December 6, 2013 Sections
The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The questions started a long time ago, and then resurfaced when the Chicago Blackhawks arrived at Notre Dame on Wednesday for the start of training camp.
Everyone wants to know if the Blackhawks can become the first team to win consecutive Stanley Cups since Detroit in 1997 and 1998. While those repeat questions are certain to come up again, Jonathan Toews and company are focused on the process that leads to championship-level teams.
"Once we start building ourselves up as a team the way we did last year and preparing ourselves for the playoffs, we want to put ourselves come playoff time to be that team that can compete for it again," the captain said. "But we know with what happened last year, there's a lot of pressure. There's a lot of things that play into that. That's our goal for now."
The Blackhawks start working toward that goal when they hold their first practice at the alma mater of general manager Stan Bowman on Thursday. It should be a much different atmosphere than the last time they returned after a title.
Chicago beat Philadelphia in six games to win the Stanley Cup in 2010, ending a 49-year drought. What followed with an off-season salary-cap purge that cost the team several key players, including goalie Antti Niemi and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.
The Blackhawks lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, and then beat Boston in six games to win it all in June. For this title defence, the team that hits the ice for the first practice for the upcoming season will look a lot like the one that defeated the Bruins.
"It's a much different situation," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We felt last time we lost half our team, the guys lost their buddies and we weren't quite familiar with the team we had when we began that season."
Bryan Bickell, who had nine goals and eight assists in the playoffs, re-signed with Chicago during free agency. Same for forward Michal Handzus and Michal Rozsival. Goaltender Corey Crawford, defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson, Quenneville and Bowman each received a contract extension.
While the returning cast is very similar to last year's squad, team president John McDonough said he wants the players to forget about last season.
"That chapter is closed," he said. "I'm very, very proud of our organization. But we're not satisfied with where we are. We're not close to being satisfied. We need to get a lot better. I know that sounds absurd in the face of two Stanley Cup championships in four years. But this is an organization with lofty expectations."
A third title in five seasons would put the Blackhawks in some heady company, but Bowman said he isn't sure if that adds up to a dynasty in the NHL's salary-cap era.
"But I think we're going to be a team, we're striving to be a team, that's striving for the Cup every year," he said. "We want to sustain this level of success not just for this season or next season, but for a number of seasons. Ultimately, time will tell. But like John said, we're just getting started here."
Bowman also reiterated he intends to make sure Toews and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Kane are Blackhawks for life. The stars are eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2014-15 season.
Bowman said the duo changed the complexion of the Blackhawks.
"They gave us credibility and besides that, they gave us results," he said. "They're tremendous people. They're character kids that care about their teammates; they care about the city of Chicago and they're proud to be Blackhawks. When you find two players like that that are not only talented players on the ice but quality people off the ice, then we're very fortunate. Most teams would die to have one player like that. We're fortunate to have two. We're going to keep them around for a long, long time."
Toews said he hopes that happens.
"I don't think there's any place better in the league or in the world to play hockey," he said.