Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings Ends Just As It's Getting Good
At the heart of great sports are great rivalries. They drive the competitive fires of fans, fueling the idea of how far teams can push their talents when the element of surprise is gone. So when the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings locked horns in the Stanley Cup semifinals everyone knew it was destined to become a hard fought, bitter, frantic series. It didn't disappoint. However, on the tail end of an unforgettable show, fans also received the sour news that it is a rivalry that will lose a lot of its intensity thanks to the league.
NHL moving the Red Wings to Eastern Conference
An always present part of sports is that once in awhile the format of a league changes in order to create new interest and new opportunities for teams. Detroit found that out this year when the news from NHL brass dropped that the league would realign its teams into four divisions split between the East and West conferences. In order to accomplish this it meant moving the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets to the East after years in the West. This is necessary in order to allow both teams to play opponents in the same time zone. The plan also takes on an NBA feel in that it arranges schedules so every team plays each other at least once in a season. It is a logical solution in the eyes of a lot of people. This way rivalries can stay in contact despite teams that move from a conference or a division.
That sounds nice but for Chicago and Detroit fans it isn't quite the same. The two teams have been division and conference rivals for the past fifty years. It is one of the longest rivalries in professional sports, not just hockey. To a lot of die hard fans, fewer games between the two teams means less entertainment and tradition for the sport. In fact their classic seven-game war this season was the 16th playoff meeting since 1934. However, one reason it may have lost some luster was it was also just the second time since 1995. This drought and a need for realignment gave league executives the green light to shake things up. While the rivalry is important, Red Wings players believe it is for the best. The move will drastically reduce travel time, especially during the playoffs and also eliminate late-night games for fans on the West Coast.
Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe escalate the feud
If there is anything fans can take from the deconstruction of the rivalry, it is the memories and the promise of the future. The last time the two teams were in different conferences, and when the blood feud really started to boil, was back in 1961. That year nobody expected the Red Wings or Blackhawks to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The entire decade at that time belonged to powerhouses like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians. Yet Chicago and Detroit pulled monumental upsets and met for the second and last time in the Finals. It was a series dominated by the stars. Blackhawks leader Bobby Hull and wing man Stan Mikita went against star Red Wings winger Gordie Howe and defenseman Marcel Pronovost. The Hawks pair both clinched a game in the series with a winning goal. Ironically, a late series run by the Hawks where they outscored the Wings 11-4 iced the last two games and won Chicago its last Cup for the next 49 years.
It didn't end the rivalry there though. When Detroit moved into the Western Conference the blood battles continue. The two teams met five more times in the playoffs between 1963 and 1970. Detroit took three series and Chicago two. Four of those times the team with home ice advantage lost and the winning team had to come from behind to win.
Jonathan Toews and Marion Hossa re-stoke the fire
Over the next few decades the rivalry would flare up from time to time. The two sides met three times in the 1980s and twice in the 1990s. Every series was close though it didn't always go seven games. Yet for awhile fans forgot about it as the Blackhawks sunk into a decade-long mire while the Red Wings elevated to dynasty status with amazing players like Sergei Federov, Steve Yzerman and Henrik Zetterberg. Yet what truly lit the fires under the rivalry was when Detroit plucked long-time Hawks star defenseman Chris Chelios to help them win the championship in 2008. So to return the favor, Chicago signed All-Star Marion Hossa away from them the next year.
Paired with team captain and rising star Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks experienced a revival for the ages. From 2006-2007 when they went 31-42, the teams' new core pushed them to 46-24 in 2008-2009, topped off by a birth in the Western Conference Finals. There the Red Wings awaited them. Fittingly, the series didn't lack for entertainment. Three games went to overtime. There were big hits, huge momentum swings and a lot of great hockey. In the end it was Detroit's experience that helped them clinch the series in five games. Chicago didn't forget the lessons, using them to win their first Cup since '61 a year later.
One more for the road
Is the NHL doing the right thing splitting the Hawks and Wings up?
Nobody could have asked for a better send off than what the two teams put together in the 2013 playoffs. The savvy, battle-tested Red Wings knocking the younger, faster Blackhawks out of rhythm and taking a 3-1 grip on the series. Chicago, digging deep into their growing trademark for late game and late series heroic, fight back to force Game 7 at the United Center. The unforgettable night features big hits, big goals, controversial calls and most importantly: overtime. Hockey fans were spoiled this year and it's a shame things had to end when they were just getting good again. That is the nature of sports. All people can do is sit back and savor the memories.