One of the drawbacks to being a life long Chicago Blackhawks fan, but working for the Seattle Thunderbirds, is not being able to wear my Blackhawks paraphernalia in public. Too many around these parts confuse it with the Portland Winterhawks and think I'm being a traitor. But, I waited a long time for the Blackhawks to win the Cup so now that they've done it twice in four years, I'm proudly wearing my Blackhawks gear!
I was introduced to hockey at age three, in the mid 1960s, when my family moved from Tacoma to Aurora, Ontario Canada, but I became an unabashed Blackhawks fan as a youngster living in the suburbs of Chicago in the late '60s and early '70s. The first professional sporting event I ever attended was at the Old Chicago Stadium with my dad, Thanksgiving Eve 1970: Blackhawks 5 Montreal 3! I listened to every game, often on a small transistor radio my brother had gotten the year before at Christmas, usually with my mom. Makita, Hull, Tony-O, Magnuson along with guys like Doug Mohns, Cliff Koroll and Chico Maki were some of the idols of my youth. I kept the game program from that November night until if finally fell apart in the late '70s. the Blackhawks pennant my dad bought me as we left the stadium hung on my bedroom wall forever.
I suffered the heartache only a 3rd grader can endure later that spring when the Canadiens got their revenge by winning Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in that same building. Until 2010 I was almost resigned to thinking that might be the closest my team would ever come to winning the Cup in my lifetime. Chicago got to the Finals a couple of times after that and lost, including another loss to Montreal (this time in six games) in 1973, but by that time my family had moved back to Tacoma and there was very little NHL news around these part back in 1972-73, making it difficult to follow my team. Certainly no Lloyd Petitt on the radio, just a box score in the local paper. In 1992 I watched despondently as they were swept by Mario Lemieux and Pittsburgh.
My family was actually living outside Toronto in 1967 when the Maple Leafs won their last Stanley Cup but I was too young to appreciate it. But I do remember watching that 1971 Chicago/Montreal Game 7 in my neighbor's basement on closed circuit TV as Chicago couldn't hold a 2-goal lead. Then late in the third period Henri Richard beat Tony Esposito to a loose puck and skated around him to score the game winner. It was just a few weeks after that, that our family loaded up the moving vans and headed back west.
This past season when the T-birds were out east, I had the fortune of meeting Frank Mahovlich in our Brandon hotel lobby. Mahovlich played in that 1971 Stanley Cup Finals for Montreal (he also played for the Leafs in '67) and when I recounted to him how he had and his teammates had broken my heart by beating my team, he was unapologetic! No, "Sorry kid!" The Blackhawks Cup win in 2010 probably lessened the sting of having Mahovlich standing there as a living reminder to my sad childhood memory!
In 2010 when Patrick Kane scored the OT game winner in Game Six against Philly, I jumped so high from my couch and whooped so loud I almost gave my mother-in-law, who was visiting from Colorado, a heart attack. This time around, after Bickell and Bolland scored 17-seconds apart and the final minute was killed off it was only my golden retriever who ran to hide as I celebrated.
I was a junior in high school when the Seattle Supersonics won their only NBA championship and I celebrated that too. I was the play-by-play voice of PLU football when they captured a National Championship in the 1990s and in 1999 I was behind the mic for the Tacoma Sabercats when they skated to a WCHL title, but the Blackhawks wins are much sweeter for me....because it's the Cup!
With the Stanley Cup Finals over, the NHL now focuses its attention from the present to the future.
This weekend childhood dreams will come true for a few hundred young men as they are selected in the National Hockey League Draft. That should include a few Thunderbirds. I agree with most of the mock drafts and expect Seattle defenseman Shea Theodore to be an early second round selection although I would not be surprised if he went somewhere in the late first round. All it takes is one G.M., or one very convincing scout, to fall in love with Theo's upside and he could be picked in round one. