Commentary

Blackhawks' motto for the new season: It's "earn it" time

Updated: October 10, 2008, 1:27 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Outside the United Center, there are hundreds of folks in Chicago Blackhawks jerseys. Some are running or rollerblading, some are playing three-on-three hockey or waiting for bands to start playing during this first Blackhawks training camp festival.

[+] EnlargeBrian Campbell
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comDefenseman Brian Campbell, one of the Hawks' big offseason acquisitions, signed an eight-year, $56.8 million deal with the club.

Inside?

Let's just say if the event that drew some 5,800 represents the hurricane of enthusiasm that has enveloped this once-moribund Original Six franchise, then the players moving around the ice represent the eye of that hurricane.

This is a team that has resided somewhere between loathed and ignored. A pro sports team that has been a part of this town's sporting fabric since 1926 -- but it had become a national embarrassment.

Now, that embarrassment, that anger, that disinterest, has been replaced by an intoxicating mixture of hope and expectation.

Making the playoffs isn't just a suggestion or a quietly uttered hope; it's a demand and a necessity.

For the first time since the heyday of Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour in the early 1990s, there is something approaching Blackhawk fever in Chicago.

For the first time, all 82 Blackhawks games will be on television.

Season-ticket sales hit an all-time high at the United Center this fall, with almost 14,000, and there was talk of capping the number to make sure there were group and walk-up tickets available. Last season, that number had bottomed out at 3,500.

Patrick Kane was named rookie of the year last season, the team's first major award since Chris Chelios won the Norris Trophy in 1996.

Legendary coach Scotty Bowman came on board in the offseason as a senior advisor, helping round out what is now an impressive front office that also includes Bowman's son, Stan, GM Dale Tallon and assistant GM Rick Dudley. Even disposed Colorado coach Joel Quenneville called and asked if he could do some scouting in the Denver area.

The team will host the much-anticipated outdoor game against Detroit on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field that will draw more national attention to the Blackhawks and the city.

The team is even putting in a state-of-the-art dressing room, including a theater for players to watch video, something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago under former owner Bill Wirtz.

There are expectations, but they are realistic expectations. It's been my experience that if you are afraid of expectations, you never had any intention of realizing them. Now, it's 'earn it' time.

--Blackhawks president John McDonough

Now, with his son Rocky at the helm and former Chicago Cubs rainmaker John McDonough holding the title of team president, the Blackhawks are the Lazarus of NHL franchises.

"We have a lot of ground to make up. We have a lot of years to make up for," McDonough said in a recent interview.

Still, in his 10 months on the job, McDonough said he has been approached by more people about the future and fortunes of the Blackhawks than at any time in the 24 years he was with the Chicago Cubs.

Now, all the team has to do is win.

Because for all of the buzz surrounding the team, for all of the feel-good stories written, for the optimism surrounding this team both locally and nationally, the reality is the Blackhawks have reached the postseason just once in the past 10 NHL postseasons. They haven't won a playoff series since 1996 and, of course, haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1961, the longest drought in the NHL.

"That's going to be our goal this year, win games, make the playoffs. Pretty simple," new captain Jonathan Toews said.

Last season, the Blackhawks made a 17-point jump in the standings over the previous campaign. They did so without top forward Martin Havlat, hurt yet again for the majority of the season, and top center Toews for six weeks. When most observers figured the Hawks would fold, they didn't and finished just three points out of the playoffs.

"It would have been easy for us to pack it in and go away," said Patrick Sharp, who was recently named assistant captain. "I think everyone's excited. It's going to be interesting to find out how it turns out."

Ya think?

You can almost hear the collective hockey world holding its breath.

Remember when the Rangers were on the rise in New York in the early and mid-1990s? The game was at its zenith. Imagine if hockey was king, or at least a nicely turned out prince, in Chicago. Imagine what would that mean for the game.

"All our markets are important, but obviously, when a team goes through an extended stretch where fan enthusiasm and support start to wane, it is great to see the turnaround and the passion reignited," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via e-mail this week. "Chicago is a major media market and has always been one of the biggest and best sports cities in the world."

[+] EnlargeTallon and McDonough
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comTeam president John McDonough, left, and GM Dave Tallon both know making the playoffs is a must for the Blackhawks this season.

