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SportsMonday: The Blackhawks' Secret Sauce

How much do we Chicagoans of a certain age really know about hockey anyway?

We barely saw the game growing up in the '70s and '80s unless we had a chance to go in person and my parents were definitely not hockey fans. I attended a handful of games through those years. The second balcony experience at the old Stadium was fascinating (it was an awesome view from seats that felt like they were almost hanging out over the ice - until the ever-growing cloud of cigarette smoke began to obscure sight lines after the second intermission).

But this fan never reached the point where I felt as though I could really appreciate the subtleties of the game.

I might have been a better fan if I had played the game but that never seemed like a serious option growing up in Lincoln Park. We loved floor hockey in gym class but I only knew a couple kids who trekked up to the Saddle and Cycle Club for hockey. I had no idea the McFetridge ice rink even existed out there by Gordon Tech. The rest of us were happy to play basketball in the winter no matter how short we might have been.

I had a chance to play hockey for a very informal club called the Lame Ducks (way before the Mighty Ducks came on the scene, by the way) when I was in college. But the team played after midnight on Sunday nights (love that cheap ice time) and that put a strain on an overall academic performance that was already dangerously shaky.

Fortunately, before I bowed out I at least got a cool sweater with my name on the back over a big ol' 35. Why I chose Tony (Esposit)O's number despite the fact that there was no way I was ever getting anywhere near goaltending is unclear, but I still have that sweater.

Still, I've learned enough about hockey as an adult to call bullshit when I see it, and I think I see it. In a widely shared Wall Street Journal article, Mike Sielski argues that the secret to the Hawks' success this year is a fast, possession offense that eschews the physical, dump-and-chase game built with home-grown players.

Not true for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the Hawks' best hitter, Daniel Carcillo, just returned from injury and soon he will be hitting people all over the place like he usually does.

But it's the home-grown argument that really doesn't work for me.

While growing up, there were separate primary groups of ascendant players - the end of the Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito-led run of greatness in that first decade and the emergence of the Denis Savard and Doug Wilson era in the second. The '90s featured the rise of Jeremy Roenick, who teamed up with Chris Chelios (who, of course, arrived in a trade for Savard in 1990) among others.

But the Hawks never won a championship during those eras and the prime reason always seemed to be that they were never quite willing to pay what it took to keep the players they needed for as long as was needed. Savard and Chelios won Stanley Cups, but not as Hawks. Wilson and Roenick never did.

It's true that the Hawks were then bad enough long enough to pile up enough real good draft picks so they couldn't help but stockpile talent. But the move that put them over the top was the awarding of the sort of over-the-top contract to two-way superstar Marian Hossa that was never available to anyone on the club through the final decades of the 20th century.

Hossa is a far better two-way player than Patrick Kane and probably is more important to the team than Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, especially with the rise of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya as a great second defensive pairing that has been getting big minutes from coach Q all season.

Raffi Torres knew exactly who to target in the playoffs last year. His cheap shot concussed Hossa to the sideline and the Hawks ended up losing the first-round playoff series to Torres' team, the Coyotes, in six games.

And the Hawks' first two losses of the season illustrate that, ultimately, goaltending is everything and if that is shaky the team won't survive.

So while we Chicagoans of a certain age might not know quite as much as we would like to about the strategies of successful hockey teams, we do know the two elements that are necessary to put a team over the top: Spending money to keep or acquire great players and great goaltending.

Looks like, for now, we just ran out of great goaltending.


Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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