As the curtain rises on the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, the stories and connections that surround and link the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers are rich with hockey lore. This has provided, and will continue to provide, ample material for commentators, scribes and fans alike.
The romance of ‘Original Six’ versus ‘Original Expansion Six’ also fuels the conversation.
Tales of the Chicago Blackhawks abound, as long-suffering partisans try to mitigate their hope for a fourth Championship, the Hawks having won three since their 1926 debut.
The Philadelphia Flyers, born forty-one years later, have snagged but a pair of processions in a brief flirtation with glory in the mid-seventies. Since then, a generation and a half has passed, and facts become folklore.
The Flyers were, in principle, the successors to the Quakers, who were the successors to the defunct Pittsburgh Pirates NHL franchise. The Quakers’ one-year existence (1930-31), an exercise in losing, was aborted by the league’s financial struggles during the Depression Era.
When the franchise was re-launched in the fall of 1967, the draft allowed the newcomers to pluck talent from the established teams. In those initial years, the migration of players from ‘old guard’, via draft or trade, to the freshly minted squads often meant new life for those involved. Hawks, who later became Flyers, include Lou Angotti—the expansion club’s first captain; bruising defenseman, Ed Van Impe; and Reg Fleming, who scored the deciding goal for Chicago when they won the Cup in 1961.
A long list of factoids has made the rounds during the down time between the Conference Finals and the kick-off to the Cup.
It has been oft repeated that both teams are entering the Finals desperate to end the so-called ‘drought’ that has persisted in Chicago since 1961 and Philadelphia since 1975.
Having seen both those Cup victories, albeit as a television viewer, I nonetheless remember them vividly, as well as the excitement felt throughout the hockey world.
Both teams have distinctive, dynamic personalities that have earned the loyalty of fans far beyond their cities. Both logos and team colors have achieved iconic status. Many of their stars have become legend.
The Hawks and Flyers also return to the SCF after a protracted absence: Chicago losing to Pittsburgh in 1992, and Philadelphia losing to Detroit in 1997. Coincidentally, they were both swept by clubs coached by Scotty Bowman, now a senior advisor to the Blackhawks.
The teams share an unenviable record in Stanley Cup Finals, tying the Bruins in losing five straight SCFs.
Mike Keenan, who coached the Flyers as they bowed in 1985 to the Oilers, was the coach of the Hawks in their most recent Finals loss.
Jeremy Roenick, having played in that series in his original Chicago colors, recently declared he is cheering this year for the Flyers, in whose jersey he could do no better than two first round and one second round playoff exit.
Since the 2004-05 lock-out, the two teams have played each other on just four occasions. The Flyers won both games in Philadelphia (including last year’s 3-2 victory) and split the games in Chicago. Neither enjoys a recent historical advantage, and both teams have made considerable changes to their roster during that time, as well as coaching changes.
According to TSN, only Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp (who was traded from the Flyers to the Hawks the first season after the lockout), Simon Gagne, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have played in each of those four games.
Current Hawks Ben Eager and Kim Johnsson (out indefinitely with a concussion) are former Philly regulars. Eager was the Coyotes’ first round pick in 2002, obtained by Philadelphia in 2004 and sent to the Hawks in 2007 for Jim Vandermeer, who now plays for Phoenix.
Johnsson was a Top 4 d-man during his years in Philly, before going to the Wild as a free agent. Traded to Chicago just weeks before, he suffered his season-ending concussion in a collision in the second period of the Hawks-Flyers tilt in March of this year.
Both of the Flyers’ goaltenders are former Hawks backups. Brian Boucher wore the Indian Head for the 2006-07 season; Leighton did spot duty after being picked by Chicago in the 6th round in 1999, playing parts of the 2003-04 and 2004-05 campaigns.
This is only the second time in their history that Chicago and Philadelphia face each other in the playoffs.
In the 1971 quarterfinals, the Flyers were swept by the Blackhawks.
A snapshot of those rosters pulls up many hockey memories.
The legendary Bobby Clarke was just 21. His teammates included the vindictive Van Impe, bruising Bob Kelly and garrulous Gary Dornhoefer; twine tandem Bernie Parent and Doug Favell; skilful Serge Bernier; Rick McLeish; and journeyman Jean Guy Gendron, among others. They were coached by former NHL hard man Vic Stasiuk.
The Hawks were stacked up front that year with the likes of Bobby and Dennis Hull, Stan Mikita, ‘Pit’ Martin, Chico Maki and Jim Pappin, who scored from 22 to 44 goals apiece. Lou Angotti had made his way back to Chicago. Magnuson, Jarrett, Stapleton and White were blueline bulwarks, with ‘King Kong’ Korab as part of the supporting cast. Tony Esposito was ‘Mister No’ in net. Billy Reay was the bench boss.
The teams’ regular season records showed a sizable gap: the Hawks had captured the Western Division with 49 wins and 107 points; the Flyers had managed just 73 points on 28 victories and 17 ties.
