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Final four were built the right way

PITTSBURGH -- And then there were four.

But not just any four. This is THE four.

The past four Stanley Cup winners have gathered for another chance at glory, franchises that have proved to be not simply visitors to the pinnacle, but at the very least residents of the surrounding area.

How rare an event is what is unfolding now in the two conference finals? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other time in NHL history that the previous four Cup winners advanced to the final four of the playoffs was in 1945.

What makes the fact the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins stand on the verge of another trip to the Stanley Cup finals so impressive is that a decade ago, to suggest this might be possible for any of these teams, let alone all four, would have been pure folly.

Indeed, as much as this storyline is about a sudden return to glory, it is also about teams that have overcome much -- the threat of relocation, general uninterest and malaise among their fans, questionable ownership decisions, and so on -- to become the kinds of franchise that other teams around the league both envy and emulate.

"You can go beyond the NHL," league COO John Collins told ESPN.com. They illustrate the truth in the old saying, "good management wins," Collins said. "I use them all as a case study."

Not long before his team jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, Chicago president John McDonough was talking about the energy in the city surrounding the Blackhawks.

"There's a vibration here in Chicago, I mean it's seismic," said McDonough, whose team in 2010 won its first Stanley Cup since 1961, and now stands two wins away from another trip to the finals.

"These are not just games, they are events, and I think there's a discernible difference between the two," McDonough told ESPN.com.

This isn't hyperbole. Anyone who's been to a game at the Madhouse on Madison in the past four or five years understands the reference, can feel the hair stand up on their arms at the mere thought of the national anthem.

Those moments make the club's long, dark period seem like a century ago. But during a 10-year stretch between 1997-98 and 2007-08, the Blackhawks missed the playoffs nine times. They were drawing fewer than 13,000 a night in the United Center, and were often outdrawn by the local American Hockey League affiliate as an entire generation of Blackhawks fans turned its back on the team.

In 2004, ESPN The Magazine ranked Chicago last in the NHL and second to last among all teams in the four major pro sports in how much teams give back to their fans.

But with owner Rocky Wirtz taking over the franchise following the death of his father, Bill, and McDonough coming over as president after a long and successful run with the Chicago Cubs, the Blackhawks have become one of the most successful sports franchises on the continent, on and off the ice.

Wirtz immediately moved to put all of the team's games on television, something his father did not believe in, and aggressively moved to repair the relationship between the team and its disenfranchised fan base.

"We were a little bit behind before," McDonough said, offering what can be described only as a monumental understatement.

With youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane redefining the team's image, the Blackhawks have led the NHL in attendance for five straight years. Forbes magazine reported that franchise value has more than doubled to $350 million in the past six years.

On the ice, the team has overcome having to shed a number of key parts of the 2010 championship roster to earn the Presidents' Trophy this season as the best regular-season team, including a record-setting 24-game point streak to start the regular season.

The key, McDonough said, is consistency not just on the ice, but also in the boardrooms and with the team's marketing and salespeople as well as the scouting and development staff.

"Every year it's difficult. Making the playoffs is difficult. The competitive balance is razor thin," he said.

But the fan base following this Chicago team has evolved with the team itself. In spite of its Original Six history, research done by the club shows between 70 and 75 percent of fans are considered "new" fans.

"It's a very young demographic. I think they've laid claim to this team," McDonough said.

If the Blackhawks are the kings of cool in one of the best sports markets in America, then their opponents in this Western Conference finals are West Coast cool after winning their first-ever Stanley Cup championship last June. We visited with Hall of Fame player and Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille last season, and he talked about the selling of the team's plan to the fan base.

With only one trip to the Stanley Cup finals in Kings history -- in 1993 with Wayne Gretzky as the centerpiece -- Robitaille and general manager Dean Lombardi had to sell the promise of a future led by young stars Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. The team had won just one playoff series over a 17-year period from 1994 until last spring, and attendance in 2008-09 had slipped to 22nd in the league.

Hard to imagine how things might have gone had the Kings missed the playoffs in 2012, as it appeared they might when Lombardi fired head coach Terry Murray. Suffice it to say there would have been a significant housecleaning.

But Lombardi's longtime friend and associate Darryl Sutter led the Kings on a remarkable 16-4 playoff run to capture the Cup.

"When you're telling a story and it comes true, it always helps," Robitaille told ESPN.com this weekend.

