Put aside the talks of dynasty. Ignore the five Western Conference Finals in seven years and three Blackhawks, the 2014-15 edition, that quite honestly might be my favorite group of them all.s in six years. Ignore the upcoming cap crunch that will surely see some major changes. For a moment, I want to talk about these
It starts with the way last year ended. After going down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks battled back to tie the series at 3-3. The series came down to little more than a crap shoot, with Game 7 going to overtime. It was a well contested OT, and then on a innocent little play, it was over. Nick Leddy got hit by a shot that squeezed through his armpit and over Corey Crawford. Nothing either could do. Unfair and unjust, the Hawks were done.
This season would be different. It had to be, and it had the feel that it would be. From preseason to playoffs, everyone knew this team would be special. After the Kings won last year's Stanley Cup, the Hawks were instantly named the odds-on favorite to win it this year. The additions of Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen along the way helped to solidify these Hawks as a Cup favorite, even after earning only the third seed in the tough Central Division when the regular season came to a close.
They battled through a playoffs where at almost every turn there were doubters waiting to see them fall from grace. Nashville Predators' goaltender Pekka Rinne was supposed to be unsolvable. The Minnesota Wild were too hot to lose. The Anaheim Ducks were too physical for the shallow Chicago blue line. The Tampa Bay Lightning were waiting in the wings to become the next Hawks. All of them presented obstacles to this team, yet none could stop them.
But more so than the tough playoff grind, what impressed me and endeared me most to this edition of the Hawks was the way they battled through one of the hardest regular seasons any team faced in the NHL this year. Not in competition or schedule, which are ideally equal across the board, but in the off-the-ice world, where they're not hockey players, but human beings with family and friends.
In November, rookie defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk suffered a broken left kneecap, effectively ending what had been a strong and promising rookie season to that point. Later that same month, Patrick Sharp suffered a leg injury that kept him out for a month.
As the calendar turned to 2015, things continued to snowball.
At the Winter Classic, Kris Versteeg saw what was a solid season to that point come to halt due to a broken hand. In February, Patrick Kane suffered a broken clavicle and was told he'd miss three months. All impacting the players and team in different ways, creating doubt in this group and presenting reason for shaken hopes.
But in the end, the injuries didn't matter. Van Riemsdyk returned and made four appearances in the Stanley Cup Final. Sharp played a key role on one of the Blackhawks best lines this postseason alongside Vermette and Teravainen. Versteeg came up big in Games 5 and 6 against Tampa Bay. And Kane returned for the beginning of the playoffs, and, well, was Patrick Kane.
But more than injuries to the body, it was injuries and shots to the heart that perhaps took the greatest toll on this team.
These Blackhawks struggled through the deaths of two close friends in equipment manager Clint Reif and former teammate Steve Montador, both of which came under unfortunate and trying circumstances. I've never experienced something as jarring as a friend taking their own life, but I imagine there's a great load of grief and guilt involved, especially when you're around that person every day. You wonder if there's more you could've done. You miss that presence in the room. And not just that, but at that time of Reif's death, the team was being followed around by camera crews recording EPIX's Road to the Winter Classic. Grief on full display for the world to see.
Then, near the trade deadline, rumors began to swirl again about unrest in the locker room due to infidelities and issues off the ice. A public relations lose-lose situation for the team, as if you cop to it being true, you're only feeding the monster, and if you deny it, people will just chalk it up as a common denial. "What else are they supposed to say?"
Then there was Monday's heartbreaking news on the unfortunate state of one of the greatest men to don the Four Feathers, Stan Mikita. Suffering from dementia and possible CTE, Mikita has been in poor health at a Chicago facility since January. His memory of his incredible NHL career is gone. His family described him as a shell of himself.
Horrible and unfair events that certainly jarred them as humans, but somehow they needed to put that aside for 60 minutes a night and act like they're nothing more than hockey players. And as time wore on, as they became more removed from the immediacy of those events, I'm sure that got a bit easier for them to do. But I don't doubt that it stuck with them, and I'd bet my last dollar that they had Reif, Montador, Mikita and their families on their mind as they hoisted the Cup above their heads and skated it around the ice in front of a raucous crowd.
The Cup runs of 2010 and 2013 were fun and exciting. The first time was all about this young core finally showing what they were about, and that they would be here to stay. The second time was a return to that level after two years of a bit of reloading. This time, the Cup shows that this group is among the best, most resilient teams the NHL -- or any sport, really -- has ever seen.
But this team was about more than solidifying a dynasty or asserting dominance. This group was about standing toe-to-toe with adversity and heartbreak, and rather than letting it cause an implosion, using it as inspiration. And that's what makes this group so special. This is more than a Cup. This is closure.
Thank you, 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks, for a season I'll never forget.