Like the playoff series preceding it, this year’s Stanley Cup Final is making predictions obsolete.
At mainstream outlets like ESPN, RDS, TSN, Yahoo Sports and the NHL Network, many experts were picking the Blackhawks to win, though some hedged their bets by saying we would see a seven game series. Dissenters were favoring the Vegas underdogs from Philly.
Few expected that each game, thus far, would be decided by a single goal (the empty netter in Game Four notwithstanding).
But as the Vancouver Province’s Cam Cole pointed out in a recent article, the all-time winning coach in hockey, Scotty Bowman, put the pundits in their place. “You know what Toe Blake used to say about the media, don’t you?” Cole reported Bowman as saying, “‘when you’re losing, they can’t help you. And when you’re winning, you don’t need ‘em.’”
Cup winner and ex-Flyer coach Ken Hitchcock presented another hockey professional’s perspective in his forecast on the NHL Network. He studiously avoided ‘the predictions game’, saying, “These contests will be very close, and I expect at least one in overtime.”
Four games in, Hitchcock appears to have confirmed that hockey people see things very differently than the rest of us. For them, prognostication is meaningless. Reality bites you when you least expect it.
So much was made of an ‘epic battle’ to be held between the mountains of manhood named Pronger and Byfuglien; but a much more interesting duel has taken place between Pronger and Patrick Kane.
But such skewing of our viewpoints speaks to the Age of Infotainment. ‘The media’ , as they have for ages, feeds on constant drama in events, complete with heroes and villains, crises and turning points. The volume is amped up so we are hypnotized with a consistent tremor of urgency.
Games become ‘must-wins’ played with ‘desperation’; sequences are re-played over and over and over again until every drop of meaning is squeezed out of them. Commentators become psychologists, telling us ‘what’s going on inside the locker room’, though none set foot there. In-game body language is interpreted by ‘color men’ (and increasingly, color women) who stand between the benches, or buttonhole the athletes between periods, before and after games.
One wonders sometimes if the players wouldn’t rather just play hockey instead of having to be diplomats and rock stars.
Meanwhile, the guys go along, as is expected of millionaire entertainers, complete with the canned responses and the occasional deviation. One of the non-conformists is Pronger, who relishing the ten-gallon black hat he has earned and been awarded permanently by hockey writers, amuses himself by verbally rag-dolling reporters in press conferences.
There’s no business like show business, and that’s good for the NHL’s profit margin. There is also a more substantive side. Thanks to B.D. Gallof at Hockey Independent, I was invited to participate in a pre-series NHL conference call where some of the sport’s most prominent observers were on hand: Don Cherry, Mike Milbury, Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, Pierre McGuire and Keith Jones, whose expertise augments the coverage by CBC, TSN, NBC, and Versus.
Without having to compress their thoughts to fit the constraints of the broadcast world, they each presented comprehensive, and varied, viewpoints.
It was both illuminating and humbling to see how, away from the circus atmosphere of television, all of these hockey men demonstrated, in a clear and unassuming manner, their encyclopedic knowledge for the eager listeners and questioners. It was as if they put away their on-screen ‘characters’ to share their insights with us.
The overriding theme was how closely matched the Blackhawks and Flyers are in this year’s Final. The affirmation that anything and everything could hinge on a series of ‘ifs’ was repeated throughout the conference call.
Watching the first four games, the ‘ifs’ emerged. For each team, the top lines suddenly failed to produce; the secondary and tertiary players asserted themselves. Bad ice, strange bounces, broken plays, iffy calls and wonky line changes changed the ebb and flow of the games, and made momentum a passing fancy.
The momentum, if there ever was any, changed from period to period, often from shift to shift. The Blackhawks surged at home, and then hung on to win the first two games; the change of scene in Philadelphia saw the Flyers do the same as they held serve.
For the first time in many years, we see two teams so closely competitive that it becomes impossible to know which one has the so-called ‘best chance’ to win Lord Stanley’s prize.
As for ‘desperation’, how can two teams be hungrier for the win than they are, their last Cup coming in 1961 and 1975, for Chicago and Philadelphia respectively? Both having reached the Finals four times since, only to fall short?
The oft-repeated maxim that this Cup is the most difficult Championship to win, in all of professional sport, is validated.
Watching the teams playing each other in the spring of 2010, one could easily be reminded of the Blackhawks and Flyers teams of the early 1970s. Though the names and faces have changed, the character of these clubs has not.
This can be attributed in part to the unique continuity of ownership that graces the Chicago and Philadelphia sides.
The Wirtz family has been the proprietors of the Hawks since 1961 (Arthur Wirtz actually having owned at least a share of the team as far back as the early 1950s). The Flyers have been owned by Ed Snider since their inception in 1967.
