May 13, 1996.
Ask any true Blackhawks fan what that date means and they'll tell you it represents the last great day in the team's history under Dollar Bill Wirtz. On that date, the Colorado Avalanche eliminated the Blackhawks in OT of Game 6 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
The Avs would go on to win their first of two Cups in Denver while the Blackhawks, as we knew them back then, faded away. That game turned out to be Jeremy Roenick's final game in Chicago. And as somebody who modeled his street hockey game after JR, I have to say that was a crushing blow.
JR was supposed to spend his entire career in Chicago just as Mike Modano is destined to spend his entire career here in Dallas.
Instead, Dollar Bill Wirtz lived up to his cheapskate nickname and wouldn't give Roenick what he deserved financially. So, he was traded to Phoenix for Alexei Zhamnov and a bunch of spares. JR would go on to have a prosperous career with the Coyotes, Flyers, Kings, and Sharks. And along the way, his jaw was operated on by the skillful elbow of one Derian Hatcher.
For the Hawks, the trade started a slide way past mediocrity and all the way into the depths of irrelevancy on the crowded sports scene. Other fan favorites such as Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios were traded in subsequent years for prospects that didn't pan out...to put it nicely.
Real Hawks fans could see what was going on, though. Wirtz was selling out the team's legacy for pennies on the dollar. But he didn't care.
This was a man who once listened to a member of this front office propose how the Hawks could compete for a Stanley Cup and then shot the proposal down by saying that Stanley Cups are too expensive. Naturally, fans left the team in droves and iconic stars of the past such as Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull also withdrew their support of the club out of disgust.
Rooting for the Hawks in Chicago back then wasn't like rooting for the Cubbies. Oh sure, you knew there was a 99.9% chance the Cubs were going to break your heart at the end of the day. But you can bet your ass that the Tribune Company would never tell a GM or assistant GM that World Series titles were "too expensive".
It was clear that since Dollar Bill had no intention of selling the club, the only way the Blackhawks would ever return as a serious competitor in the NHL was if Wirtz died. This wasn't a sick and twisted wish as much as it was the reality of the situation if you were a Hawks fan.
And on September 26, 2007, that's exactly what happened to Dollar Bill. He passed away and his son, Rocky Wirtz, took over operations of the club after Bill's other son, Peter, essentially said, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Seemed like a small move at the time. And we'll never know if that decision by Peter Wirtz would have altered history as we sit here today. But I don't want to know.
What I do know is that Rocky Wirtz learned from his father's mistakes. Understanding that not televising your team's home games locally smacked of idiocy, Rocky quickly went to work by ensuring all the club's games would be televised in subsequent seasons.
He also realized that without recognizing the club's storied past as an Original Six club, there was no future. So he buried the hatchet on behalf of the Blackhawks organization and welcomed the Hawks old stars back into the fold.
And oh yeah, he opened up the vault and authorized GM Dale Tallon to go out and spend a little money. Sure, it's going to put the club into quite a bind in this offseason. But on a day like today, it seems worth it.
Wirtz also hired John McDonough, formerly of the Chicago Cubs, to help rehabilitate the club's image in the eyes of Chicagoans. One of McDonough's first moves was create an annual fan convention for Hawks fans in Chicago to visit during the offseason.
Thus far, the club has held two such Blackhawk Conventions and they've been wildly popular.
But nothing helps bring the fanbase back like winning. And in the last two years, the Blackhawks have won more than any other club in hockey.
Up until last season, the club had missed the playoffs in every year from 1998 to 2007, with the exception of the 2002 season. When they defeated the Calgary Flames in six games, it represented the first time the club had won a playoff series since 1996. The ride continued with a six game victory over the Vancouver Canucks before they were dispatched by a more experienced Detroit Red WIngs squad in the Western Conference Finals.
And then this playoff season rolled around and culminated with tonight's OT win in the most unusual of fashions.
So that concludes the sappy sentimental portion of this post. What follows next are my thoughts on last night's game.
If there were any doubts leading into Game 6 about the Hawks ability to weather the storm from the orange and black, those fears were quickly resolved on the very first shift of the game as the Kopecky-Towes-Hossa line pinned the Flyers deep, generating a couple of scoring chances along the way. From a territorial standpoint, it was a repeat of Game 1, minus all the Chicago goals midway through the period.
No, tonight, the Flyers were at least able to hold off the charge until Chris Pronger was sent off for a cross check to the back of Towes. And just like in Game 5, his absence was noticeable as Dustin Byfuglien found himself with plenty of space to work with in front of the Flyer net. Space that allowed him to cash in off a rebound from a Toews shot from right out front to open the scoring 16:49 in.
At this point in the game, the Hawks had 17 of the game's 20 shots. But the game would soon turn as Philly, which has been deadly lethal on the power play throughout these playoffs, picked up two late opportunities. The last of which was off a chintzy interference penalty on Brent Sopel behind the play.
The Flyers generated shots and chances on the first power play by mainly relying on their point men to generate shots on goal and their forwards to fight for rebounds. On the second power play, that recipe led to a game tying goal by Scott Hartnell from in front with 26.5 seconds left in the first period on a back hand shot through Antti Niemi's five hole.