Youth hockey has grown exponentially in California in recent years, and an Orange County high school team this year won a national varsity championship. Attendance is as strong as it's ever been, with almost every game over the past three years sold out. This season marked the first since 1991-92 that every home game was sold out.

The lockout that delayed the start of the season until Jan. 19 didn't help in terms of being able to take full advantage of the Cup win, although the silver lining was that the team was able to use the Cup itself in more fan-related events during the labor dispute.

Still, it's hard to quantify the importance of returning to the final four just 12 months after that historic celebration at Staples Center.

"It's great. You're able to prove to your fans that it's not a one-shot deal," Robitaille said.

The centerpiece of the long-term plan was the Kings building to be a Cup contender every season. To do that means not taking shortcuts, not trying to hurry the process. Robitaille recalled Lombardi saying last summer that they built the team the right way, they didn't cheat, and the results spoke for themselves.

The renaissance of the two East finalists has been no less impressive.

The Bruins, like the Blackhawks, had allowed an Original Six franchise with a rich history to fall into a long period of decay. In 2006-07, Boston finished last in the Northeast Division and 13th in the conference for the second straight season. In 12 seasons prior, the Bruins had won just one playoff series and had not won a Cup since Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito were the toast of the town in 1972.

Captain Joe Thornton was traded to San Jose, where he promptly won a Hart Trophy as league MVP in the season after the 2004-05 lockout. Meanwhile, Bruins attendance slipped to 25th in the second season after the lockout. While the NFL's Patriots, NBA's Celtics and MLB's Red Sox captured hearts and minds and consumers' dollars, the Bruins languished in the shadows.

That the turnaround in the franchise's fortunes would coincide with the arrival to management of Bruins icon Cam Neely as team president in 2007 is not coincidental. Neely would bring a presence to the club, instant credibility where there had been a credibility vacuum.

With Neely's leadership paired with the shrewd hockey moves of GM Peter Chiarelli, the Bruins aggressively pursued a championship by acquiring Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and playoff goal-scoring machine Nathan Horton to augment homegrown talent Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand and Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron.

"The years that I played with the organization for the most part we felt we could compete to win," Neely told ESPN.com. "I think that's important for a player to feel that they can compete for championships."

After winning the Cup in 2011 in a dramatic seven-game series against heavily favored Vancouver, the Bruins were bounced in the first round by Washington last spring. To be back in the final four with a 2-0 lead after winning a pair of games in Pittsburgh has been reassuring.

"It's important for our organization, for the players and especially for our fans," Neely said. "Just like anybody they want to have something to cheer for and get excited about."

This season, the Bruins set a record for ratings with their local television broadcasts, making a 35 percent jump over the 2011-12 season. For the second year in a row, the local broadcasts ranked third in the nation among regional sports networks.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunts, the Bruins were among the leaders in the local pro sports community in raising money for the victims, as well as bringing the community together after the tragedy.

Among the final four teams, though, the Penguins represent perhaps the most dramatic turnaround in recent years. After the team filed for bankruptcy in 1998, an impasse with local politicians over the building of a new arena created the very real potential that the Penguins would relocate to Kansas City or Las Vegas.

In each season from 2001-02 through 2005-06, they finished last in the Atlantic Division. They finished 30th in the league and had the NHL's lowest attendance in 2003-04.

But instead of relocating, owner Mario Lemieux and league officials worked to keep the team in Pittsburgh, and after winning the Sidney Crosby lottery and drafting top-end talent Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal (since traded to Carolina) and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins built one of the most exciting young teams in hockey.

The team has sold out every game for the past six years, and after Game 2 of the East finals Monday night the Penguins have sold out 286 straight games. The local television ratings now rival those of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Beyond that, the organization has blazed new trails in terms of creating grassroots hockey opportunities in the Pittsburgh area.

"While we did have a lot of obstacles to overcome, we did it the right way. We did it one block at a time," team president David Morehouse told ESPN.com.

To return to the final four after a three-year period in which the team won just one playoff round is important from top to bottom, he said.

"It's important because it's a validation of all the hard work that not just we did, but the hard work the fans put in in staying with us throughout the hard times," Morehouse said.

He said the Penguins have learned from established franchises such as the Detroit Red Wings, who this season went to the playoffs for the 22nd straight season, as well as the other three conference finalists.

"Those three guys [Robitaille, Neely and McDonough] are pretty progressive on how they view their organizations and their fan bases," Morehouse said. "We learn from each other."