He added: "Blackhawks fans have always been there, they just needed a reason to engage. The combination of some great business decisions by club management and the exciting, young team they have assembled on the ice have given them that reason."

National analyst Darren Pang said he thinks the hockey media sometimes make too much of whether the big markets are in the playoffs. But having played in Chicago, Pang said he thinks it's relevant.

"It's enormous for the league," he said of the vibrancy of the hockey market in the Windy City. "We need places like Chicago to carry on the tradition. Now they're back to being a proud franchise again. It's so awesome."

The basis for the belief that this is the season to make that big jump? The evolution of existing talent and the addition of key pieces like defenseman Brian Campbell and netminder Cristobal Huet.

Many will point to the arc of success followed by the Pittsburgh Penguins the past three seasons. The Pens finished 29th overall in the first season after the lockout, surprised many by making the playoffs two seasons ago and then advanced to the Stanley Cup finals last spring.

"It happened really fast for Pittsburgh. It's happening really fast for us, too," Toews said.

Too fast? Not according to the Blackhawks and observers who believe the team is ready.

"Now we've got to produce. No excuses now," Tallon said.

"I don't think anyone here is getting carried away with anything. No one here is getting giddy or gushy," said McDonough, who is widely credited with making the Chicago Cubs a national institution. "There are expectations, but they are realistic expectations. It's been my experience that if you are afraid of expectations, you never had any intention of realizing them.

"Now, it's 'earn it' time."

The charismatic president likens the team to a house that has been restored externally and had its grounds nicely manicured. "On Oct. 10, we're going to go inside the house."

The promising thing for the Blackhawks is, after years of woeful drafting and worse development, they are chock-a-block in young talent in Chicago and on the farm in Rockford, where there's more talent waiting for a chance to prove itself at the NHL level.

Cam Barker, the third overall pick in 2004, was recently sent to Rockford in part because of the emergence of players like Niklas Hjalmarsson, 21, who Tallon said reminds him of Detroit's hard-hitting Niklas Kronwall.

The Hawks' opening-day roster figures to have two skaters who are 30 or older, Craig Adams and Brent Sopel. Other than that, it's up to the kids.

"Now they've got to believe in themselves," Tallon said. "I think they learned a lot about themselves last year in the second half."

Last season, Sharp led the team with a career-best 36 goals. He's back to meet expectations for the team, and himself.

[+] EnlargePatrick Kane
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comBlackhawks forward Patrick Kane returns after winning rookie of the year honors last season.

"Last year, I wanted to show that I could score at this level," Sharp said. "This year, I want to prove that it wasn't a one-year thing."

No one is really wondering if Kane is a one-year thing, but there has been an evolution there, too. Last season, many wondered if the spindly kid from Buffalo could handle the rigors of an NHL season. Not only did he handle them, he also won Rookie of the Year honors and then joined the U.S. squad for the World Championships.

"When the World Championships were over, it was definitely a relief," Kane said.

In all, Kane played about 92 games, a lot for anyone, let alone an 18-year-old trying to figure out what he needed to do to keep pace emotionally and physically. "I wasn't really physically fit last year," he said.

He admits he hit a wall midway through the season, but managed to pull himself out to finish strong. "Definitely, when I hit the wall, I was like, what? I didn't know what was going on," Kane said.

He's about 10 pounds heavier now and filling out his frame. Kane also calls making the playoffs "a must."

"You want those expectations. You want the building full," he said.

Is there a sense of nervousness, then, for this young team?

"I don't that it's nerves," Brent Seabrook said. "We've always wanted to do well. This year, we have more tools to go out there and do it."

And then, there is Campbell.

There is something not quite prickly and not quite cuddly about him. He is steadfast in how he views himself and how he thinks he should be viewed by others. For instance, he will have none of this "Brian Campbell to save the Blackhawks" kind of talk.

He also rejects the notion that he is somehow in any different position here in Chicago than he was in San Jose, where the Sharks gave up a ton to pry him out of Buffalo, or with the Sabres when they went to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2005 and 2006.

"It's not new to me," Campbell said. "That's what I wanted. It's what I'm used to. They didn't sign me to change. There's no science to it. All the great leaders don't change. You either are or you aren't."

Kind of like the Blackhawks. They either are or they aren't.

Time to find out.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.