Not that long ago in Chicago, the Blackhawks Way meant a half-empty arena on a good night on the West Side, home games nobody could watch on television and apathy that spread from living rooms to the locker room.
Michal Handzus remembers.
"We were one of the worst teams in the NHL and this wasn't a very fun place to play,'' said Handzus, who was with the Hawks for the 2006-07 season and spent the last six years with the Kings and Sharks before rejoining the team via trade in April. "It was pretty sad, night and day compared to now. Now, everything has changed.''
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Now, the Blackhawks Way means leading the NHL in attendance for a fifth straight season, making NBC affiliates rich during the playoffs with record TV ratings and becoming an organization others envy.
Now, the Blackhawks Way means winning consistently with players as likable as they are talented, creating a championship environment in the office as well as behind the glass, and meeting impossibly high standards on and off the ice.
"It starts at the top with (Chairman Rocky Wirtz) and (President John McDonough) demanding little details are done right, no cutting corners,'' general manager Stan Bowman said. "John has made sure that we're going to be looked upon as a franchise people would want to pattern themselves after.''
Now, the Blackhawks Way represents something unique in our often tortured sports city, a proven method of excellence unlike any other franchise in town since the Jordan Bulls.
You know, the kind of team Boston would recognize.
When the Patriots do something unorthodox like sign Tim Tebow, people assume from history they know what they are doing. If another NFL team such as, say, the Bears would have done the same thing, people would have demanded to know what they were thinking — or smoking. That's the benefit of the doubt the Patriots have earned, the one the Blackhawks have come closest to receiving among pro sports teams in Chicago.
America's most dominant sports city of the new millennium — Boston has won seven championships since 2000 — routinely experiences championship euphoria every Chicagoan, except Cubs fans, might consider once-in-a-lifetime moments. We are more accustomed to seasons ending with roster autopsies instead of parades.
Nobody can say Chicago's teams haven't provided Boston's the sincerest form of flattery: imitation. The Cubs stole Theo Epstein and his baseball blueprint from the Red Sox. The Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau off the Celtics staff. Even Bears general manager Phil Emery copied part of his grand plan from Scott Pioli, the former Chiefs president who earned his reputation helping establish The Patriots Way.
Does any other city make Chicago sports feel so inferior? Bill Buckner and Kevin Garnett enjoyed success in Boston after leaving Chicago. Boston got Nomar Garciaparra's best years, too. Doug Flutie was the opposite, legendary at Boston College but a punch line after he came to the Bears. Bostonians Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick starred in Chicago during the 1990s but that hardly made up for the Bruins stealing Phil Esposito away in 1967 in one of the Blackhawks' worst trades ever. I guess Chicago always will have Carlton Fisk.
Indeed, for the city's collective psyche, Chicago needs this Stanley Cup Final worse than Boston. A Blackhawks victory would give us a 2-1 edge in head-to-head championship competition: The Red Sox beat the Cubs in the 1918 World Series but the Bears plastered the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. On Wednesday night at the United Center, they will drop rubber to decide the rubber match amid surprising civic confidence due largely to The Blackhawks Way.
The Hawks falling behind 3-1 in the Red Wings series after winning the Presidents' Trophy was so very Chicago-like. Recovering to win three in a row to advance to the Western Conference finals was so very Blackhawks-like.
You know you are making progress as a hockey organization when you can compare Stanley Cup media days only three years apart. Back in 2010, Blackhawks players seemed proud of themselves as individuals reaching a career plateau. This time, they more loudly echoed an appreciation for an organization that stresses team over me.
Veterans praised the patient development of draft picks Corey Crawford, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad. They hailed shrewd trades for Nick Leddy and Handzus and found new ways to compliment fellow members of the core. They commended Bowman for patiently standing pat with the roster after two straight first-round exits. They praised management's behind-the-scenes personal touches such as relocating Handzus' family in April and letting Duncan Keith be present for the birth of his son before a playoff game in May.
"It's the greatest, most amazing organization in the league,'' Dave Bolland exaggerated.
Let's just say the Hawks are four victories away from having 29 teams copy them.
Photographic evidence proves Bowman actually smiled at this year's Media Day. At times during the 2010 finals, Bowman grinned through gritted teeth dreading the salary-cap purge that followed the finals — much less of a concern this time around. The hope Bowman expressed in re-signing Bryan Bickell wasn't even a bluff.
"The position we're in today is much better than three years ago,'' Bowman said. "We had to go through that. It helped us realize that, when we regroup from this, we don't want to have to make those kind of sweeping changes again. We prepared for this moment.''
Championship organizations come to expect these moments. Now, that's the Blackhawks Way.