The NHL season ended Monday night in a rather defensive affair, as the Chicago Blackhawks are once again Stanley Cup champions and achieved dynasty status by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 to win the series 4-2, claiming their third Stanley cup in six years.

Although the Chicago Blackhawks have won their third cup in six years, this time around was especially tough as they were pushed extremely hard by their competition. Never mind the fact that the Lightning were up 2-1 in the series, but the Blackhawks also had to go through a marathon like 7-game test of endurance versus the very tough Anaheim Ducks in the Conference Finals. The part of that no one is touching on enough, is that the Chicago Blackhawks are proving time and time again how to be successful in a very tough salary cap system like the NHL's.

Johnathan Toews carries the Cup around the ice in front of a sold out United Center crowd. This was the first title won in Chicago on home ice since 1938. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)

Johnathan Toews carries the Cup around the ice in front of a sold out United Center crowd. This was the first title won in Chicago on home ice since 1938. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)

However, how soon fans forget that ten years ago, the Blackhawks were basically the poster boys of what not to do in the NHL. In fact, until the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they had the worst Stanley Cup drought which lasted from 1961-2010. Technically speaking, that time period is the longest any team has gone without winning the cup (the Toronto Maple Leafs are a year away from tying the record, which they will). Everyone who watches hockey is probably wondering how did the Chicago Blackhawks go from garbage and unable, to winning a Cup (although it should be said that in some years Chicago was very good especially in the late 80s to early 90s), to being named as one of the better dynasties in NHL history. Well like most people, I cite the last 10 years of the Chicago Blackhawks history.

It is a story of finding good talent, good player development, successfully managing of the salary cap, patience in a system and great fan support. Flashback to the 2005 lockout; prior to the lockout the Chicago Blackhawks from 1997-1998 to 2003-2004 had been to the playoffs, but it was during the lockout where people can point to a tide changing in the franchise.

(left to right) Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, and Corey Crawford all celebrate after winning game 6. Keith and Kane combined for 6 points during the Cup Finals, while Crawford posted his 5th shutout of the postseason. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)

(left to right) Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, and Corey Crawford all celebrate after winning game 6. Keith and Kane combined for 6 points during the Cup Finals, while Crawford posted his 5th shutout of the postseason. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)

Both Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been drafted in previous drafts (Keith 2002 draft, Seabrook 2003 draft) but are playing in the Chicago minor system to develop their game. The Blackhawks call the two up in the season following the lockout to play significant minutes. They suffer through three years of ineptitude, but steady improvement before hope arrives in the form of Johnathan Toews (drafted third overall in the 2006 draft) and Patrick Kane (drafted first overall in the 2007 draft). The Blackhawks in the 2008-2009 season would go on to make the playoffs and lose in the Conference Finals to the Detroit Red Wings. 

With all this set in motion the Blackhawks needed one more piece of the puzzle to be a Stanley Cup team and that was a consistent everyday goaltender. The Chicago Blackhawks called up Antti Niemi sparingly until the 2009-2010 season when he was a full time member of the Blackhawks and was fire between the goalposts. Keith, Seabrook, Toews, Kane and Niemi along with role players like the eventual all-star Dustin Byfuglien led the Chicago Blackhawks to win the 2010 Stanley cup. However, because of the salary cap, the Blackhawks had to unfortunately let players slip through their grasp and Niemi along with Byfuglien were a couple of them. However, the Blackhawks in typical fashion filled those holes and in came Corey Crawford. Crawford was in the Chicago Blackhawks system since he was drafted in 2003 but never really played significantly with the team until 2010 when Niemi left and the Blackhawks didn't skip a beat. They would eventually win two more Stanley cups in 2013 and Monday night.

