CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 23: Captain Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with his teammates after the Blackhawks scored against the St. Louis Blues in the second period in Game Four of the First Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 23, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 485355159
Updated: July 2, 2014 2:57PM
I wasn’t here in the mid-1990s. While Michael Jordan was wrapping Chicago around his little finger like he wrapped mid-air layups around flailing defenders, I was a bitter teenage Knicks fan on Long Island, lamenting all the rings Patrick Ewing might have won had Jordan not existed.
So I don’t know exactly what Chicago was like during the Bulls’ two three-peats. But I imagine there were red-and-black hats and jerseys everywhere, on old ladies and babies and dogs and everyone in between. I’m sure the bars were overwhelmed and workplaces shut down early on game nights. I bet local ratings were through the roof, and I’m sure the bandwagon was full of enthusiastic, well-meaning newbies who couldn’t have identified a player if he were walking right toward them on the street. I imagine parades and rallies started to feel not so much like a historic event, but mere rites of spring.
You know, exactly what we have now.
Chicago is the Blackhawks’ town now — which is almost unfathomable, really, given where they were some seven or eight years ago. An empty United Center? Sunday’s massive Game 7 of the Western Conference final — the ultimate capper to the ultimate series between the Hawks and the Los Angeles Kings — will be the team’s 277th consecutive sellout. Untelevised home games? More than half a million homes in the Chicago market were tuned into Game 5 on Wednesday, nearly three times as many as much larger Los Angeles. Terrible teams with no chance? The Hawks have erased a 3-1 series deficit for the second straight season, pulling miracle victories out of thin air time and time again in thrilling fashion.
At the start of this series, I wrote about how this is the Golden Age of Chicago hockey, how it’ll never be better than this — a perennial contender loaded with likable stars and future Hall of Famers. I wrote that for the die-hards and the long-time fans who are understandably too wrapped up in the minutiae of each game to notice the big picture, who can’t see the forest for the trees. This time, I’m talking to you — the casual fan, the bandwagoner, the one who doesn’t know (or even care) that the Hawks have been struggling to clear pucks and defenders from the crease, or who Peter Regin is and why he’s being shuffled in and out of the lineup.
Doesn’t matter. Embrace it. Because teams like this — potential dynasties like this — don’t come around very often. Chicago would be lucky to have two in 20 years. Most cities never see anything like this. The Bears couldn’t sustain their 1985 whirlwind, leaving fans stuck in the past in their Mike Ditka sweaters. The White Sox’s takeover of the city lasted just one season in 2005.
A quick primer for the uninitiated (though, really, at this point, who’s still uninitiated?). If the Hawks win Game 7 — a very big if, given how good, how tested, how resilient this Kings team is — they’ll be in the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year, going for their third Cup in five years. That doesn’t happen anymore in hockey, not in the salary-cap era. The Miami Heat can lure a bunch of megastars to South Florida and waltz into the NBA Finals every year. The New York Yankees can outspend the Kansas City Royals by $150 million. A trip to the Super Bowl requires three wins at most.
Hockey’s different. It’s so much harder. It’s so much more grueling. It’s so much more unpredictable. Nobody’s repeated as champs since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 (for the three of you left who don’t know, you’re supposed to irrationally hate those guys, by the way).
What the Hawks are on the verge of doing is unheard of in the modern-day world of the NHL. And here’s the thing — Jonathan Toews, the Captain, is 26. Patrick Kane, Mr. Showtime himself, is 25. Duncan Keith is signed through 2023. Marian Hossa is still going strong at 35. And Joel Quenneville’s mustache isn’t going anywhere.
For the handful of you left out there who haven’t latched on yet, who haven’t been sucked in by this team or by this unforgettable, action-packed, breathtaking series, there’s still time to jump on the bandwagon. It’ll be here for years to come.