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Martin Havlat helped carry Blackhawks from their worst days to their best

Martin Havlat retired Wednesday at the age of 35, after a 15-year career in which he racked up a total of 594 points (242 goals, 352 assists) among numerous what-ifs and almosts.

He was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks for three seasons and looking back now it seems like longer. Perhaps that’s because of how much he went through in Chicago — joining a franchise in the midst of a new identity, while Havlat was reshaping his own.

For a lot of fans who started following the Hawks in the mid-2000s, Havlat was their first love. A dazzling left winger who skated as fast as his stride was simple, and who could snipe and pass with the best of them.

Havlat joined the Hawks in 2006 in a three-way trade with the Senators and Sharks that saw Chicago send Mark Bell to San Jose. For the Hawks to get a young, blossoming star showed that maybe there was a new urgency to improve on the ice.

That seemed to be especially true when Havlat scored two goals and two assists in his Chicago debut during the season-opener against Nashville. Two weeks later he sprained an ankle, and instead of being known for his talents, earned the label no athlete wants: injury prone.

In three seasons with the Hawks, Havlat never played a full 82 games. That first season in Chicago he only made it through 56, though he scored 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists). The following season he played just 35 games.

Still, when he made it onto the ice Havlat was as dynamic a talent as the Hawks had seen in years. He made a team stuck in the NHL basement worth paying to see (disregard the fact that home games weren’t on TV, yet).

Havlat’s style of play was a road map for what the Hawks would turn into as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane began their rookie seasons. He put himself in position to get the puck in space, but wasn’t afraid to attack the defense after that. His skating helped stretch the ice and his quick release meant teams always had to respect his shot.

He also stared in one of the best Hawks commercials to date.

Even as Kane and Toews led the charge to the Hawks first playoff run in seven years during the 2009 season, it was Havlat who provided the highlights worth remembering once they got there. The best of which was his overtime goal in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against Calgary — a series that reminded Chicago it was still a hockey town.

At the time it was the third-fastest overtime goal in playoff history. For many Hawks fans, it remains their first playoff memory.

It was also one of the last great moments he would have in Chicago. Two rounds later, in Game 3 against a Red Wings team that schooled the Hawks during the Western Conference Final, Havlat was knocked out by Niklas Kronwall. He tried to play in Game 4 but couldn’t. Detroit finished off Chicago in five games and ended the best season of the winger’s career.

Havlat played 81 games that season, scoring 77 points (29 goals, 48 assists). He never got close to those numbers again.

In the 2009 offseason, with his contract up, Havlat and the Hawks were looking to make a long-term deal. It seem right, after all, that the guy who helped Chicago come of age be with the team when they reaped the benefits. But the two sides couldn’t get close and instead of trying to make it work, the Hawks replaced one of their stars with a future Hall of Famer in Marian Hossa on the first day of free agency.

It was an understandably devastating move for Havlat.

He would later tweet that he didn’t leave the Hawks, they left him.

Whatever the case was, Havlat came to a Chicago franchise that was dormant and left as it transitioned into a dynasty.

Take a look at the lineup from Havlat’s first game with the Hawks in 2006 via hockey-reference.com:

And here’s his final game with the team in 2009:

Had Havlat been more durable, there’s little doubt the Hawks would’ve tried harder to keep him. The team was at a crossroads and couldn’t afford to bet on a player who hadn’t proven he could stay healthy.

For Chicago fans, it was an early sampling of how unceremoniously their favorite players would depart. And as bitter as it seemed at the time, winning the Stanley Cup and starting a run of three titles in six years only made Havlat seem more expendable.

But there’s no denying what Havlat was to the Hawks. A star player when the team didn’t have any, a veteran who helped mentor what became the team’s core, and a bridge from the worst years of the franchise to the best.

Havlat only stayed in Chicago for three seasons in a career that lasted five times that length. His impact on the team went much further than that.

It’s still being felt today.