Gone, but not forgotten
The departing Hawks played for a team that will always be celebrated
CHICAGO -- After the parade ends, after the party dies out, comes the cleanup.
It's not fun, but it's inevitable and ultimately necessary.
Blackhawks fans, not to mention Blackhawk cult heroes, were reminded of that Wednesday as the Stanley Cup celebratory parade/pub crawl/appreciation society took a detour to reality.
The NHL's draconian salary cap pointed us to that post-Cup existence. Playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien was reportedly dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers, along with Ben Eager and Brent Sopel, for first- and second-round draft picks, veteran Marty Reasoner and Jeremy Morin, a 2009 second-round pick who lists Patrick Kane as his favorite NHL player.
The Hawks are expected to get $5 million in cap relief.
The 2010-11 salary cap is expected to go up $2.6 million to $59.4 million and the Hawks were near the ceiling with only 14 players signed before the deal.
"I'm not trying to diminish it," Hawks GM Stan Bowman said recently. "We are going to have to move some good players out."
The deal was reported from the NHL awards in Las Vegas by ESPN's Pierre LeBrun and it hadn't even reached Big Buff, an oversized cult hero in Chicago, when an ESPN 1000 producer called him for his response.
"It is what it is," Byfuglien said on "The Afternoon Saloon" on ESPN 1000. "It's part of the job. You're not going to stick in one spot the whole time, so I've got to go."
ESPN Chicago's Blackhawks beat writer Jesse Rogers broke the news to Byfuglien's agent. I guess Buff and his agent don't Twitter.
The Hawks' salary cap woes have been well-publicized, and last season they were adversely affected by the bungling of restricted free agent offers, which helped cost popular general manager Dale Tallon his job. The big-time contract extensions signed by Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were necessary, but costly.
Even winning the Cup cost the Hawks, with Toews' $1.3 million bonus for winning the Conn Smythe Award a cap hit. (With bone-headed rules such as that, it's no wonder that a Chicago baseball player openly mocked the NHL Players Association to me this spring.)
The team shuttled players back and forth to AHL Rockford to stay within the cap during the season. (For all the NHL newbies out there, hockey's cap is measured on a day-to-day basis.) It was known that Chicago would have to jettison some higher-paid players, with Byfuglien a prime candidate, along with Kris Versteeg and Patrick Sharp, both of whom were probably frantically talking to their agents after the news broke.
After scoring 11 goals in the playoffs, including five game-winners, Byfuglien's value might never be higher, and he seems to have brought back some decent talent, along with the draft picks the Thrashers acquired from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade. The Hawks will get the 24th pick in this week's draft.
Byfuglien has one year left on a deal paying him $3 million, identical to his "cap hit." Sopel is slated to make $2 million, with a $2.3 million cap hit, and Eager, a restricted free agent, will make at least the $965,000 he got last year. Reasoner's cap hit is $1.15 million. That adds up to more than $5 million in savings, which will come in handy to re-sign Antti Niemi, another restricted free agent. The team is expected to bury pricey and superfluous Cristobal Huet in the minors, if he doesn't bolt to Europe, to save another $5.625 million.
"We're just going to have to keep moving forward," Duncan Keith said from Las Vegas, where he won the Norris Trophy for top defenseman. "That's hockey. Teams change every year. You lose friends, you lose teammates and you stay in touch -- but it's not really the same as playing with them."
Byfuglien found his greatest success at forward in this postseason, and is a capable defenseman. His size -- 6-foot-4, 257-pounds -- made him a fan favorite and the bane of goaltenders and defensemen alike.
His quick departure from the celebrating champions is reminiscent of Aaron Rowand, who was sent to Philadelphia to bring in Jim Thome's middle-of-the-order bat not long after the 2005 World Series.
Rowand was a fan favorite as well, and the kind of glue player that made the Sox go. It was a shame he didn't get to bask in the glow of that championship, and the same can be said for Byfuglien, who will miss the rest of the party that has captivated Chicago like no other team since Jordan's Bulls.
While Sopel and Eager are basically superfluous losses, the veteran Sopel has engendered goodwill recently because he made news this week for volunteering to march with the Stanley Cup to march in the Pride Parade in honor of Brendan Burke, the late son of Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke.
Brendan, a team manager for the Miami (Ohio) hockey team, came out to his family not long ago and the story of his acceptance was national news this year. He died in a car wreck in February.
"[Brian Burke] was my GM for five years [with the Vancouver Canucks], and with Brendan coming out and then being killed four months later, that was the first thing that popped in my head," Sopel said. "I knew Brian personally for years, and I met Brendan a couple of times, and when you see a story like that ... any young kid that dies like that is tragic. Nobody should have to bury their children. & My wife and I have three children. We feel that everybody is equal."
With that, Sopel became one of my sentimental favorites. Too often, modern athletes refuse to speak publicly on anything remotely controversial and do nothing but bask in their celebrity.
I have a soft spot too for Big Buff because he was the first Blackhawk I met. It was three years ago this month, at a street festival in Old Town. I was in a packed bar with my now-wife, my brother and his friends, and one of them knew the young Hawks.
We were probably the only ones in the bar that did. Byfuglien was the only I remember, aside from our connection with Danny Richmond. He bought us a round of shots and scoffed at the relatively cheap cost. I reminded him of this last year as the Hawks were making their name in the city, and he smiled at the memory of being anonymous.
Needless to say, Byfuglien doesn't have to buy drinks anymore in this town. And when he comes back to town, from now until he's old and gray, I hope he, not to mention Eager and Sopel, are all toasted across the city. For them, it was always be 2010 somewhere in Chicago.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.