TAMPA, Fla. —Niklas Hjalmarsson knows how lucky he is.
“I could have been drafted by any other team in the league,” the Blackhawks defenseman said. “The coming here at the exact time with Tazer and Kaner [Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane] when everything started turning around.
“I still have no idea of how it was before, when it was half-empty in the United Center. It’s almost like I can’t believe that it was actually like that. You’re so used to playing in front of a crazy, sell-out crowd every game.”
When Hjalmarsson was drafted in the fourth round in 2005, the Hawks were in the midst of an embarrassing dry spell. An organization that had qualified for the playoffs in 38 or 39 seasons from 1959-97, missed the playoffs 10 times in 11 seasons from 1998-2008. They had not won the Stanley Cup since 1961.
Now Hjalmarsson, Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell are going for their third Stanley Cup in the last six seasons when they open the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
Toews, Kane, Keith and the rest of the Hawks core have fueled the Hawks’ rise to prominence. But it all starts at the top, with Rocky Wirtz, who became the Hawks chairman in 2007. Everything fell into place from there.
“All this started … when Rocky took over the franchise,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “The changes he made gave us some momentum and excitement.
“We had a good year leading into that year. But Rocky came on board and sort of changed the whole mentality of the organization. From that point on, we felt like we were getting closer and closer. Obviously, the 2010 season [when the Hawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years] was when we finally broke through.”
The Hawks renaissance is built around great players and a coach with a knack for maximizing that talent in Joel Quenneville. But the players know it takes more than just talent to win championships.
“It’s the training staff. It’s coaches. It’s the organization,” said Sharp, who was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005. “Right now we’re focused on playing a good game against Tampa Bay. We certainly do take a moment every once in a while to appreciate how lucky we are to play for a great organization and play with each other in that locker room. There are a lot of great players, a lot of great guys. It’s a special team to be a part of.”
From Hull and Mikita to Toews and Kane, Chicago has always adored its star players. But with the exception of Michael Jeffery Jordan, championships stem from leadership at the top. The Bears were in the early stages of post-Halas dysfunction when they won just one Super Bowl with a loaded roster in the Ditka era and haven’t won since. The Cubs, the biggest losers in the history of American sports, are only now coming out of the funk of ownership ineptitude. The Bulls just fired one of the best coaches in team history. The White Sox have won one playoff game in nine seasons since winning the World Series.
And the Hawks? In an NHL era designed for winners to come and go, they are going for their third championship in six seasons. It starts at the top.
“I feel very fortunate,” Sharp said, recalling his trade to the Hawks after losing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2005. “It was a tough move at the time. But it certainly worked out for the best.
“Chicago gave me an opportunity to play and we improved. To think that Duncs [Keith] and Seabs [Seabrook] were here 10 years ago struggling as young players and learning the game — and to where we are today is a great feeling and I’m proud to wear the Blackhawks jersey.”