Think of all the times it could have gone wrong.
What if Martin Erat hadn’t tried that unnecessary pass from behind the net in Game 5 of the first round in 2010?
What if the Blackhawks had actually traded Patrick Kane for Ryan Miller in 2012?
What if the Red Wings didn’t blow a 3-1 series lead in 2013?
What if the Blackhawks hadn’t withstood that many hits against the Ducks in the 2015 Western Conference Final?
There were so many turning points, so many crucial situations, so many pivotal moments that went the Blackhawks way in the first half of this decade, leading to three Stanley Cup victories in a six-year span, the zenith of success for NHL teams this century. The first of those championships erased a 49-year drought, while the second and third titles cemented that stretch as the Blackhawks’ golden era.
To fully appreciate how high the Blackhawks soared in the 2010s, you must understand the depths to which they plunged in the 2000s.
It’s unfathomable now to consider how irrelevant the Blackhawks were then. There was no marketing slogan. There were no Chevy Drive commercials. There were no clothing lines. There was no team store on the Magnificent Mile. There weren’t television broadcasts of home games to watch. Outside of the 41 sparsely attended home games at the United Center each season, there was no trace of the Blackhawks in Chicago.
During a 10-season span, the Blackhawks never finished higher than third place in their division. They appeared in one playoff series, winning just one game without ever scoring a goal at home. They cycled through eight head coaches and five general managers. They wasted countless high draft picks. They did almost everything wrong that a sports franchise could.
And then the 2010s happened.
Far from an overnight success, of course. The first piece arrived back in 2002, when Duncan Keith was drafted in the second round — even though a top member of the Blackhawks brass had already dubbed Keith the worst player ever drafted by Chicago. More draft picks followed, including the back-to-back first-round picks of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and the story unfolds from there to a period that no Blackhawks fan had ever experienced before and may never experience again — be it with the Blackhawks, or any other team.
But it could've gone wrong so many times. What if they hadn't drafted Keith in 2002? Or Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford in 2003? Or Dave Bolland in 2004? Or Niklas Hjalmarsson in 2005? What if they hadn’t traded for Patrick Sharp in 2005? What if Pittsburgh picked Toews second overall in 2006? What if Chicago opted for James van Riemsdyk in 2007? What if they hadn’t signed Brian Campbell and Antti Niemi in 2008 or Marian Hossa in 2009?
All of these things had to happen just right for the Blackhawks to end a title drought that spanned almost five decades.
And that was just one Cup victory.
So many other events had to unfold perfectly for the Blackhawks to return to the throne in 2013 and 2015 after appearing like a one-year wonder during 2011 and 2012: the acquisitions of Michael Frolik and Johnny Oduya; the drafting and rapid emergence of Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw; the eruption of Bryan Bickell in 2013 ... and that’s just a partial list.
If anything had gone differently, if something hadn’t happened in that manner, then perhaps we’re not sitting here at the end of a decade extolling the most fun six-year stretch in the team’s history.
But it did.
That’s the beauty of winning championships in sports: “what if” becomes irrelevant.
The back half of the decade has seen Chicago fall from those mountainous views, re-immersing itself at the bottom of the league while the players responsible for so many bright moments have faded from the limelight due to age or injury or retirement or a combination of all three. And the pieces that remain, for the most part, don’t look quite like they used to.
It hasn’t happened yet because names like Crawford, Kane, Keith and Toews are still with the team. But, eventually, this entire era will have its final act. Whether that involves another summer party in Chicago can be debated another time.
It’s already been a massive success. With three championships in a decade, this era is already worthy of reflection now, while the memories of every postseason victory, every series clincher, every hoisting of the Stanley Cup are still so fresh in our memories. It’ll be just as worthy of reflection in 20, 30 or 40 years as the details become blurry and the memories dwindle away. It’ll always be worth revisiting that six-year period — which felt like it lasted for, oh ... 17 seconds? — when the Blackhawks were the undisputed kings of the hockey world.