(Author’s note: Mark Lazerus covers the Chicago Blackhawks for the Chicago Sun-Times and wrote ‘If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Blackhawks,’ providing a behind-the-scenes look at this ongoing era of Blackhawks hockey. We had a lot of questions and he had a lot to say, so this is just one half of the conversation, with the second half coming on Wednesday. This portion largely focuses on everything leading up to and including the 2010 Stanley Cup championship.)
You were living in the area during the early/mid-2000s. Were you shocked by how irrelevant and how anonymous the Chicago Blackhawks were during those years?
“I don’t think I was shocked. I certainly knew about them. I remember going to a game in 2005-ish with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time. The New York Islanders were in town, and we had an entire 300 level section to ourselves. I grew up an Islanders fan so I knew what that was like. For most of my childhood, the Islanders were awful. I wouldn’t say I was shocked by how bad things were, but diving into it and learning just how bad things were for the players, that’s what I was shocked by. I knew the team sucked. I didn’t realize that life, in general, for the Blackhawks was so bad.”
What is the biggest thing you learned about that first Cup-winning team in 2010?
“Just how much fun they had together. That’s kind of the theme of the book: that team was the last of a dying breed. You’ll never have a team again that was that young, let’s say reckless to a degree, that went out and had fun. Having covered hockey for — this is my sixth season now — I only see a player out and about once in a blue moon. Usually it’s for dinner and then they go home or back to the hotel. The idea that there were 15 or 20 guys going out together on the night before a game and just getting ripped, I can’t even fathom that in today’s game. And it wasn’t that long ago. It was only seven years ago.”
“It’s mind-blowing to me. It was before social media got big. You have this new generation of young kids coming up who are hockey automatons that don’t put any poisons in their bodies and watch everything they do with their sleep and their nutrition. It’ll never be like that again. it was really cool to see a team that just enjoyed being together much.”
Were there any players who were harder to track down?
“My great regret is that I didn’t get Dustin Byfuglien on the phone. I tried so hard. But he’s an interesting cat. He’s basically impossible to get a hold of. I talked to some of the Winnipeg writers and apparently he changes his cell phone number every couple of months. Even the team’s PR staff can’t get a hold of him half of the time. It wasn’t that hard to track down most guys. But in the 3-4 months I spent reporting this, I desperately tried to get Byfuglien and couldn’t. I got turned down by some guys. For the most part you have to go through team PR staffs for guys who are still playing. I wanted to get Andrew Shaw and I was turned down by the (Montreal) Canadiens. They told me he didn’t want to do it, but I don’t think they asked him because they have a reputation for turning down player requests a lot.”
“The one thing I realized is, every guy I talked to, former Hawks especially but even the current guys, were really wary at first when I started talking to them about this. But once they started talking about the old days, they let their guard down, those walls came down, and they had so much fun reminiscing. It’s amazing the way these guys look at that team, as the greatest time of their lives. Even the current guys, who are obviously going to be more guarded than a retired guy is because they’re still kind of under the thumb of player management. Even with Jonathan Toews, once I got him going to down memory lane, he was having a great time.”
You touched on this when you mentioned not being able to reach Byfuglien, but were there any people you didn’t reach or any stories that you wanted to tell that didn’t get into the book?
I wanted to talk to (Kris) Versteeg. He was supposed to call me about 150 times but he’s a little flaky sometimes and forgot a lot. Calgary’s PR tried very hard to get him for me and I felt bad about harassing him all the time. I know he was a little young and wild back in those days. There are other stories I heard that I would have liked to corroborate, but I didn’t put anything in there unless I heard it from a couple of different people.
Lazerus’ book, ‘If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Blackhawks,’ is available now through Amazon and wherever books are sold.