Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 27, 2010

For One Team, The Hockey Gods Will Be Mean Gods

The final round of this season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs begins on Saturday, and at least one thing is certain. In a week or two, when the captain of the winning team begins to skate his victory lap, the Cup held high above his head, fans in one city are going to experience the unrivaled euphoria that comes with finally ending decades of disappointment.

In all of sports, the loyal supporters of the Chicago Cubs, now more than a century removed from their last World Championship, are perhaps the best known fans who can fairly be described as “long-suffering.” But every game has its teams who have spent years far removed from glory, and whose fans can relate to the supporters of the Cubs. This year the hockey gods have conspired to allow not one, but two such teams to skate their way into the finals.

Organized in 1926, the Chicago Blackhawks are one of the Original Six teams that have been NHL franchises since the early days of the league, and continue to skate today. Those six teams, Boston, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto in addition to Chicago were the entirety of major league hockey in North America from 1942 when the last of several other early league members folded, until 1967 when the NHL began its modern expansion. Of the six, the Blackhawks’ history is the least distinguished. They were the next to last of the Original Six to win the Stanley Cup, with their first championship coming in 1933. A year later Detroit beat Chicago in the finals to become the last of the group with a championship. But in the years since the Red Wings have gone on to win eleven Cups, the most of any team headquartered in the United States. In contrast Chicago’s three Cups are the fewest championships among the Original Six, with their last coming in 1961.

For nearly half a century, loyal fans have made their way to seats at Chicago Stadium and, since 1994, the United Center, only to endure season after season of disappointment. Not surprisingly, at some point along the way the number of fans choosing to do so dwindled. This was especially true in the early years of this century when owner “Dollar Bill” Wirtz seemingly went out of his way to antagonize fans while putting an inferior product on the ice. Ticket prices were raised, home games were taken off television, and a beloved TV and radio announcer was summarily dismissed. In 2004 ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in professional sports. I presume they meant among franchises not owned by Dan Snyder. But I digress.

Then less than three years ago Wirtz died suddenly, and was succeeded by his son Rocky. Almost immediately things began to change for the better. Putting games back on television and bringing back announcer Pat Foley pleased the fans, but more important was a front office shakeup and aggressive pursuit of talent through trades and free agency that put a far better product on the ice. In 2008-2009 the Blackhawks led the NHL in home attendance while finishing fourth in the Western Conference, eventually losing to Detroit in the Conference finals. This season Chicago moved up to second in the Conference while setting a franchise record for wins and points (52 and 112). They have moved steadily through the first three rounds of the playoffs, beating both Nashville and Vancouver four games to two before crushing top seed San Jose in a four game sweep of the Conference finals. Now Blackhawks fans, more than two generations removed from the ultimate victory, are just four wins away from ecstasy.

Across the red line from Chicago will be the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers. Aside from their similar Stanley Cup drought, in both their history and their performance during the current season, the Flyers could not be more different from the Blackhawks.

Along with Los Angeles, Minnesota, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, Philadelphia was part of the doubling in size that resulted from the NHL’s first wave of modern expansion in 1967. But in contrast to Chicago’s standing among the Original Six, the Flyers were the first of the six expansion teams to win the Stanley Cup, doing so in both 1974 and 1975. They also have the second highest regular season winning percentage (.576) in the history of the NHL, and the most playoff appearances and Conference final appearances (34 and 15) of any expansion team. What they have not been able to do in thirty-five years is capture their third Cup.

Through most of the 2009-2010 regular season the Flyers did little to cause their fans to think that the long drought was potentially near an end. Riddled by injuries throughout their lineup, the Flyers were particularly hard hit in goal. Over the course of the season they were forced to start seven different netminders due to a succession of injuries. Tied with the New York Rangers for the final playoff spot on the last day of the season, fate had Philadelphia facing off against New York in a regular season finale that had all of the pressure of a playoff series game seven. Tied after regulation and overtime, the game went to a climactic shootout that the Flyers won 2-1.

But as improbable as their entry into the playoffs was, once in the postseason the Flyers have certainly played like they belong. First they pulled their annual upset of the New Jersey Devils, four games to one, becoming the only team to advance to round two in less than six games. Then they cut out the hearts of Bruins fans with a dull spoon, rallying from a three games to none deficit to win the second round series in seven. In the Conference finals they put an abrupt end to the magical playoff run of eighth seed Montreal and goalie Jaroslav Halak, winning in five games including three shutouts. Now Flyers fans, nearly two generations removed from the ultimate victory, are just four wins away from ecstasy.

And that of course is the irony of this year’s Stanley Cup Finals. The fact that we can be certain that the long suffering of one team’s fans is about to be replaced by euphoria is matched by the equal certainty that supporters of the losing skaters will once more taste the bitter bile of a seemingly interminable drought. On paper the Blackhawks are the better team. But the Finals will be played on ice, not paper. Both teams have won eight of their last nine games. For the Flyers, that string of course included winning four straight elimination games in the series against the Bruins, a feat accomplished only three times in NHL history. So who knows? Certainly not me; I’m a fan, not an analyst. What I do know is that when the winning captain finally begins that victory lap, I’ll rejoice with those who are crying tears of joy. But a big part of my heart will be with those who are, for yet another year, just crying tears.

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