Captain Fantastic, v1.0
I was hoping someone would get to Captain 33. I'm glad Furrygore did.
We’ll figure out the "X" as we go along. I have in mind who I want to write about, but I’ve never done the exercise before (reflecting on the evolution of which players I have liked the most over the years) and it’ll be interesting to look back at the chronology. First and second are easy, Stan Mikita and Keith Magnuson. But, they’re off limits, too "high profile". Third and fourth are also easy, Denis Savard and Steve Larmer. Savard is off limits and I’ll let someone else tackle Larmer. Which brings us to my fifth Hawks Hero (therefore X=5), Dirk Graham.
Dirk came to us from the hated North Stars in the middle of the 87-88 season but really became a Blackhawk in the next season, his first full one in the Indian Head. Looking back, that season was a turning point for the team. Going in, we had had 3 consecutive first round playoff exits and two consecutive sub-0.500 seasons. We were on our 3rd coach in 3 seasons and the great regular seasons by Savard, Larmer, and Troy Murray were turning into nothing. Even with the new coach, a certain "Iron Mike" Keenan who had recently had a lot of success coaching the Flyers, hopes were not very high, especially after an atrocious start which had us in dead-last in the division. Back then, a team really had to try hard to NOT make the playoffs and we were in danger of not making the postseason for the first time in 20 years.
Of course, I am 100% biased and I admit it, but I still say that the season turned around in a single game. Why am I so biased? Because I was at that single "turning-point" game. I wasn’t a season ticket holder and was just a poor kid still in school, so I was lucky to get to a game or two a year. I was offered the tickets by a friend and I jumped on them because I was home for Christmas break and it was against the f*&king Red Wings who, at that point, were in first place and running away with the division. We were in last, at 8-22-4, having lost 12 of the last 14. Rookie goaltender Ed Belfour was in net for us and he had lost all of his first 5 NHL starts. The Wings were probably expecting an easy "W" but what they got was a beat-down. In both senses of the word. I guess the Hawks had just finally had enough with that crappy season and decided to let all that steam off at once. There were 308 total penalty minutes and it was great. The old barn was ROCKING!!! Louder than I’d EVER heard it. FOURTEEN players had over 10 PIM. I can’t find a box score anywhere but I have it in my memory somewhere that the first fight started right after the opening faceoff. I did find the Dave Manson v Bob Probert fight on Youtube. (For those of you that liked Probert when he was a Blackhawk, you were wrong.)
Obviously, it was a long, fight-marred game, but we roared out to a 3-0 lead, Detroit got one back, and then they were on a 2-man advantage. During that kill, Dirk Graham stole the puck at center ice and buried a short-hander, 3-on-5, which was the back-breaker. We ended up chasing their goalie in the third and winning 7-2.
Yeah, it was only our 9th win of the season. But everything started to change that day. We didn’t light the world on fire, but we did enough to overhaul the Maple Leafs for the last playoff spot, including a 4-3 OT victory over them in the last game of the season. We then beat the Wings in the first round, the Blues in the second round, and lost to the eventual champion Flames in the Conference Finals. Not bad for a team that finished with 14 more losses than wins in the regular season.
In that December 23rd game, Dirk had 2 goals and an assist. The recap called his shorthanded goal the turning point of the game. I look back at it as the turning point of the season. But even more importantly, he imposed his will on the team. He went on to have what turned out to be the best offensive season of his entire career that year, including a team record (that still stands) of 10 short-handed goals. The role he settled into in the years to come was more of a defensive forward who still had the skills to score.
When I see Jonathan Toews lead, and sometimes carry, this current team, I think of Dirk Graham. Dirk’s leadership was plain to all apparently, because in that same 88-89 season, Denis Savard relinquished the captaincy to Dirk about three months after that game. He went on to be the captain for another 6 seasons. When you talk about the great Hawk teams of the early 90’s, you talk about JR, Chelly, and Eddie, but we don’t talk a lot about the guy who was the heart and soul of those teams. In the 6 full seasons that he was captain, we were over 0.500 for all 6. He led the team to 1 Stanley Cup Finals and another 3 Conference Finals. When we call Toews "Captain Fantastic", I think of him as "Captain Fantastic v2.0"; Dirk Graham will always be v1.0.