By Brad Vandenberk
As I awoke on the morning of January 6th 2013, it was like Christmas all over again. I learned that the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association had announced an agreement was in place and a condensed season was on the horizon.
The first thing I thought of was when do the Blackhawks play? I immediately used every possible angle to let the world know that hockey was back! Will the fans be coming back to watch their favourite teams?
Well, I believe that question was answered when arenas all over North America filled up to watch their favourite teams practice. That’s right, I said Practice! Fans will come back and watch the game because hockey is a culture. I didn’t realize how much the sport of hockey has involved in every aspect of a fan’s life until I began to change my daily routines to get prepared for the upcoming 48 game season. Adjusting my work schedules to be able to watch each game as well as waiting online to purchase tickets to a few of the road games.
Growing up In Niagara Falls Ontario, I have only made a few trips to Chi Town to see my beloved Blackhawks play at the Untied Center, however when they make the flight to Buffalo, Toronto or Detroit, I always head to the rink. When work asked me to cover the province of Alberta as part of my new territory, my first thought was, perfect now I can see the boys at the Saddledome and Rexall Place. Hockey has been a part of my life since I was young. Born in Edmonton in the 80’s, I followed the Edmonton Gretzky’s, I mean Oilers. Once I relocated to Ontario it was time to get serious. I couldn’t follow the great one forever; it was time to pick a team. As I watched the 91’ all star game I noticed a player by the name of Steve Larmer, I vowed to cheer for whatever team this all star played for. To my surprise during his early years, he played for the Niagara Flyers, coincidence, I think not.
Although the sport was absent for a few months, it was a welcomed break for two very important players. Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa each suffered concussions last year and although Toews was very outspoken during the work stoppage, captain serious benefited from the time off and getting back to where the Hawks need him most, on the ice. Hossa has come back stronger than ever and with Toews and Hossa healthy the Hawks are now being talked about as one of teams that could contend for Lord Stanley.
Other players also benefited in other ways. Patrick Kane signed in the Swiss league and didn’t disappoint. Viktor Stalberg, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival, Michael Frolik, and Bryan Bickell all had stints playing overseas. And with the seven AHLer’s battling for a roster spot, this makes the Hawks a competitive club right out of the gate.
With more news being released on a daily basis about how not every western conference team will have a full roster entering the first week of the season, the only casualty the Hawks will suffer is Steve Montador. He was cleared to play just eight weeks ago from a concussion, and now has to watch the five day training camp as his symptoms have returned.
Stan Bowman signed Sheldon Brookbank and Rozsival to add some more depth on the back end. Although Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will log the majority of the minutes, the Hawks have lacked some depth in the 5/6 defensive position. Now Oduya is signed for 3 more years. He and Hjalmarsson may get a full season in as projected partners. Nick Leddy will have to prove his worth in order to make this squad. Since their Stanley cup, the Hawks finally have a complete defensive core that, at this stage, doesn’t include an inexperienced player.
Dan Carcillo has also recovered fully from the knee surgery he had a year ago, making the Hawks front twelve a very dangerous unit. It seems Dave Bolland will occupy the 2nd line center role, with wing partners, Patrick Sharp and Kane. That’s the second line, which on most teams would be your first. How will Bolland work with the two Patty’s? Only time will tell. Hossa finally has his center men, being paired with Toews. These 2 juggernauts will have a great year and you can bet with Carcillo playing on the other side, no one will dare try to concuss the two superstars. The 3rd line at this stage seems to be a bit of a trial run with Andrew Shaw centering Stalberg and Bickell. Shaw has been suspended a few times while playing for the Rockford IceHogs this season, but with the guidance of Bolland and Toews, this should rate as one of the top checking lines in the league. With the speed of Stalberg in the offensive end and if Bickell decides to throw his weight around, we could see a new era of checking lines in Chicago. Remember when Havlat played here? Keep in mind; both Stalberg and Bickell are in the final years of their contracts. These two will be playing for their careers, isn’t that motivation enough? Finally, the gritty 4th linehas a few interchangeable parts. Kruger, Frolik, Jamal Mayers, Brandon Bollig, and Jimmy Hayes are all viable options to create the energy that the crowd will thrive off of.
The biggest question mark is in Goal. Corey Crawford was the subject as what the experts call a sophomore slump. I call it ‘bad defense’ played in front of him. Crawford decided to train and stay healthy during the work stoppage. This has helped him reassess his game and help the Blackhawks on the back end. Crawford is big and takes up a lot of the net. A few bad goals during the first round of the playoffs is not how Crawford wants to be remembered. This is going to be a bounce back season for the talented net minder. It’s very unlikely that Crawford will play all 48 games. Enter the veteran, Ray Emery. He may be playing with a reconstructed hip, but he was resigned to a new contract before season’s end last year for a reason. Although he had a mediocre season, he will be one of the better options in the league to come in and relieve Crawford.
There is a lot of frustration for the season not starting on time. But we have to look at the positives. Hockey is back and at the end of the day, that is all that matters. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Blackhawks fans. The superstars are rested and intensity will be heightened. As fans, we had to be patient during the bargaining process, as there was not a lot we could do but voice our displeasure. Now that the season has been announced, it’s time to get out the face paint, your favourite players jersey, and your Superstations and cheer loud and proud for your Chicago Blackhawks.
Brad is returning for his second season doing Blackhawks recaps on TheThirdManIn.com. You can also find Brad on Twitter @CMM_Brad