The point of this history lesson is to show that the Blackhawks had a 10-15 year plan to rebuild with defense first in Kane and Seabrook, then found talent that can score in Toews and Kane. Next they allowed those players to develop into virtual all-stars like they are now, and in the case of Toews, he has grown into a fantastic leader and could be one of the greatest leaders of all time in any sport. Finally the Blackhawks have done a great job surrounding the core with talent. Guys like Niemi, Sharp, Shaw, Hossa, Saad, Byfuglien, Ladd etc. have come into Chicago's system and executed their roles to perfection.

This is evident when some of these players left and become great role players and or all stars. However, there is one thing that Chicago Blackhawk franchise go through all of this and that was patience. Too often teams will give up on a player too early or not use them right. The Blackhawks have shown the ability to be patient with the development of thier players. It took Keith and Seabrook about 5 years to be good and now Duncan Keith is the playoffs MVP. A team like the Toronto Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers would have given up on a Keith or Seabrook long before 5 years.

Last but not least, the fans deserve a pat on the back for sticking with this team for so long. It may be the “Madhouse” now but it was hard to go crazy about this team in the early 2000s. Despite television ratings not being good because Chicago has a vast number of sport teams, the fans have shown up to every game in support for this franchise and now are reaping the rewards. Congrats to the Blackhawks and the city of Chicago. 

Micheal's Ice Preview

What can be better for a hockey fan than the NHL regular season that goes down to the last game of the season? If you guessed the NHL playoffs than you are absolutely right.  

The NHL playoffs are around the corner, and personally, these are arguably the best playoffs in terms of on court/ice/field play. Never mind the incredible playoff beards that are grown or the intensity or the mind numbing momentum swing that people talk about for years after they happen (Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks looking at you). The Best part by far is that no matter what seed a team is, they have a legitimate chance of winning the cup, if you don’t believe me, ask the Los Angeles Kings. Therefore allow me to sell a couple matchups to you that at face value might seem a bit boring or dry but in reality has the potential to be a classic. 

Winnipeg Jets vs. Anaheim Ducks 

Remember when Winnipeg towards the tail end of the season were a dysfunctional group with Evander Kane in a line-up? Also marred by injuries simultaneously. Whether Evander Kane is a problem in the locker room or not, both of those things are now taken care of. Evander Kane got traded and most of the Winnipeg Jets key pieces are back in the line-up.

The problem is they are facing the Anaheim Ducks (who will always be the Mighty Ducks in my heart) and on paper this should not even be close. Although Winnipeg has two things going for them, one being their goalie Onderj Pavelec is coming into this series hot and typically in hockey the hottest goalie wins. Although fans of the Jets might not want to trust Pavelec, and to be honest that mistrust is justified, but there is another thing that Jets Fans know  they can trust, and that’s themselves.

The Winnipeg Jets' fans are one of the best crowds in the league, and had they had more room in the stadium, I would have said hands down the best crowd in the league. This crowd will be loud, so if Dustin Byfuglien and company can get something going on the ice, no matter how small the crowd, will make sure that momentum carries over.

With that being said I’m predicting Anaheim will go through and the reasons are simple; Home ice advantage and better talent. These guys can play hockey, nevermind Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but people forget this is a team with Ryan Kesler, Frederik Andersen, as well as others. This team is armed to the teeth with good players, and assuming this crowd gets to them a little, they still got four games that they can win on their home ice. 

Prediction: Anaheim wins 4-2 or 4-3 

Ottawa Senators vs Montreal Canadiens  

The Canadiens may be the second seed this year but to me they are about two tads overrated. God bless P.K Subban and company, but the defence has been putrid this year, and had it not been for Carey Price, who knows where they would be.

Star player, Max Pacioretty, is out for the Canadiens, but the fact that the Senators have a white hot goaltender in Andrew Hammond as well as some confidence, the Senators actually have a legitimate shot to steal one here.

The thing is, Carey Price has been a stone wall all year, and despite a little bit of a struggle last week, I do not see him slowing down. He has a record of 44-16-6 with a save percentage of .933 and a goals allowed average of 1.96 goals per game… in other words if the Canadiens score 2 goals the opposing team is in deep water. If the Canadiens score 3 goals, end the game there because it is over.

