Commentary

Fortunes fall into place for Hawks

Toews, Kane at right place, right time as team builds around its twin core

Updated: July 17, 2014, 11:41 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

BlackhawksAP Photo/Daily Herald/Mark WelshJohn McDonough, center, and the Blackhawks made certain Jonathan Toews, left, and Patrick Kane, right, will remain the faces of the team with lucrative, far-reaching contract extensions.
CHICAGO -- Inside a tucked-away club at the United Center, at a long table where the bottled water had the Chicago Blackhawks logo facing out to the cameras, five of the six most important members of the organization (no room for coach Joel Quenneville, who sat nearby) met the media to bask in their own good fortune on Wednesday afternoon.

From left to right, it was general manager Stan Bowman, team president John McDonough, owner Rocky Wirtz, captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the star.

The occasion was to formally announce the twin eight-year, $84 million contract extensions signed by Toews and Kane that will presumably keep the pair here through their mid-30s.

It's money well spent.

When Toews (the No. 3 pick in 2006) and Kane (No. 1 in 2007) were drafted as teenagers, the Blackhawks were a shell of a franchise. No crowds, no buzz.

Back then, Bowman was a front-office worker bee anonymous to 99 percent of Chicago and the son of a famous man. McDonough was dreaming of a World Series with the Chicago Cubs. And Wirtz was working for the family booze business.

Kane had more hair and less of an Internet rap sheet, and Toews, well, was a younger version of his current self.

Now, almost seven years later, the Blackhawks have two Stanley Cups, a season-ticket waiting list and a city full of rabid fans.

Time has been good to these men, as they've all grown rich and successful together.

"It's crazy to think it's been seven years already," Toews said. "It's amazing to think we're going to have a chance to continue this ride we've been on for another eight years, at least."

As I listened to McDonough heap gratuitous praise on Wirtz -- "the humility of a statesman ... the ultimate difference-maker" -- I thought about the macabre subtext at any Blackhawks celebration: that without the death of Rocky Wirtz's father, former owner Bill Wirtz, in September 2007, the team's outsize success probably wouldn't be possible.

"The sports landscape in Chicago changed forever when Rocky arrived on this campus in October 2007," McDonough said.

Ain't that the truth.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Toews, Patrick Kane jerseys
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Hawks and their fans can expect to see the these jerseys worn on the ice by their two stars for a long time to come.
No one mentioned Bill Wirtz, of course, at this news conference, nor did they thank Dale Tallon, the general manager who drafted Kane and Toews. Tallon is still alive, signing ex-Blackhawks in South Florida.

While the Blackhawks executives love to bask in their own reflected glory, it's important to give thanks to, well, no one at all, for the simple good fortune in these two singular players landing in Chicago at the right time. Raise a glass to fate!

The faces of the Blackhawks agreed:

"I'm just thrilled we have two of them," said Bowman, who housed Kane during his rookie year. "Most teams would die to have one of these players on their team. We have two of them here. We're very fortunate."

"I was fortunate enough to come in with [Toews] at the same time," Kane said.

"Yeah, you get lucky," Quenneville said. "Sometimes you get lucky. They had some real tough years, some lean years around the United Center. They took some lumps. We're definitely fortunate. Say you didn't get one of them. Who knows how it could've played out?"

It's most important to give praise to Kane and Toews for being really, really good at hockey: the two-way center and the explosive forward with the showbiz celebrations.

Sure, it's great they're polite to the media and charitable in the community. But all that stuff comes after what they do on the ice. Hockey players love to revel in the team, the cohesive locker room.

But everyone on the Hawks know these two make the team tick. They didn't win the Conn Smythe trophies in each of the Cup years by accident.

Yes, Wirtz put the games on TV, the biggest non-decision in the town's history, but Kane and Toews gave people something to watch.

The duo, who have the same agent and debuted in the same season, are their own brand now, mused McDonough, whose area of expertise is marketing.

"I don't know if it's Kane and Toews or it's Toews and Kane," McDonough said. "But I know [the brand] is powerful and it's really respected."

Toews' personal brand is that of the serious leader and a consistent winner. He's got two Cups and two Olympic gold medals. So, of course, someone had to ask him about losing Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

Throughout that final game, I had no doubt the Blackhawks would win it, just because they had done it so many times before. But they didn't, and that's part of the story now, too.

"I watched a little bit [of the Stanley Cup finals], not much," Toews said. "Especially, you watch the celebration at the end, with the Kings hoisting the Cup again. You let that sink in. I think we realized how close we were.

"We like to think we were one goal away from getting another chance. You learn a lot when you win; I think you definitely understand how difficult it was the second time around against Boston. But I think you learn even more when you lose, especially when you come that close."

That's why Toews said he's glad to get this signing done, so he can focus on next season.

Money matters, though. Toews and Kane will take up a decent chunk of the team's salary cap going forward. But they came together in a relative bargain.

Asked what these two are really worth, their agent Pat Brisson said they could have easily commanded the maximum average of 20 percent of a team's cap, but they took a little less for the good of the team.

"They could have demanded $13.8 million each, but at the same time they understand that hockey is a team sport," Brisson said. "The reason why they're also successful as players is based on the environment they're in. I give them a lot of credit for understanding that, which role they can play currently and in the future."

Don't start wailing about sacrifice quite yet. As of now, they each have the biggest salary-cap hit in the league at $10.5 million per year and are getting very nice signing bonuses.

They know they'll say goodbye to more veteran teammates over the next couple of years, but that's the cost of doing business in the NHL. Bowman and his staff have done a solid job filling the organization with young talent. You build around the core.

Brisson said he "had certain doubts, perhaps" when these two were drafted by the Hawks.

"But I knew Chicago is a great sports town," he said. "I felt there was a great opportunity for them to grow with it."

Either his instincts proved correct or Toews and Kane made him seem smart.

It's fascinating how much of an effect luck has in the NHL. But, really, in all forms of life, luck is all about putting yourself in the right situation and taking advantage: crashing the net at the right time, taking the shot and hoping for a deflection, planting yourself in front of a goal.

Kane and Toews will say they were lucky to come to this organization, and I say this organization is lucky to have them. And everyone is right.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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