Go ahead and play the theme of “Rocky” one more time. Play it loud for Rocky Wirtz and the re-tooled, youthful, re-energized Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
I’ll admit it. My emotions got the best of me when Patrick Kane’s shot flipped past Michael Leighton at the 15:54 mark of the overtime period. I got misty-eyed and just about fell out of my seat.
My memories of frequent journeys to the 300-level at the old Chicago Stadium, more than a few wrinkled, gnarled copies of “The Blue Line” and screaming like a fool with my brothers flooded my brain. “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland ranks among my most-played tracks on iTunes. Wayne Messmer’s old-school rendition of the National Anthem and the accompanying pandemonium still plays in my head at sporting events.
They were still calling the play in the booth as Kane dropped his stick and skated back down the ice toward Antti Niemi. Following a brief review, the goal was confirmed and the celebration began. I can only imagine the roar that emanated from Rush Street and the litany of profanities echoing in the bars of Philadelphia.
It’s only fitting that a series fought tooth-and-nail with bodies flying all over the ice and defensemen laying out to block shots would end with a shot that squeaked through the cracks and found the side of the net. And, in the midst of aural assaults on umpires and referees, it’s also fitting that the final goal would need to be reviewed.
After 49 years of futility and the horrible memories of the “Dollar” Bill Wirtz era that fill the minds of former players, executives and fans, nobody thought this series would be settled easily.
Winger Scott Hartnell did everything possible to extend the series, standing tall with his red beard in front of the crease to score two goals. Hartnett established position and paid the price with a big hit from Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews on his second goal.
I also can’t say enough about Leighton, who goes down as the loser in this contest, but who successfully fought out 37 shot attempts. At times, it appeared as if we were watching a practice session, as the Hawks produced several rapid-fire offensive sets.
The Hawks have to celebrate the efforts of Niemi on the other end of the ice. He didn’t face nearly as many shots as Leighton, but he stonewalled a high number of glorious chances with an array of moves that would have made the late-career, karate-kicking Elvis proud. Niemi’s work in the first three minutes of overtime was a veritable clinic on playing the position.
Think about this for a second. Toews is just 22. Kane won’t turn 22 until November. Veteran Marian Hossa, who becomes the “third time’s the charm” poster boy after losing in the Final with Pittsburgh and Detroit, turned 31 in January and has 11 years left on his contract.
The good times have begun in Chicago. Drink deeply and savor it. The theme of the night: Seize opportunities when they’re presented because there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a rebound shot.
The Stanley Cup is coming for one hell of a parade in Chicago.
I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few thoughts on the post-game celebration and commentary.
First, I can’t help but smile about the grand presentation of The Cup itself. There’s a pageantry and respect for the institution that transcends team colors and loyalties. No hockey fan disrespects the red carpet ceremony and the glorious, iconic and most recognizable trophy in all of sports.
The same can’t be said for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Conn Smythe winner Toews and “Public Enemy No. 1” Dustin Byfuglien. All three were roundly booed by the salty crowd, with Byfuglien receiving the hate for his spirited and physical work on the ice and for frustrating fans with the pronunciation of his last name.
Second, the smile on Rocky Wirtz’s face cracked away some of that frustration that had lingered for years. In just his third year as the head of the franchise, Wirtz’s Blackhawks raised The Cup. He altered many of his father’s longstanding (and often misguided) policies. Wirtz reestablished relationships with the franchise’s legendary players. He reworked the TV packages. He established relationships with the other teams in town. And, most importantly, the team’s talent evaluation kicked into another level and the pocketbook came out during the free agency period.
Finally, I have to give a nod to the players on the last Blackhawks squad to reach the Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins. No. My Sergei Krivokrasov No. 25 sweater doesn’t factor in here.
I’m talking about ….
Steve Larmer, Chris Chelios, Dirk Graham, Michel Goulet and netminder Ed Belfour.
And, of course, there’s Jeremy Roenick, who served as a member of the NBC broadcasting team. Roenick teared up when The Cup was presented to the Hawks and he watched his former team’s celebration on the ice. He made a directly comment to a boy who cried following the Hawks’ Game 4 loss to the Penguins, citing that he’d waited 18 years for this triumphant moment.
Host Dan Patrick and analyst Mike Milbury had different responses to their colleague’s emotional display. Patrick looked slightly uneasy before trying to comfort Roenick, while Milbury half-mocked him before celebrating Roenick’s career and his own near-misses with The Cup.
“Why is this affecting you?” was the question from Patrick.
Roenick responded with “it’s the Chicago Blackhawks.” If given a chance to elaborate, you may have heard the tales about his eight years with the club, the pain of being swept by Mario Lemieux’s Penguins and the fact that he never got another chance to hold The Cup despite playing in the league for another 16 years. The first eight years of his career were spent in Chicago. I can only imagine which image was burned in Roenick’s mind during this exchange to produce that response.
“I’m happy and I’m proud” Roenick remarked in response to Milbury’s comments about how he wouldn’t cry.
I know that there will be countless references to Roenick’s post-game emotions in the blogosphere. For many message board posters, it’ll be the time to take the potshots and rip Roenick for getting caught up in the moment, and more than a few hosts will snidely try to work up quotes and instances from Roenick’s past to have a chuckle at his expense.
You’ve got a guy in the broadcast team who battled for the better part of two decades to grab hold of The Cup, playing for both of the participants in this series during his career. He bled, broke bones and excelled as an elite goal-scorer (513 goals, good for 36th all-time), but never had his day to go boating, fishing, horseback-riding, snorkeling or drinking with The Cup.
He got paid and obviously had a successful career. He’s a good sound byte, has always been willing to speak his mind, and excels in the analyst chair. That doesn’t fill the void of setting out for the grand prize, taking the hits and grinding through season after season and coming up short.
For me, there’s one fundamental number at play.
Roenick was the same age at Toews and Kane when he got his shot.