Cold Skill on Ice | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Cold Skill on Ice 

A smart, fast team playing a shrewd system brought the Stanley Cup to Chicago.

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Jonathan Toews, Tomas Kopecky, and Patrick Kane

Jonathan Toews, Tomas Kopecky, and Patrick Kane

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Hockey is the most beautiful sport in the world when played well. In Chicago, for decades, it was played poorly. That, of course, has changed. But although the sight of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Dustin Byfuglien crossing the blue line on the attack in perfect coordination, or speedy defenseman Duncan Keith beginning a rush from behind the net, has reinspired many a Blackhawks fan, these moments aren't what brought the team the Stanley Cup. What brought home the trophy was the system coach Joel Quenneville has imposed on his talented players. It's not always pretty, but it works. The Hawks would have been fun to watch playing the more freewheeling hockey of Denis Savard, the former Hawks great whose coaching was only slightly more regimented than his pirouetting style of play. But under Savard they never would have been champions.

Toews and Kane—the Hawks' star Irish twins—led the revival. Their paths to Chicago mirrored each other. Toews, a Canadian from Winnipeg, played college hockey at North Dakota; Kane, a slighter, flashier sharpshooter, was sent away from home in Buffalo to play Canadian junior hockey. The Hawks claimed Toews in the first round of the the 2006 draft and Kane in the first round a year later, but they arrived together in 2007, each expected to be great. Adept at both offense and defense, his head up at all times, natural leader Toews was named team captain in his second year. . Shifty and scheming, seeing the whole ice the way only the greats do, Kane skated with a hunched-shoulders style that made him look like Snidely Whiplash—he all but sported a cloak. He built up his strength and improved his defense going into this season, but was still prone to lapses, none more costly than the blind, behind-the-back pass that was picked off and turned into a game-winning breakaway goal in the Hawks' first playoff series against the Nashville Predators.

Both Toews and Kane had a knack for controlling the puck in the corners, and they thrived running Quenneville's "cycle" play, in which three linemates shuffle behind the net, along the boards, and into the slot in front of the goal. It gave their play organization, just as the triangle offense did for the Bulls during the Michael Jordan era.

The Hawks as a whole were faster, nimbler, and more skilled than their opponents. When they hit their stride they swept the San Jose Sharks in the conference finals. Along with the cycle play, Quenneville had the Hawks running a style of attack he called "dunking and rimming." That might sound like the topic of a Savage Love column; it's actually a more sophisticated variation of the old dump-and-chase. The Hawks would either flip the puck deep into the attack zone or send it "rimming" around the boards behind the opposing goal. The dump-and-chase was used by coach Mike Keenan in the Hawks' last Stanley Cup finals appearance, in 1992, but merely to accommodate a slow, lumbering team that didn't belong on the ice with the elegant Pittsburgh Penguins of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Dump-and-chase was strategy by necessity; dunking and rimming was a tactic that brought focus and simplicity to the attack of a team with a more impressive set of skills.

Not unlike Bears coach Lovie Smith, Quenneville even called on his defense to think offense: he asked his penalty killers, usually led by Toews, to lead counterattacks. The Hawks led the league in shorthanded goals, and none was more stirring than the goal that followed the major penalty called against Marian Hossa late in the pivotal fifth game of the opening series. The Hawks were already down a goal when Hossa, the wizardly stickhandler and hockey mercenary, playing on his third team in three years in a desperate attempt to win the cup, was sent off; but Kane, on a rare penalty-killing assignment, tied the game, and Hossa came out of the penalty box in overtime to immediately score the winner.

It was the sort of magic moment that defines a championship team—not unlike ancient Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez's bases-loaded-and-nobody-out relief appearance that squelched the Red Sox, the defending champs, in the first round of the White Sox' 2005 playoffs. The Kane and Hossa goals launched the Hawks. They lost the opening game of their next series but immediately recovered, and they never trailed a series after that.

Rocky Wirtz, who replaced his late father, "Dollar" Bill Wirtz, as chairman just as Toews and Kane were arriving, probably made victory seem all too easy. Young Wirtz made commonsense moves, like putting the team's home games on television and reconnecting with bitter old stars like Bobby Hull, who'd gone away and taken a lot of fans with them. And he spent money on players who'd complement Toews and Kane. They were the seeds from which the championship team flowered—and the Hawks had to be truly awful to get the chance to claim both of them in the draft.

Toews and Kane are young enough to win more Stanley Cups, but they probably won't do it with the same group of players. Goalie Antti Niemi benefited from a ferocious defense but he gave up a lot of rebounds. Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell were other big names, but Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson were unsung heroes, like the Jedi Knights with no lines who have Obi-Wan Kenobi's back. Their selfless, relentless, and oftentimes quite painful blocking of shots was the sort of sacrificial effort that championship teams require, but that level of concentration and dedication is harder to sustain from season to season than talent.

For anyone who suffered with the Hawks during the Bill Wirtz era, attending games with a few thousand fans at the United Center and agonizing over Wirtz's cheapness and short-sightedness while remembering the passionate crowds that used to stuff the upper balcony of the old Chicago Stadium, this championship was sweet vindication. The streets of Chicago ran red with ecstatic fans chasing the Hawks in their double-decker buses at the championship celebration. And imagine—only six years ago they were local nonentities who barely won a quarter of their games! In the end, championships always seem easier than they were.   

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