In a United Center hallway moments after Saturday's 3-1 victory over the Bruins brought the Blackhawks within 60 minutes of a second Stanley Cup title in four years, general manager Stan Bowman opened a window just a crack to his ambivalent soul.
Bowman hugged his young family and accepted congratulations from friends, balancing the obvious relief on his face with an underlying restraint that guards his emotions. A trained accountant born to hockey royalty, Bowman never takes for granted how hard it can be to get everything to add up to four before hoisting the silver chalice after which he is named.
"We're not done yet — we have one more to go,'' Bowman warned well-wishers. "But this was fun.''
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United Center, 1901 West Madison Street, Chicago, IL 60612, USA
Seeing what nobody else saw can be.
Three years ago Sunday, just two weeks after celebrating in Philadelphia, Bowman traded clutch playoff folk hero Dustin Byfuglien out of necessity to the Thrashers to begin the post-Cup salary-cap purge. In what seemed like two hockey shifts later, Bowman swiftly dealt key contributors Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd too. Adam Burish left for more money to go keep somebody else's dressing room loose. A contract impasse that led to goalie Antti Niemi's exit felt like the dagger.
Suddenly, the Hawks no longer were the Hawks. To many, they became a referendum on Bowman's ability to create his own hockey legacy.
Now the Hawks stand within one win of a championship that, under the circumstances, would go down as an even more impressive feat than 2010. Maintaining success often presents a greater challenge than achieving it. As sprinter Usain Bolt said at last summer's London Olympics, "Repeating is harder than anything else.''
That goes for hockey too.
The Blackhawks' core — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — remains the same. But as much as stars playing like stars puts teams over the top, they never get that far without secondary scorers and gritty role players whose personalities fit in a room conducive to winning.
Hockey teams win championships rolling four lines and going six deep with defensemen who play in front of a goaltender everybody trusts. Whereas the Bruins wear down teams with strength, the Hawks whittle away foes with depth. They still can win that way because Bowman made the moves he needed to make and — perhaps most importantly — resisted making others despite widespread doubts about his viability as a GM and the public's willingness to embrace change.
Staying patient required more insight than ego, more discipline than daring. Through it all, Bowman relied on an inner confidence buried beneath his businesslike poker face.
Take nothing away from the relatively minor, complementary moves Bowman did make. Trading for defenseman Johnny Oduya last year and second-line center Michal Handzus in April looks shrewd now. Signing defenseman Michal Rozsival as a free agent last summer stopped being curious a long time ago. Drafting Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw in 2011 reflected well on the scouting staff.
But what Bowman didn't do put the Hawks in prime position to contend more than anything he did. He didn't fire Quenneville after a 2011-12 season fraught with coaching "dysfunction.'' He didn't panic over goalie Corey Crawford and overpay for a veteran replacement, choosing to keep dependable backup Ray Emery. He didn't overreact by dangling Patrick Kane as trade bait after Kane's 2012 Madness Tour in Madison, Wis. He didn't give up on Bryan Bickell or Marcus Kruger.
He kept a team intact that, over time, developed its own edge.
The 2010 title that ended 49 years of waiting in Chicago always will carry more sentimental significance. But winning again during a compressed NHL regular season, so quickly after dismantling the roster for unavoidable reasons, would reveal an organization that overcame more.
The '10 team carried the burden of history, but the pressure of being record-breakers everybody wanted to beat after their 24-games-with-a-point start was heavier for the '13 Hawks. The quirky schedule imposed by the lockout also posed unique problems. Embarking on 48 games in 99 days — it sounds more like a reality-show premise than an NHL itinerary — forced Quenneville and his staff to adjust in terms of rest and preparation.
You could argue the Hawks' road to the finals in 2010 included trickier obstacles. Overall, the Predators, Canucks and Sharks of '10 represented more talented playoff opponents than the Wild, Red Wings and Kings of '13. But if the Hawks beat the Bruins in one of the next two games, they would be considered a tougher out than the Flyers were.
And Bowman would be remembered as the architect of a Stanley Cup champion instead of just the lucky GM who inherited one.