Commentary

Chicago's new lovable ... winners

Blackhawks are 'brothers for life' and the city's new sports legends

Updated: June 10, 2010, 3:36 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The lamp never lit, not a buzzer was sounded, but nothing about the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship was anticlimactic.

Not the winning goal by Patrick Kane, which lifted the Hawks past the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in overtime of Game 6 on Wednesday night.

[+] EnlargeMarian Hossa
Al Bello/Getty ImagesEven the Hawks' big-money players such as Marian Hossa lack egos.

Not the final series, which pit two teams of distinctly different styles in one of the most entertaining best-of-seven sets in years.

Not the winning team, which seemed destined for this from the day Rocky Wirtz took over the franchise three years ago and now deserves to take its rightful place among the pantheon of Chicago's all-time greats.

Move over '85 Bears and '05 White Sox and, yes, six-time champion Bulls, and make room in the team picture for the 2010 Blackhawks, a group full of wondrous grit and talent and that rarest of abilities to live up to its potential.

They hoisted the 35 pounds of sterling silver hockey history above their heads, passing the coveted Cup from player to player on enemy ice as the realization of what they had just accomplished slowly sunk in.

From Tazer to Hossa to Sharpie to Sopes to Mad Dog to Duncs to Seabs and on down the line, they kissed the greatest trophy in sports before gathering for a team photo, a hodgepodge of missing teeth and sweat and backward baseball caps in one big jumble of smiling faces that could have been the 2010 midget league winners just as easily as the Stanley Cup champions.

That image, frozen on the television monitor under the Wachovia Center stands, elicited the most heartfelt cheers of the nights as moms and dad and siblings of Hawks players saluted their boys.

"We're brothers for life now," Kris Versteeg said. "We're champions. We're champions for life. This is the pinnacle of our sport, and we won it, and I can't tell you how I feel."

The way they won lent an added layer of surreal to the always dreamlike proceedings.

"I don't even know what's happening right now," said Kane as he looked around the ice bleary-eyed minutes after his 30-foot laser of a wrist shot whizzed past Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton with such force as to completely disappear in the net's padding.

For several seconds, Kane was perhaps the only person in the place who did know what was happening.

"I don't think anyone saw it in the net," Kane said. "I just booked it to the other end and tried to sell the celebration a little bit. I knew it was in."

It took some selling.

"I threw my gloves off, I picked them back up and I took them off again because I didn't know," said Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell.

"Nobody knew whether it was in," said Brent Sopel, "but once we came on the ice, we looked back at the bench and the coaching staff obviously got word from the dressing room saying it was in and, well, let the fun begin."

And that it did, with Dustin Byfuglien skating circles with the team flag, kids perched on shoulders, Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews spraying Hawks' fans with champagne, and the Flyers' ice resembling a family reunion with only camera phones outnumbering hugs.

In an era when so few athletes are likeable, this is a team that is easy to love. Hard-working and humble, even their big-money guys like Campbell and Marian Hossa lacked egos, shrugged off personal setbacks like injuries and slumps, and gained fans in the process.

Campbell returned much sooner than expected from a vicious hit that broke his ribs and clavicle. Dave Bolland came back this season from back surgery, Adam Burish from knee surgery. And forever the symbol of hockey toughness, Duncan Keith returned just minutes after getting seven teeth shattered in the conference final.

From night to night this season, these playoffs, they took turns at being the hero. First-year goalie Antti Niemi went from barely making the team to nearly carrying the team to the title. Byfuglien went from eighth-round pick to defensive role player to offensive standout.

The franchise absorbed criticism for allowing Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Havlat to go, for reassigning coach Denis Savard and GM Dale Tallon. And the team endured controversy involving Kane and his arrest in Buffalo last summer (and subsequent guilty plea to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct).

"Yeah, it didn't start very good back in August," Kane said. "But I think sometimes, you know, you go through these kind of things as a young kid. You can really learn from them and try to better yourself as a person and as an athlete too."

They did that as a team, as well.

"What a game, what a series, what a season," exclaimed Campbell. "We seem to play better sometimes when it's on the line a little bit more. That's the way we do things, whether we come back from five goals or two goals, we always make it interesting for the fans."

Never more so than in a Stanley Cup final that kept even non-hockey fans captivated.

"It makes it pretty sweet to win the way we did," said Brent Seabrook, "but at the same time, I'm sure we had a few people have heart attacks back in Chicago."

If it wins them more fans, all the better. Chicago is a hockey town, always was. Fans just went away from time to time since the last Stanley Cup title 49 years ago.

If you were born in 1961, then you were in the bloom of childhood as a veteran team dominated the league in the early '70s. You also had your heart broken when the Montreal Canadiens beat Bobby and Stan and Tony and Keith and the boys in Game 7 in '71.

It would crumble just a little bit more two years later when the team lost Bobby Hull to the WHA and the Winnipeg Jets two years later. And yet again in '92 in a Pittsburgh sweep.

"I remember when Pittsburgh took the Stanley Cup around the old Chicago Stadium," said Wirtz. "It was one of the worst feelings I've ever had."

When his father died in 2007, Wirtz bravely took the team where it had never been, televising home games and embracing old players and old fans who felt spurned.

"We wanted to win but we also had to build bridges," he said Wednesday night as team fans chanted his name. "We didn't have a relationship with the fans. We didn't have it with the press. We didn't have it with our former players. Everyone was at war with everyone else one way or another and that's just not the way to do it.

"No one wants to hear about old laundry and other things. So what we had to do was mend the fences, move ahead and set a goal and for everyone in the organization from the person who sweeps up at night, to the person who answers the phone, to [team president] John McDonough and [senior VP] Jay Blunk and [GM] Stan Bowman to sign on to that mission.

"We all needed to come together or we wouldn't be here today, I promise you."

This is a team for a new generation, for our children to embrace, with young stars who still can't grow full beards.

For hockey fans and sports fans and more importantly, Chicago fans.

"Now I don't have to dream anymore about this," Campbell said. "It's a reality now. I don't have to lie awake at night or think about it so much. It's a reality for Chicago and for everybody. For Rocky Wirtz and for my family. For everybody."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.