That goal set the tone for the middle frame for Philadelphia as they tightened up their defense on the penalty kill and barely allowed any chances on Chicago's first two opportunities with the man advantage in the period. And then in the middle part, Mike Richards leveled Tomas Kopecky with a booming hit along the boards that ignited the crowd at Wachovia Center.
Moments later, the Flyers took their first and only lead of the game on an odd man rush into the Chicago zone as Danny Briere took Ville Leino's feed and scored into a wide open net at the 8:00 mark. Leino was sprung by Duncan Keith falling down after his skates clacked with Hartnell's at the blue line in what I saw as incidental contact.
And then, another turning point.
On Chicago's third power play of the game, Marian Hossa did what any power forward is taught to do here in North America. He got the puck and crashed the net. And for that, he picked up the worst penalty call of the playoffs taking the Hawks off the final 30 seconds of the power play.
But it was during this 30 second 4-on-4 segment that the game turned, again. With tons of open ice to work with, Duncan Keith entered the zone, passed the puck to the middle over to Dave Bolland, who fed Dave Bolland for the game tying goal.
From a Philly perspective, the play was a mess from the word get go. From the moment Keith touched the puck in his own zone and carried it through the neutral zone and into the Flyers' zone, there wasn't a Philly defender with 10 feet of him. When he got into the zone, Simon Gagne gave token resistance, Lukas Krajciek tried to come over to cut off the pass but wound up giving Bolland more space to work with when he couldn't cut it off, and Matt Carle wasn't able to cut off the pass over to Patrick Sharp.
Still, Micheal Leighton appeared to be in a good position to deal with the shot. But Sharp's a sniper. And from just inside the faceoff dot off the right wing, he fired the puck through Leighton's five hole to kill the Flyers' momentum.
Armed with momentum of their own, the Hawks killed off the BS call penalty on Hossa, re-established their territorial dominance, and took the lead when Niklas Hjalmarsson's point shot from the left point was deflected by Andrew Ladd at the 17:43 mark of the second period. BTW, Ladd sustained a broken shoulder in the series against San Jose and continued to play with that injury in the final three games of the series.
Hockey players are tough. But you already knew that.
So Chicago took a 3-2 lead into the third and the Flyers looked gassed. For all his faults in this series, I think Leighton did very well at this point in the game to give his team a chance to come back. And after Chicago was able to carry the play early in the third, they seemed to fall back into prevent mode.
And that was an open invite for the Flyers to charge back into the game. From about the 15 minute mark on in the third period, my heart was pounding. I knew one of either two things was going to happen in the frame.
Either Philly was going to tie it up, or the Hawks were going to win the Cup.
And in true Flyer fashion, they tied it up when a puck deflected off Marian Hossa in front and almost went into the net on it's own before Scott Hartnell got a stick on it to claim his second goal of the game at the 16:01 mark. From that point on with a Wachovia Center crowd going bonkers, the Blackhawks were, as Razor would say, like a cat hanging onto the couch by it's claws.
The Flyers weren't going to be content with just tying the game and sending it into OT. They kept the pressure on and forced Chicago into consecutive icings. They were going to win it in regulation. And they almost did when Jeff Carter found a rebound in front of a downed Antii Niemi but just couldn't elevate it high enough. The Hawks Finnish born netminder made the save with his facemask and it was onto OT.
Obviously, the OT period ended gloriously for Chicago. But it almost ended disastrously as Duncan Keith first almost gave the puck away to Mike Richards in the slot. After Niemi cleared the puck to the boards, Richards fired a shot from the corner, Keith mishandled the puck, and Claude Giroux almost had his second OT winner of this Stanley Cup Finals series.
And then after a couple of minutes of end-to-end play where the Flyers had the lion's share of scoring chances, it happened. Being hockey fans, we know what sudden death really means in the context of playoff hockey.
But there wasn't anything sudden about Patrick Kane's OT winner at the 3:10 mark. It went in. But because the shot nestled under the padding in the net and was hidden from view, only a handful of Blackhawks emptied off the bench and started celebrating. It wasn't until one of the assistant's in charge of monitoring the video review feed notified the bench that Kane's goal was good that the party was on.
It took a good 30 to 45 seconds, but I'll take it.
To Flyer fans, we know what it's like to watch a team skate a Cup on your home ice after a memorable playoff run. I remember watching Game 6 of the 2000 Cup Finals when Jason Arnott drove that same stake through our hearts that Patrick Kane drove through your's. It damn near ruined my vacation with my then-fiancee at Niagara Falls.
In the days ahead, you'll start feeling better. Just pop in the DVD from the Phillies' 2008 World Series Championship and you'll be fine. This season, the Flyers embodied the spirit of never giving up like no other team. And while they didn't win the Cup this year, they did etch their names in the history book in the second round for all of eternity.
Chins up, guys.
For Hawks fans, celebrate this. I know the front office will have to pay the Cap piper this offseason. But that's to worry about for another day.
Today, your Blackhawks are the champions.