Do the Senators have a good chance of upsetting the Canadiens? Yes. Is Andrew Hammond playing amazing? Absolutely. Also, the Senators have found a renewed sense of offence, and at times, defensive prowess but it is not easy to beat P.K. Subban and Carey Price in the playoffs with or without Max Pacioretty. With that being said, I am predicting a close upset by the Senators predicated on the assumption that Hammond can still keep this up and the young guns of the Senators do not catch stage fright. 

Prediction: Senators win 4-3

Other predictions 

  • NYR beat Pittsburgh 4-2 – Pittsburgh cannot seem to figure it out and the Rangers are too fast 
  • Tampa beats Detroit 4-2 – Mike Babcock is a great coach but not enough talent to beat Tampa bay 
  • NYI beats Washington 4-3 – They might be banged up but still fast I think the Islanders can surprise people 
  • St. Louis beats Minnesota 4-1 – I just do not think Minnesota have much of a chance without Dubnyk bringing his A+ game 
  • Calgary beats Vancouver 4-2 –The Calgary youngins do not know the meaning of fear. If Calgary does not catch stage fright, Vancouver is in for a rude awakening 
  • Chicago beats Nashville 4-2 – Nashville has done well this year but Chicago always play on another level in the playoffs

One thing to remember about these playoffs is these playoffs are going to be fun and intense and something that a Hockey fan would not wan

Changing Hockey Culture

Saturday evening, inside Levi's Stadium in beautiful Santa Clara (Not San Francisco) California, featured the NHL Stadium Series. In this instance, the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks did battle. Even though both teams are considered talented and good, both teams are fighting for a playoff spot. This was a good defensive hockey game (in other words, just okay) that had hits and grit. Marian Gaborik scored the game winner early third period, as the Los Angeles Kings beat the San Jose Sharks 2-1.

I really do not know how this game did television rating wise but to me this game lacked a bit of pre-game excitement and I have a theory as to why. No it's not because there were "80 million" outdoor (I hope you feel the exaggeration) games last year, but it was because of the unwillingness for fans to be excited about an outdoor game in warm weather. This sentence might seem confusing, but in typical Fan-I Sports fashion, I will explain. 

I love watching hockey, I even love studying it but because I never played organized hockey, the concept of a "hockey culture" and a specific hockey way of doing things are lost on me. In fact, hockey culture and I have a love-hate relationship. I am sometimes irritated by hockey culture, not because I do not understand it, but because despite the idea of hockey culture in the NHL being the best out of the four sports leagues in teaching ideals like unselfishness, toughness and unity, some of the hockey culture ideologies give the NHL business department an impossible task of growing the game. 

Nevermind things like keeping fighting in the game to police itself, but simple things like the concept of a outdoor game is unable to be marketed because of a hockey culture. Being a Canadian hockey fan, it is no question that the purest form of hockey like most sports is when it is played outdoors. Whether it was on the road or on the frozen pond, the outdoor hockey game in freezing cold weather is a Canadian tradition. It hits so close to Canadians hearts that the NHL thought they can take that outdoor hockey game concept and make it marketable during the season.

For the most part, this works but 30 percent of the time this falls flat on its face. The latter will happen for two reasons, one, when the NHL business department ruins it with having 20 thousand in one year, or two,  when the NHL decides to have an outdoor game in warm weather. This could also be a business blunder because the prevailing theme in the hockey world is that the southern United States do not care about hockey and that is true. but why is that? 

To me, and it is just my opinion, hockey has been marketed to the south with something that the south do not care about and/or do not want. That thing is Canadian traditions of what hockey should be. This is often done with cold weather, the "small town Canadian boy living his dream" and Canadian traditions of toughness. This obviously does not cater to Americans, thus it should only make sense that if the NHL wanted to grow the game they need to make hockey less about tradition as much as they can and market the game itself. However this is easier said than done because of the Canadian idea of hockey culture. 

