Leafs or Hawks? How to handicap the futility
It was a somber scene that might have been more appropriately played out in a hockey arena with an enormous, 3,663-pipe organ stirring the atmosphere.
Bill Wirtz, the longtime owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, was laid to rest Tuesday at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in the Windy City, a town with one eye on the beloved Cubbies heading to the postseason as it waved farewell to one of its enduring sporting figures.
Among the throng that gathered was Stan Mikita, who played on the last Blackhawks team to win the Stanley Cup in 1961, and Chris Chelios, currently a member of the Detroit Red Wings but also a part of the 1992 Hawks, the last Chicago squad to qualify for the Stanley Cup finals.
The Other 28 Teams
What are the other NHL clubs' chances at hoisting Lord Stanley in June? We're not ones for odds, so we'll group them based on probability.
Henri Richard Division
(Named for a guy with 11 Cups, this group is for those who expect to be there at the end)
Detroit Red Wings
New Jersey Devils
San Jose Sharks
Tony Romo Division
(Teams savvy enough to make up plays in the dirt as they go along)
New York Rangers
Mike Myers Division
(He's making a hockey movie -- "The Love Guru" -- so this group includes all the pretenders)
Tampa Bay Lightning
New York Islanders
Bob Seagren Division
(If it comes down to a goofy "Superstars" competition, sure, they could have a shot)
Toronto Maple Leafs
Los Angeles Kings
St. Louis Blues
Gil Stein Division
(Teams who'll get to the finals only if they vote themselves in)
Columbus Blue Jackets
-- Damien Cox
The day marked the end of an era, but at the same time, the continuation of an era.
The Wirtz family, after all, has controlled the Hawks since 1954, when family patriarch Arthur Wirtz first acquired partial ownership of the team, and has presided over a Cup drought that has lasted from Mikita through Chelios and into this NHL season, a pause in champagne consumption that is the longest current string in the league.
It's expected Peter Wirtz, son of Bill, will now take over the hockey club, and while many believe much will change, including the TV broadcast of Hawks home games (finally!) for the first time in team history, that may or may not be the case.
It was Arthur Wirtz, after all, who started the home blackout policy, and also Arthur who influenced the decision to let Bobby Hull run off to the World Hockey Association. Son Bill, in many ways, refused to change the business practices of his father, and now many wonder how the next generation led by Peter will choose to proceed.
As the 2007-08 season dawns -- it actually began Saturday in England, but tomorrow feels like opening night -- the Hawks are joined in their decades of Cup-less ineptitude by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are without a victory parade since 1967, Canada's centennial year.
The Hawks and Leafs, because of their history, are acknowledged to be holders of the league's longest losing streaks, but technically the Leafs are joined by the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings, who joined the NHL the year the Torontonians began their wanderings in the hockey hinterland.
Back in '67, the Leafs upset a powerful Hawks squad in the opening round of the postseason. Since then, the Leafs have failed to return even to the Cup finals and have iced a number of teams that were among the very worst in franchise history, teams that would have made Conn Smythe blanch.
The Hawks, on the other hand, have twice made it to the finals since (1971 and 1992) and have employed any number of brilliant talents, including Tony Esposito, Chelios, Ed Belfour, Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Doug Wilson and Jeremy Roenick.
But still no Cup victory.
Last season, both the Leafs and Hawks missed the playoffs for the second straight season, although Chicago, with only 71 points, was the fifth-worst team in the league. The Leafs had 91 points, but missed postseason play on the last day of the season.
While neither club is rated as a championship contender this season, each claims to have a bright future. But which of these two long-stumbling Original Six teams is likeliest to end its Cup drought first?
Let's go to the tale of the tape:
As mentioned, the future direction of the Hawks remains unclear. For years, Bill Wirtz declined to divert resources from the family's other businesses to try to buy a Cup, and now, in the salary cap era, that's no longer even possible. The new man in charge will have his hands full just trying to get the Hawks back on the Chicago sports radar, and winning back the legions of fans who have deserted the team over the past decade.
With the Leafs, the team is controlled by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Inc., which also controls the NBA's Toronto Raptors, Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, and is deeply involved with both real estate development in downtown Toronto and arena management around Southern Ontario.
