Bears might play on into January, but let’s be realistic about a team that gives up 389 yards and nearly 30 points a game and has been strafed for 40 or more four times this season. They’re on the right track with a forward-thinking offensive mind as their coach, but the defense requires a major overhaul, and that will take time.
The Bulls only can hope for Rose’s complete recovery; otherwise, they’re starless (and hopeless) in a star-driven league. Coach Tom Thibodeau will wring every available ounce of effort, energy and smarts from them, and they even might steal a series from a slothful playoff opponent, as they did against last season against the Nets.
But it’s for the games that count when the stars come out. As bad as the NBA’s Eastern Conference is, the Bulls can’t possibly get out of it in their current configuration.
After a flurry of offseason activity — Wesley Wright! Brett Marshall! — Cubs fans can expect a progression to 71-91 after 61-101 and 66-96 records in Team Theo’s first two seasons. Unless, of course, the timetables on Jorge Soler and the other can’t-miss phenoms are accelerated.
At least ticket prices didn’t go up. They didn’t go down, but they didn’t go up, and renovation work is underway at Wrigley Field.
Be patient, Cubs fans. What’s another three or four years when you have been waiting more than a century?
It’s curious that the White Sox are emulating the Cubs in casting their lot with kids yet are being praised for it, mostly because of the perception that Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson are closer to major-league-ready and will have a more immediate impact.
There’s also the reality that the Sox’ 99-game losers of last season were unwatchable: inert on the bases, asleep with runners in scoring position and all thumbs in the field. Eaton and Co. will be an upgrade if all they bring is energy.