Since I was young, hockey players were marketed as the small town, humble, good ole Canadian boys who played out in his neighbourhood frozen pond because that is the traditional Canadian sports athlete. As a result, anyone who did not fit this mold was not a fan favourite. Sometimes this marketing strategy of players borders on racism and idiocy, but to keep things simple, this marketing strategy crosses over to teams.

The clue to see this angle, is when a TV network will fall on tradition to market matchups, especially with the winter classic (I.e. Original 6 matchup between Toronto vs. Montreal or Sid The Kid, the small town Canadian boy, face the cocky Alex Ovechkin). What ends up happening is that Canadian traditions are marketed with the games' hockey culture and the two separate ideas are marketed as one.

This is not a problem to most hockey fans because they have bought in to this idea of hockey culture. The problem is when the NHL attempts to grow the game by separating the two. Most of their fan bases get upset and say the game is getting soft or that hockey is being ruined. If you do not believe me go watch a coach's corner segment and Don Cherry's opinion on keeping fighting.

One is probably asking, what does this have to do with an outdoor game in Los Angeles. The NHL can not market a country's culture with a game and expect another country who doesn't experience the same things to buy in to the same culture. In this difficult case, half of the U.S who do not understand Canada's culture because of the season, that is winter, being so very different for both halves. Thus when a outdoor game goes on in California or Tennessee, the result, PR wise, will be a failure every single time because ice is not supposed to be in sunny California and it doesn't look authentic to Canadians.

However, if fans are willing to accept outdoor ice hockey in warm weather locations, than the game can grow but negativity from fans who want to see a Canadian experience will not help. In other words the case could be made that if the NHL wants to grow the game they should take a risk and step away from marketing "hockey culture" with Canadian traditions of hockey.

The thing is that every sport should have a culture and Canadian traditions of hockey are great. Sidney Crosby is a great talent and deserves to be marketed as the "good ol Canadian boy". Last but not least Don Cherry is a legend and a smart man who knows way more than I most likely ever will. Those things are not up for debate, the thing that is up for debate is whether or not Hockey Culture is shooting the game in the foot because of its close association with Canadian tradition. 

Fight to the Finish

 A couple months ago, I had an article up talking about basically how NHL teams are doing. This was when the East was so tight that one week could be the difference between 3rd and 9th. I also said that the team I wouldn’t worry about was the Detroit Red Wings and the team that fans should worry about are the Toronto Maple Leafs ,who was sitting in 5th at the time. Well boy do I have news for you. There is quite the playoff race developing in the East. As of Wednesday Morning there was a four team tie for eighth place and it features the Maple Leafs.

As you see here, there is a 4 team tie for eighth place between the 7th place Columbus Blue Jackets, 8th place The Detroit Red Wings, 9th place Washington Capitals, and 10th place Toronto Maple Leafs. Not only that but what is more interesting is that 3 points separates the 6th place Philadelphia Flyers and the 10th place Toronto Maple Leafs. In my mind this makes the last 8 to 10 games of the season must see. This is going to sound cliché but with very good teams all jockeying for a spot in the playoffs the winners of what happens during these last 8 to 10 games are the fans. We as fans might very well see some of the best hockey played this season. Teams are desperate and unlike most sports, in hockey, once we're in the playoffs, your favorite team can make an impact.

So with all that being said, we all want to know who will make the playoffs. Well like I said, I am not worried about Detroit Red Wings but Maple Leaf fans should be very worried about the Maple Leafs. Also because the Columbus Blue Jackets have more games in hand Columbus has more of an opportunity to make it. Therefore I think Detroit and Columbus are going to the playoffs. However each team controls their destiny and so it’s not up to me who makes it, it’s up to the players on the ice.

By: Michael Asiffo