Camps confirm Hawks' status in NHL
CALGARY, Alberta -- Firings, hirings, signings, arrests it has been, without a doubt, a summer of great tumult in Chicago.
Almost overshadowed in all the comings and goings in the Windy City is the fact that the Blackhawks just might be the on-paper favorites to reach the Stanley Cup finals. It would be their first trip since 1992.
There were six Blackhawks players on hand at the U.S. and Canadian Olympic orientation camps held over the past two weeks. Throw in forward Marian Hossa (who will be a mainstay of the Slovak Olympic effort, assuming his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery), fellow Slovak Tomas Kopecky and Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (who is on the Swedes' long list for 2010), and that's nine skaters, almost half of Chicago's skating roster, in contention for Olympic play.
That number provides an indication of just how far, and how quickly, the once-moribund Blackhawks have come.
"It has taken some time. We have had some lean years," new GM Stan Bowman said in an interview with ESPN.com on Thursday.
Bowman is hopeful the lure of the Games will add an even greater element of keenness to the play of his potential Olympians, especially given that this tournament might be the last in which the NHL participates.
"They're going to be very hungry over the first few months of the season to show well," Bowman said.
One of the interesting things to watch will be how this team responds to an offseason that was filled with news -- some good, some bad and some just plain weird.
First, the Blackhawks raised eyebrows when they signed elite free-agent forward Hossa away from rival Detroit. The fact that Hossa underwent shoulder surgery put a damper on the excitement, but Bowman recently met with Hossa in Slovakia and said he is on or even slightly ahead of schedule and should be back sometime in November. His addition ups the Stanley Cup ante for the youthful Blackhawks.
The team also added former Selke Trophy winner John Madden, who brings a championship pedigree from New Jersey, where he won two Stanley Cups.
Then, there was the snafu over the delayed delivery of qualifying offers to restricted free agents and, shortly after that, the firing of popular GM Dale Tallon. Tallon was replaced by Bowman, son of legendary coach Scotty Bowman. Stan Bowman brought on Kevin Cheveldayoff as his assistant, a highly respected AHL GM who had built a perennial contender with the Chicago Wolves.
There also was news the NHL was investigating the validity of Hossa's 12-year deal, although sources tell ESPN.com that is viewed leaguewide as more of a chill against front-loaded contracts than anything that will result in sanctions against the Blackhawks.
As if that wasn't enough, former NHL rookie of the year Patrick Kane was arrested after an ugly incident involving his cousin, a Buffalo, N.Y., cabbie and $1.20 in change from a fare. Kane and his cousin pleaded guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct and will write an apology to the cab driver.
The young star forward, who finished second in team scoring with 70 points and added 14 more in the postseason in 2008-09, was contrite at last week's U.S. orientation camp and will be expected to play a big role for the underdog American squad in Vancouver.
Bowman said he and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville have talked about the offseason issues. Both will address them at the start of training camp and then move the focus quickly to the task at hand.
"It's been no shortage of excitement this summer, that's for sure," said forward and assistant captain Patrick Sharp, one of four Hawks on the ice this week at Canada camp in Calgary.
"The Hawks are in the news quite a bit," Sharp said. "But you know what, there's been a lot of talk about the new general manager and some of the moves the organization have made. But since I've been in Chicago, the organization has gone straight up, and the moves that the new owner and new president have made have paid off. So I'm going to trust their decisions and support them 100 percent."
Although he and defenseman Brent Seabrook will be in tough to make the talented Canadian squad, Blackhawks teammates Duncan Keith and young captain Jonathan Toews impressed this week and are considered more likely to be included in the 23-man roster.
Regardless, the fact that Canadian Olympic executive director Steve Yzerman, who saw the Blackhawks up close as his Red Wings bested Chicago in this past spring's Western Conference finals, thought enough of Sharp et al to include them among the 46 players invited to camp is heady praise for an NHL team that was long a laughingstock.
"We've got a lot of young players that deserve that type of attention, too. It goes to show how talented our team actually is," Toews said this week. "It's great exposure for our team and for our fans. I think it's exciting for everybody."
Toews and Kane have become the faces of change in Chicago, and it will be interesting to see whether Kane's offseason altercation has an effect on his on-ice performance.
"I left him a message and was almost hoping he wouldn't pick up the phone because I figured he had his hands full as it was. You've got to feel for the kid, obviously. It can happen to people," Toews said. "I told him obviously that the team's behind him. We know what kind of guy he is in the locker room, and everyone's got a lot of respect for him.
"He's a likeable guy. You've got to support him. Whatever gets decided, I think we're going to support him and be behind him, and that's the bottom line."
It's hard to say what kind of benefit these camps will have for a young team like Chicago. Certainly, the confidence will be high heading into training camp for players like Keith, Seabrook, Sharp, Toews, Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, the other member of the team invited to the U.S. event. And for those who take part in the 2010 Olympics in February, the experience should help galvanize them come playoff time in the spring.
But as all contending (and even pretending) teams understand, it's not the climb up the mountain that is the challenge, but staying there.
"I still think we're a team on the rise," Keith said. "I know we had a good playoff last year, but as close as you come to going to the finals, it's still a long ways away, and there's a lot of things we feel we can still improve on. We have a young team, and this year is a big year for us; there's no question about that."
"The challenging thing is that it just doesn't magically happen again," Bowman added. "There's an awful lot that has to happen to get back to that level."
One of the biggest challenges for the team might be in how it now is perceived around the NHL. For a team that spent as long as the Blackhawks did looking up at the rest of the league, they will have to get used to being considered contenders. That not-so-subtle change in dynamics isn't lost on Bowman.
"I like our chances," he said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with expectations, but, like I said, you can't be paralyzed by it."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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