Wikipedia’s been updated, so I guess it’s official: the Chicago Blackhawks are a hockey dynasty. This, by virtue of their victory Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, which secured their third Stanley Cup title in six years. It’s without question an impressive achievement, all the more so in this era of 30 teams, free agency, and the salary cap. So the win certainly cements the ‘Hawks status as this decade’s finest hockey team. But I’m just not sure it also makes them a dynasty – yet.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, perhaps sensing the naysayers, tried to pummel any doubt about the d-word during the Stanley Cup trophy presentation, when he declared (with a wink before ‘Hawks home crowd), “I’d say you have a dynasty!” And Nate Silver’s done some number crunching, too, to support this claim. But it holds up only if you accept that the once-venerable “definition” for “dynasty” has changed.
Used to be, a championship squad had to capture at least two consecutive titles within a multi-year stretch (and, say, three titles over four or five years) to earn the dynastic imprimatur. Yet now, due to changing circumstances – mainly league rules that promote parity over hegemony (see examples above) – it’s harder than ever for teams to win back-to-back championships. So Silver (and that cheerleader Bettman) say we should adjust the old standard and welcome the 2010s Blackhawks into the hockey firmament.
Perhaps they don’t really mean “dynasty,” but say it because there isn’t another word to capture the mastery that comes with three championships in six seasons. Or maybe they’ve discovered that any alternative will expose the yawning gap between what now and once served as dominance in a sport. This is not to say that Chicago doesn’t stack up with their dynastic forebears – say the ’70s Canadiens (five titles in a row) or the ’80s Islanders (four). I think that, given modern conditioning, strategy, etc., the out-of-the-box 2015 ‘Hawks beat the ’83 Islanders every time. But that doesn’t mean that Chicago has dominated the NHL in the same way that the Islanders did, or Edmonton in the late ’80s.
After the Blackhawks 2010 win, they were bounced from the playoffs in the first round in each of the next two seasons. This, in a league where more than half the teams make the post-season. So, over this three year span, the ‘Hawks hardly dominated the league. But since, they’ve been a real force, taking it all in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season and then making it to their conference finals in 2014. And we know how this year turned out. So, over the second three year span, they’ve been far more dominant, delivering on the promise of that young 2010 team that sputtered in 2011-12. But remember – the Los Angeles Kings have won two titles in four seasons now. If they win again in either of the next two years – or (gasp!) perhaps both! – are they then a dynasty, too? Will their legacy eclipse that of the ‘Hawks?
The (quite fair) consensus is that this Chicago team – with a core of world-class stars such as Kane and Toews – is far superior to the Kings. (My take is that the championship Kings were merely very good teams that got hot at the right time of year and leveraged some lucky breaks to titletown. But still – two titles in three years.) But the very possibility of another Kings win – especially now that free agency threatens to diminish the Blackhawks’ roster and their “stranglehold” on the West – highlights the risk in spontaneously declaring a dynasty. Are sports columnists really so desperate for content? Are there really so many “dynasty” t-shirts to sell? I think the fact that the Blackhawks represent Chicago, America’s second city – and was one of hockey’s original six teams to boot – partially explains the rush to declaration.
But I also think it says less about the Blackhawks’ historical significance than our need – as fans – to say we witnessed greatness. To bestow “dynasty” allows us to enshrine the moment, to pocket it, and carry it into the hereafter, a memorial of sorts saying “I was there.” The practice not only validates our contribution to the sports culture for having watched, it’s also the highest form of appreciation. To the Blackhawks, we say thanks.
In the end, total championships will settle the question (though debating alternative metrics, such as Silver’s, is what makes talk radio such a hoot). Why not apply the old rule of thumb – three titles in four years – to the Blackhawks, and see how they do? It’s still very much possible. But for some reason, the commentariat wants to preempt the events of next season and beyond. It’s just too hard to win again, they say. They cite how, with so many teams, endless rounds of playoffs, and that apparition, BAD LUCK, top-seeded hockey teams go to post-season ash heap sooner and with greater frequency than in any other major sport.
And these are formidable obstacles, even if we ignore the prospect that good – even great – teams get lucky too. But if these barriers to repeat championships can’t be surmounted – if the league, and fans, value fairness and a level playing field more now than in years past – then why can’t we just accept Chicago as an excellent team that doesn’t quite meet the dynastic benchmark? It wouldn’t diminish their feats in the slightest. And if we agree that something fundamental changed in the sporting world circa the 1990s which now prevents dynasties in the traditional sense, does that make the current landscape less appealing? We could think of the earlier, imperial era as we now consider ancient Rome – a grand time of conquest and tyranny that’s receded, thankfully, for a more populist, democratic now.
I’m rooting for the Blackhawks to repeat next year. But if they fail, I’ll hold out hope that, someday, an even more exceptional team will come to conquer the NHL – hell, any pro league – ripping off two or three championships in a row, maybe more. That team (let’s go Is-land-ers!!) will be the exception that proves the newfangled rules and confirms the old meaning of greatness. I have to believe it will be worth the wait.