Up-and-comers Toews, Kane lead Chicago toward Stanley Cup

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Blackhawk coach Joel Quenneville leading the team through a workout.

By Alex Paull

“Here come the Hawks, the mighty Blackhawks.”

The once-familiar battle cry of the Chicago Blackhawks has returned this season after a long absence and has the Blackhawk faithful excited for the first time in what feels like ages.

“Everything is falling into place,” said Bobby Tiltges, senior in Engineering. “People know about them and want to watch Chicago. It was once a strong hockey city, so it was like a rebirth in a way.”

A once-proud franchise, the Hawks fell on hard times in recent years. With dismal teams and a fan base that dwindled with each disappointing year, the Hawks had all but disappeared from sight.

Though the Blackhawks have flirted with success through their long history, they haven’t been able to collect enough championship rings to slip on an entire hand and have reaped much of their success through tradition and history.

With the Blackhawk name enshrined on only three Stanley Cups in an 83-year history, and none since 1961, the lackluster results would seem like more than enough reason for franchises to do whatever necessary to keep fans in the seats.

When a franchise like the Hawks turns sour on the fans, losing teams can only go so far in keeping the fan base alive.

The Blackhawks have been owned by the Wirtz family for more than 60 years, and it was Bill Wirtz’s reign that almost put the franchise six feet under, as far as the fans were concerned. Notorious for being cheap and letting talented players go, it was his decision to not televise home games and sever ties with legendary Hawk players and longtime broadcaster Pat Foley that drew most of the ire from fans.

“There was no continuity,” said Billy Donahue, junior in Engineering and a family season-ticket holder for six seasons. “You couldn’t follow the team on a day-to-day basis, you lose the continuity and excitement. My dad in particular, the days he couldn’t go the game, he would have to sit at the computer and listen to it on the radio, which didn’t make him happy.”

But now, with a third-generation Wirtz at the helm (Rocky), the Hawks have enjoyed a renaissance this season. More importantly, the young, skillful squad has emerged with the third-most points in the Western Conference to catapult the Hawks into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Led by two 20-year-old All-Stars, captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the youth movement has paced a team that finished fourth in goals per game (3.17) and finished in the top-five in goals allowed per game (2.55). The Hawks’ performance hasn’t gone unnoticed on campus.

“My house in particular has been watching the games,” Jordan Pringle, senior captain of the Illinois hockey team, said. “During the season, every Thursday night we tried getting the team together for a team dinner and watch the Blackhawks … Most of what we paid attention to was how hard they played, particularly with blocking shots and the intensity they brought. The season is 82 games and they play hard every game.”

Despite the tremendous strides the team has made this season, the Hawks lack playoff experience. Besides goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and forwards Andrew Ladd and Samuel Pahlsson, none of the other Hawks has been fortunate enough to sip from Lord Stanley’s Cup.

However, despite not being playoff-tested, the Hawks have found success against their first-round opponent, the Calgary Flames. On their way to sweeping the season series against the fifth-seeded Flames, the fourth-seeded Hawks outscored Calgary 19-7, including 11-3 in Chicago, where the first two games of the series will take place, with game one Thursday.

“The Hawks are going to walk over Calgary,” Tiltges said. “The Flames aren’t playing well right now and aren’t a match for the Hawks.”

However the series plays out, the damage has already been done — the Hawks have become relevant once again. The Blackhawk faithful who had once turned their backs on the franchise are now flocking back again.

“It was a huge promotional job well done,” Donahue said of the transformation. “The excitement in Chicago and (campus). I see jerseys and shirts at the bars all the time.”

Lovable once again, perhaps losers no more.