The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan holds controlling interest, while well-heeled businessman Larry Tanenbaum is chairman of the board. Equity in MLSE is constantly rumored to be up for grabs, and both the Leafs and Raptors have long been hampered by internal strife, although the Raptors solved many of their problems last year by hiring former Phoenix executive Bryan Colangelo.
For the most part, Leafs ownership has shown little evidence of an ability to focus the team on winning a Cup. Even this summer, a faction of the board sought a replacement for GM John Ferguson, while other board members supported him.
The edge: Leafs, but Peter Wirtz doesn't have far to climb to make it even.
The Hawks play out of the cavernous United Center, which replaced the wonderfully old Chicago Stadium. The Leafs play out of the Air Canada Centre in the downtown core, which replaced Maple Leaf Gardens.
Neither rink is regarded as one of the NHL's best, although the ACC is far more cozy and compact than the United Center. Both teams control the major streams of revenue.
The edge: The Leafs, only because the United Center stinks.
The Leafs are led by Ferguson, son of the late Montreal Canadiens great, while the Hawks are managed by Dale Tallon, a former player and broadcaster with the team. Neither Ferguson nor Tallon had held a GM position in the NHL before he ascended to his current position, and neither has a track record of management success at any level.
The edge: Even.
Savard, one of only five Hawks players to have his number retired, is in his second season with the club after taking over from Trent Yawney early last season. The jury is very much out on his coaching abilities, and he went into the job without head coaching experience and has never coached an NHL playoff game.
Paul Maurice, who, like Ferguson, was born in 1967, the last year the Leafs won it all, guides the Leafs in his second stop as an NHL coach after leading Carolina to the Cup finals in 2002. Maurice, unlike Savard, never played in the NHL, but is closing in on 800 games coached in the league.
The edge: Leafs.
The Hawks spent heavily to bring in Nikolai Khabibulin after he won the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay. Since then, the Russian netminder has failed to bring the Hawks even a playoff berth. That said, he is far more accomplished than either member of the Leafs' goaltending tandem of incumbent Andrew Raycroft and newcomer Vesa Toskala. Neither stood out during the preseason, and Maurice was mum on which would get the opening-night nod against Ottawa.
The edge: The Hawks.
Martin Havlat leads the Hawks up front, but was oft-injured last season. Experienced shooters like Sergei Samsonov, Martin Lapointe and Yanic Perreault all have their best days behind them. Chicago has little experience on defense outside of newcomer Andrei Zyuzin and Brent Sopel, who was signed right out of the Detroit camp last Friday.
The Leafs have an accomplished star in center Mats Sundin, but one who is also growing long in the tooth. Jason Blake, 34, was signed as a free agent, and forwards like Darcy Tucker, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Boyd Devereaux and Chad Kilger have lots of NHL experience. On the back end, the group includes Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill, all with loads of NHL games on their résumés.
The edge: The Leafs.
By being terrible and out of the playoffs since 2002, the Hawks have put together an impressive list of young talent, including University of North Dakota star Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the first overall pick of last summer's entry draft, as well as Tuomo Ruutu and young American forward Jack Skille.
Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are solid youngsters on the blue line, while Cam Barker is in the system. If Toews and Kane turn into the stars many project them to become, the Hawks could be in business.
The Leafs, as an organization, have fared poorly in the draft for decades. In the past 15 years, they have been particularly bad in trading away picks and prospects for expensive veterans before the institution of the salary cap made that less possible.
They have a strong goalie prospect in Justin Pogge, some viable defensive prospects in Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White, and a young Russian named Nikolai Kulemin who they believe can be an NHL star. For this season, the club is hoping for big contributions from young forwards like Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood, while former No. 1 pick Jiri Tlusty will play in the AHL this season.
Of all these players, however, none are projected to be either first-line forwards or No. 1 pair defensemen. Pogge is the big hope.
The edge: The Hawks easily, although they have a history of failing to develop young talent.
So which drought will end first? Toronto's 41-year-old Cup famine, or that of Chicago, which will hit 47 years next June?
Well, the Hawks will surely hit the half-century mark without winning it all, while the Leafs were closer five years ago than they are now. The Leafs are likely to be better this season and in the immediate future, but the Hawks have a chance with Toews and Kane to be one of the game's most talented young teams if they nurture the prospects they own.
So the answer, really, is neither team appears on schedule to win the Cup anytime soon. But if the Hawks have the right kids and a productive change in ownership direction is in the offing, they look like the better bet somewhere down the line.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."