Rockwell ‘Rocky’ Wirtz, who succeeded his father Bill who had succeeded his father Arthur, is the smooth, urbane salesman who sits in the nosebleeds during games to get the pulse of the people and promotes ‘the family’ of the Blackhawks. Ed Snider’s demeanor suggest a polar opposite: lean, crafty, who seems to be all business; though Snider’s philanthropy is highly reputed. The impression they leave is of men who know exactly what they want, and get it.
If one believes a professional sports team is the mirror of its patriarchs, the Blackhawks and Flyers also mirror the images their cities have garnered. Chicago’s mystique is flavored with the Guys And Dolls world of Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town”; Philadelphia, if you believe the stories, embraces the blue-collar pugilism of Rocky Balboa. The images of the pro athletes who defend each city’s pride are imbued with toughness and showmanship.
Both cities have their share of mythical figures. Walter Payton, Ernie Banks, Bobby Hull, and Michael Jordan are Chicago sports gods. Norm Van Brocklin, Richie Ashburn, Julius Erving and Bobby Clarke are enshrined every time they are mentioned.
In this kind of atmosphere, the young men who put on the uniforms are already expected to carve out their own place in immortality.
‘Blackhawks hockey’ and ‘Flyers hockey’ are, regardless of the season standings, what they have been for decades.
Reading through Stan Fischler’s 1972 large format hard cover book “Chicago Black Hawks”, I let the black and white photos of the Hawks and Flyers doing battle, take me back to the hockey I had watched then.
Hard-nosed Ed Van Impe, Joe and Jim Watson patrolled the blueline in front of Doug Favell while Clarke, Dornhoefer and Clement crashed and banged; Bobby and Dennis Hull, Jim Pappin, Stan Mikita, Bill White and Keith Magnuson, among others, powered the team in front of Tony Esposito. Jerry Korab (who played defense and forward a la Dustin Byfuglien), Doug Jarrett, Bob Kelly and Dave Schultz were guys you didn’t want to mess with.
You could go down the rosters of the present day teams and see which players now match up with the players then; but whatever the similarities and differences, the sum of the parts is much the same as today.
The Hawks are the flashy, explosive team some call cocky; the Flyers have the swagger and meanness of a street gang. Both smart; both tough. Both beat up on opponents when they have the chance. And neither one will quit when the chips are down.
It is entirely fitting that they meet at the summit of the mountain and treat us to a battle royal, which is what they are doing.
On the ice, we see not only hockey skill, but intense physical and psychological battles. Off the ice, the verbiage is a continuation of the same gamesmanship.
Where the Hawks may be missing some components is in the assets that veteran players bring. At this time of year, the ability to harness emotion and experience is something learned only through the pain and pleasure of losing before you know how and why you win.
The Flyers decidedly have the edge there. Pronger, Timmonen, Laperriere, Gagne, Briere, Hartnell, Asham and even Leighton have seen the highest and lowest more than once, some for over a decade.
Some of that suffering was part of GM Paul Holmgren’s plan to build the Flyers back into a powerhouse after stumbling for several seasons. Underlining the consistency of the organization, Holmgren is the same kind of no-nonsense pragmatist as an executive he was as a player. Holmgren wants to win, and he’ll do whatever it takes. This ruthlessness may have been at the root of his decision to swap coaches, exchanging the affable John Stevens for the hard-core Peter Laviolette. One expects that Mr. Snider approves…as long as they win.
The Blackhawks, like the Flyers, are a study in accelerated development, rocketing from the bottom of the standings back to the penthouse.
The Hawks do not, however, have the same amount of gravitas as the men from Philly, the majority of the roster being 26 years of age or less. And managing one’s emotions when in one’s early/mid-twenties is not always easy.
The Hawks are the product of a ‘brain trust’, blending the influences of former GM Dale Tallon, current GM Stan Bowman, Senior Advisor Scotty Bowman, and the ‘hands-off’ guidance of team President John McDonough; as Rocky Wirtz watches, the portraits of his father and his grandfather, watching him.
Chicago has some grizzle to go with the sizzle: Madden, Hossa, Sopel and Campbell have all been around for a while. But the rest of the crew are riding a wave of talent turbocharged with hype. When times are good, the Hawks have been flying, and they’ve made it through a few storms to get further than any Chicago hockey team since 1973.
Now, with a best two of three starring the warrior tribes from the Windy City and the City of Brotherly Love, the words of Rudyard Kipling’s great poem “If” can be heard. “If you can keep your head, when all those about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
The pundits will pontificate, telling fans what they should think about the games unfolding before them. Meanwhile, the players will suit up for war on ice, where it all happens in the blink of an eye, contrary to the magic of slow motion.
Kipling’s work seems fitting as we approach the climax of what may be a classic in the making.
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.”
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.