For the third time in the last six seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks are back in the Stanley Cup Final. This is a feat relatively unheard of in today's National Hockey League landscape, which encourages parity through the utilization of a strict salary cap. While folks are expecting that aspect to come crashing down on the Hawks similar to the way it did after the 2009-10 season, they'll have a chance to become the closest thing to a dynasty that one has seen in recent years in the NHL.
Yet, the importance of the Blackhawks far beyond even their recent string of success. The transformation from NHL laughingstock to league powerhouse that began with the drafting of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane is obviously a tremendously important element of all of this. But the talk surrounding the Blackhawks should transition from the evolution of the team to the overwhelming importance that this team represents to the city of Chicago.
Outside of the Blackhawks, the Chicago sports climate is a relatively ugly one. Whether it's blatant disregard for good judgement in signing a player with a criminal history or a front office that has an inability to get along with an elite head coach or just a general inability to compete at an effective level, the Blackhawks truly represent salvation from the majority of the rest of the Chicago sports scene.
The Chicago Bears are an absolute laughingstock. A team coming off of a down year in the most frustrating of fashions signed defensive tackle Ray McDonald in the offseason. A player with a history of domestic violence issues, front office personnel from their general manager on up downplayed the issues and presented him as a man ready to transform his image. He was arrested twice last week. Though he was cut after the first time, his initial presence was already inexcusable.
Add this to the drama surrounding a team that clearly doesn't want its quarterback in the mix, that has traded it's no. 1 receiver without much of an explanation, and the obvious fact that the team that generally isn't expected to compete with much of anything, and the number of people who had a substantial interest in this team appears to be declining. Say what you want about the NFL's popularity, there are those who have been turned off by its rash of off-field issues and overall failure in leadership.
The Bulls don't bring the off-the-court issues to the table quite like the Bears do, but they're an overwhelmingly frustrating entity in their own right. A team that has found some decent regular season success only to fail repeatedly in the postseason fired Tom Thibodeau, looked at by many as an elite head coach in the game. There were obviously flaws in his coaching style, primarily in his utilization of players, but it's yet another failure for a front office that has a long track record of them. The franchise itself doesn't seem to have the connection with the fans that other teams, whether in the NBA or in the city of Chicago itself, strive for. Outside of Jimmy Butler, there isn't a whole lot to be excited about regarding the team, either.
When the new MLB season began, the White Sox and the Cubs both looked like teams primed to compete. Two months into the season, the White Sox have been a colossal failure, even with the vast improvements that they made in the offseason. Should they continue on their journey in the cellar of the American League Central, interest could wane by the time we reach the real summer months, as it has in recent years. The Jerry Reinsdorf thing can't be a coincidence, right?
I'll be charged with bias, but the Chicago Cubs perhaps represent an exception here. They've been increasingly competitive and have a number of new marketable, young faces making their way to the bigs. Already with the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro in place, the team has called up top prospects such as Jorge Soler (going back to last year), Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell. With Joe Maddon at the helm and an increasingly interactive social media team, they're on a track similar to that of the Hawks. They're not consistently competitive yet, but they're on the way.
Regardless, the incompetence of much of the rest of the Chicago sports scene, which was run through at a mere flyby here, gives way to illustrating the importance of the Blackhawks to the city.
In the Hawks, the city not only has a competitive team gracing the city, but it has one that sits extremely well with fans. Hockey players are generally easygoing and somewhat relatable, and the cast of characters which hit the ice for the Blackhawks represent just that. The stars have become ingrained in the city, with the faces of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane regularly being seen around town. The two, in addition to the likes of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, represent talents grown from within the franchise that have reached a historic level with the team itself.
Recent years have seen the addition of even younger, high upside talents like Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen. Saad has firmly established himself as an NHL force, while Teuvo has shown flashes of being an elite offensive player and still has a long way to go in his game's development.
The Hawks' media team gives a mainstream audience regular looks behind the scenes. Their Winter Classic appearance, no doubt due to their heavy marketability, allowed them to be broadcast on the 24/7 program, even with the change in provider, and gave a mainstream audience a look behind the scenes. Even things as simple as postgame videos showing the exchange of the belt go a long way towards helping the team connect with its fans. Other teams, especially ones like the Bears or Bulls, lack in that sort of access, and as a result, have less of a connection with fans than their Chicago counterparts.
But overall, it comes down to their success. In each instance of the Blackhawks reaching the Stanley Cup Final, this has been the state of the Chicago sports scene. The Blackhawks have represented a lone wolf, in terms of actual success in recent years. Which is why we've seen such a large increase in their following. Many have serious gripes with the "bandwagon" crowd, but can you blame them?
The same will be true regardless of the outcome of this upcoming series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Hawks' transition from one of the worst franchises in all of sports, to league powerhouse has been nothing short of astounding, but has also been well-documented. Perhaps just as notable is what this team means to the city of Chicago. With the rest of the city's teams lacking any sort of consistency or a legitimate connection with its respective fanbase, among a whole rash of other issues, the importance of this Chicago Blackhawks team cannot be overstated.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.