The Blackhawks don’t need the Red Wings.
They don’t need to play them more than twice a year. They don’t need them in their division. They don’t even need to meet them in the playoffs.
Still, I watched Tuesday night’s 4-3 OT victory and missed the hell out of the Red Wings. That game had all the reminders of what made their rivalry so great — tight play for three periods with forwards dazzling up front, strong defense on the back end, dirty goals, end-to-end action, and the sense that neither team could relax at any point.
Hawks-Wings was a rivalry born of repetition — the teams having played each other more than any two franchises in the league — that became a way to measure success, with Chicago and Detroit most recently trading off the crown of what it meant to be the gold standard in the NHL.
The Hawks don’t need a rival. It’s just that hockey is way more fun with one. And lately Chicago hasn’t been able to keep one around for more than a few years. That’s not to say anything can replace Detroit. It can’t. But looking at the past ten years, and the decade ahead, it doesn’t seem likely that any viciousness between the Hawks and their opponents will last more than a few seasons.
(A quick note before we dig in: I’m not including the Kings in this column. The Hawks played a fantastic few series with them in the playoffs, but that’s all it was. The animosity, the history, the anger, none of it was there. What we saw were two incredibly matched teams playing at their highest levels. It was incredibly hockey, but to call it a rivalry is a big stretch).
The main issue with Chicago’s rivals over the last ten years is two-fold. The salary cap makes it incredibly tough to keep great teams together for so long, and the Hawks have more or less defeated challengers into submission.
In the Kane/Toews era, there have really been three rivalries with varying degrees of intensity the Hawks have been involved in.
The most vicious: Vancouver Canucks (2008-2011)
Dustin Byfuglien punched Roberto Luongo in the neck, Ben Eager tried to rip Kevin Bieksa apart (mostly succeeding) and Alexandre Burrows pulled Duncan Keith’s hair.
Now that’s how you start rivalry.
Of course, this had been building for a few games. The young Hawks were just starting to figure out how to dominate a conference that saw the Canucks as one of the top contenders. We were lucky enough to get three straight playoff matchups between the two teams. The Hawks won the first two series before the Canucks finally defeated Chicago in seven games in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. Vancouver went on to lose to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final that year. Both teams went through pretty massive makeovers around that time, and while the Hawks remolded themselves into one of the league’s best teams, the Canucks fell off. They’ve been toiling in mediocrity ever since.
That’s an overly simplistic explanation, but still, I’ve never enjoyed watching hockey more than I did from 2008-2011.
The changing of the guard: Detroit Red Wings (2009-2013)
As mentioned above, the Wings were arguably the best-run franchise in sports when the Hawks were making their ascent. In 2009, Detroit schooled Chicago for a 4-1 series win in the Western Conference Final.
The current core of Hawks won their first Stanley Cup the following year, then validated their success three seasons later when they battled back from a 3-1 series deficit against Detroit en route to another Stanley Cup victory.
The Wings were the model franchise. Following the 2013 season, that title was bestowed upon the Hawks. Detroit’s stars were aging and the team was switching conferences. This was a grand finale of sorts. And while the Wings-Hawks matchups will always carry a little extra weight, they’ll never be the same while they play in different conferences.
The little brother syndrome: Minnesota Wild (2012-2015)
The Wild geared up with Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and a cast of underdeveloped talent, but were always kept at arm’s length by the Blackhawks.
Now, there’s a few things that made this seem more intense than it was — the fact that Chicago and Minnesota are historic rivals in both the MLB and NFL, the old North Stars-Hawks barnburners, and the proximity between the two cities — but this never really blossomed into a full blown rivalry for Chicago.
In the last ten years, the Wild have more or less existed just to be tortured by Patrick Kane.
The Hawks eliminated Minnesota from the playoffs in three straight years from 2013-2015. The Wild fired their coach and went to work on a quick reload. But the most intense this rivalry ever got was, well, this:
Damn. They got the Hawks good.
The Next Challengers
There are, however, three current teams that could make for a good rival with Chicago. But the biggest issue for them won’t be competing at the same level with the Hawks. It’ll be staying at that level for more than a few years. None of the previous three teams kept pace with Chicago for more than four seasons.
We’re looking for a long-term relationship here. Not a quick fling.
Reigning rival: St. Louis Blues
Well, of course. They have players that are easy to hate (Ryan Reaves and Robby Fabbri), a playmaker who seems to relentlessly torture Chicago (Vladimir Tarasenko) and some bad playoff blood (Wakey, wakey).
Not to mention they’ve split enough regular and postseason games to drive each other mad.
We know the Blues are for real, just don’t get this confused with the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. This is most certainly a different thing, one the Hawks have owned historically. And the proximity between the two adds to the fun here.
They are absolutely Chicago’s biggest rival in hockey at the moment. But it’s coming up on three years since the Seabrook-Backes incident. As far as recent history is concerned, this is where the Hawks’ rivals start to fall off.
Will the Blues do the same?
Next up: Minnesota Wild
Yeah, I know. But I’m ready to give them another chance.
Adding Eric Staal has really seemed to pay off so far. Devan Dubnyk is arguably the best goalie in the league right now, and their core of Suter, Praise, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle has history with this group of Hawks. They’ve been dominant this year with new head coach Bruce Boudreau and finally seem to have their future solidified.
Minnesota has the pieces to compete with Chicago. It’s just that Hawks fans have been down this road before and it didn’t pan out too well. Here’s to hoping Round 2 goes better.
The long shot: Nashville Predators
They might have the most exciting collection of talent in the division, but the Preds have yet to show they can do anything with it.
If anything, they’re closer to taking over Minnesota’s “little brother” title. The current relationship can be summed up like this:
Nashville struggles every year to keep Chicago fans out of their arena — going through exceedingly great lengths — it has been tortured by the Hawks in recent playoff matchups and it has made big offseason splashes to try becoming elite overnight.
P.K. Subban is one of the most exciting players in the league, but the Preds are still figuring out how he fits in.
Over the long haul, Nashville might have the best chance at becoming the Hawks true rival. But they are still a few years — or a couple major incidents — away from that happening.
It’s more likely than not that the Hawks continue to jump into mini-rivalries with new teams every few years (as long as Chicago remains a contender). And that’s a shame. Sports are always more fun when your team is being pushed by the same opponent year after year.
There’s a lot to like about the direction the league is heading in right now. But with the way it’s setup, teams aren’t meant to stay contenders for long, which makes rivalries all the harder to sustain. Unless Detroit moves back into the same conference with Chicago, Hawks fans just might not have a consistent team to hate.