In those days, the disparity between the established clubs and the expansion clubs was the polar opposite of the parity that predominates today.
Perhaps that only served as motivation for the Flyers and their brethren. Four years later, they were drinking champagne from Stanley’s mug, led by Clarke, their most feted Captain.
As for this year’s editions, there is a gap, similar on the surface to that in 1971. The 2010 Blackhawks set franchise records for wins and points with 52 and 112 respectively; the Flyers snuck into the playoffs in a shootout, clawing their way to 41 wins and 88 points.
Philadelphia, ironically enough, had been a preseason Cup favorite of a number of observers; while the Hawks have been the poster boys for media hype, a sexy pick coming out of the West.
If the Blackhawks are sometimes accused of having ‘swagger’, the Flyers welcome the label. Flyers Hockey is all about being brash and even brutal. The ‘Broad Street Bullies’ image shapes the identity of the team, and is reflected in the tone of media and fan comments emanating from the “City of Brotherly Love”. The Flyers play hockey with a decided nastiness, and they seem to relish being the ‘most hated opponent’ in the NHL.
From their inception, the Flyers have been known as a tough team. From Larry Zeidel and Forbes Kennedy to Dave Schultz and Derian Hatcher, the Gordie Howe maxim “Hockey is a man’s game” is their mantra. Cup-winning coach Fred Shero coined the phrase, “Take the shortest route to the puck and arrive in ill humor.” Bobby Clarke is still celebrated by some for breaking Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle in the Canada-Russia summit.
The Blackhawks have had more than their share of rambunctious rogues. They were called “The Big Bad Blackhawks” on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1964, with a gap-toothed Bobby Hull squaring off against an adversary. A stout donnybrook was always welcomed by the Chicago Stadium crowd, and the audience at the United Center seems to enjoy the prospect of a slugfest. The exploits of Reggie Fleming, Al Secord, Stu Grimson and Bob Probert still thrill a segment of Hawkophiles.
But all this fascination with feistiness unfairly ignores the fact that both of these teams have displayed a high level of skill for decades. Blackhawk powerhouses and the elite Flyer squads have terrorized the opposition at different times.
Now they get to settle some old scores between them.
In the flurry of connections cited, a few more stand out.
Former Red Wing teammates Marian Hossa and Ville Leino find themselves returning to the Cup Finals in successive years, now as adversaries on different teams.
Andrew Ladd played for Peter Laviolette when they won a Cup in Carolina; Chris Pronger played for Joel Quenneville for eight years in St. Louis.
What confounds the soothsayers is the saw-offs in skill between Chicago and Philadelphia. Scanning the usual suspects in the hockey media, the predictions appear to be running about 60-40, advantage Hawks, as if predictions were worth anything after this year’s slew of upsets.
The pundits do agree this Final has the makings of a modern classic.
Ken Hitchcock, the former Flyer coach who has visited the Finals twice and come away with a Cup once, and was on Canada’s gold medal hockey coaching staff , now provides his insight to the NHL Network, its TV program “NHL Live!” and in his exclusive web column.
There may be few people as familiar with the players and executives from both teams.
Given his recent experience with Chris Pronger, Mike Richards, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook at the Olympics, his thoughts on their upcoming competition for the ultimate prize are notable.
“The Hawks are using the knowledge they gained last year from losing to the Red Wings, and that works to their advantage. In terms of dealing with Pronger, I think Joel Quenneville will change things up; throw speed at him, to make him skate for that entire thirty minutes Pronger plays. A key will be to make Pronger turn and go get the puck.”
To underline Hitch’s point, that kind of thinking was employed by Jacques Martin in the Canadiens’ 5-1 ECF victory over the Flyers.
While Montreal did not have the depth to sustain the forecheck and skating that was so effective, the Hawks do.
On the other side, Hitchcock sees Captain Mike Richards as the focal point for the Flyers. “He’s the lead dog. We saw that in the Olympics, where he just rose up the depth chart as the games got more important. That’s the kind of player he is.”
Hitchcock believes there will be close games, and overtime games, and that the netminders will be the determining factor. “One of the two goalies will be the story here.”
Add another chapter to the enigmas of Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton.
When asked for a prediction by the network hosts, Hitchcock declined firmly, adding simply: “We will see an unparalleled level of desperation from both teams from the first puck drop.”
Looking at where Chicago and Philadelphia are right now, the compilation of statistics and intangibles seems to confirm the challengers are separated by mere increments.
There are no evident weaknesses on either side, no easy to spot advantages; both play an aggressive, up-tempo, superbly executed brand of hockey, in buildings that will be bursting at the seams.
Neither should be shamed should they come up short, though nails will be bitten and hearts will be broken.
Supporters in both camps have good reasons to believe their heroes will prevail.
Like an Ali-Frazier fight, each round, each feint, each blow of this Armageddon On Ice will be etched in the memories of those who experience it.
To echo the NHL’s motto…History will be made.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.