The first time Patrick Sharp’s Blackhawks career ended, he never got a chance to say good-bye.
Oh, he went out with a bang — the first Stanley Cup celebration in Chicago in 77 years, a raucous, hours-long party in the home dressing room at the United Center, players standing and singing on locker stalls while Niklas Hjalmarsson’s and Marcus Kruger’s dads ripped out ceiling tiles, just because. It was a heck of a way to go out.
But a few weeks later, Sharp was gone, traded to the Dallas Stars, one of the original members of the core becoming just another name in a long list of salary-cap casualties. There was never the Last Game. Never the big prolonged ovation from an adoring fan base. Never the emotional catharsis that comes with waving farewell one final time.
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“Every player starts their career thinking that it’s going to end well for them, and they’re going to get that proper good-bye —and a lot of players don’t,” Jonathan Toews said. “In Sharpie’s position, there’s no doubt that he deserves that, that at some point everyone can acknowledge what he’s done for this team, for these guys in this room, for this franchise, and for the fans in Chicago.”
Well, Friday night at the United Center is that chance. Sharp is 36 years old and a pending unrestricted free agent. The Hawks are in the midst of a youth movement. Will the Hawks bring back Sharp for another go-around, as a veteran mentor and versatile bottom-six contributor? Is Sharp willing to uproot his family and leave Chicago yet again to prolong his career?
Or will Friday night’s game be his last ever in the city he adopted as his home?
Sharp doesn’t want to talk about it. Toews doesn’t want to speculate about it. Duncan Keith doesn’t want to think about it. But it’s a very real possibility. And Hawks fans shouldn’t squander a rare second chance to send Sharp out properly. The night will begin with what’s sure to be a moving tribute to Stan Mikita, whose three grandchildren will take the ice for his “One More Shift.” It should end with another Hawks icon, Sharp, getting a similar group hug from 21,000-plus.
Just in case.
“I don’t think he’s had the spotlight much, as far as the attention others here get,” said Keith, who goes back nearly two decades with Sharp, who played with Keith’s brother when they were kids. “But if you look at his statistics, especially come playoff time, he’s usually leading the team in goals, he’s right there in points. He’s always scored big goals for us, and that doesn’t just happen. That shows his heart and his character and that’s why you win championships, because of guys like him. He’s been as big part of the championships as anybody, and if it’s his last game, it’s going to be emotional.”
Sharp never got the accolades that Toews, Keith, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa got. But he probably should have won the Conn Smythe in 2010 after posting 11 goals and 11 assists in 22 playoff games. He had 10 more goals in the 2013 Cup run. And he had 15 points in 23 games on the third line during the 2015 playoffs. Simply put, without Sharp, the Hawks aren’t three-time champions.
He’s not the same player now, of course. He’s not quite as explosive, he’s not the 200-foot terror of years past. But when Toews looks a few locker stalls down to his left, he still sees a valuable contributor. And the fact is, after a poor first half, Sharp has been one of the Hawks’ most consistent and effective performers over the past few months, even in a greatly diminished fourth-line role.
Toews isn’t the general manager, but he doesn’t believe Sharp is done. Or, at least, that he should be, saying he still has “a crazy amount of talent.”
“It’s a tough situation, because how do you tell a guy like that that he can’t play anymore, just because there are so many young guys coming up?” Toews said. “To me, that’s not a reason. He can still bring a ton on the ice — we all know that, we’ve all seen that. He’s done really well [considering] the opportunities he’s gotten, and the ice time he’s gotten, and the chances he’s gotten to be in offensive situations. But he also brings a ton off the ice. He brings experience, he brings energy, he brings a presence and leadership in the locker room that I think all the young guys really respond to. Once you lose that, you feel the void. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’d love to see him back in the locker room again next year.”
Earlier in his career, Sharp could be a little more difficult in the room. He could sulk about playing time, about what line he was on, about any perceived slight. But Keith said that hasn’t been the case at all this year, even though Sharp’s averaging just 12:46 of ice time per game, ahead of only David Kampf and Tomas Jurco among regulars.
Alex DeBrincat, in particular, has pointed to Sharp as sort of a big brother. Sharp clearly sees some of younger self in the sharp-shooting DeBrincat.
“In his younger years, he might be a little bit more angry, but that was just the competitive nature in him,” Keith said. “He’s at an age now where he just wants to win and he’s doing anything he can to help the team win. He’s taken a veteran role with a lot of the younger guys, leading by example and being a good teammate and showing them the ropes.”
If Sharp is dwelling on his future, he’s not letting on. For months now, he’s been quick to shoot down any talk of his future, with the Hawks or in the NHL. Just this week, he simply said, “I’m just focused on the next three games.” Whether they’re the last three games for Sharp, in a Hawks uniform or overall, remains to be seen. It’s partly up to Stan Bowman. But it’s mostly up to Sharp.
Vancouver’s Sedin twins announced this week that this will be their last season. They’re less than a year older than Sharp, and they, too, have plenty left in the tank. Sharp grabbed a signed stick from the Sedins, longtime respected rivals, after a March 22 game at the United Center. Was it because he knew the Sedins were on the way out? Or because he knew he was on the way out?
We won’t know the answer to that until Monday’s locker clean-out day at the earliest, July at the latest. But we know Sharp will take the ice at the United Center in Hawks red on Friday. Chicago shouldn’t miss this second chance to give him a proper farewell. Just in case.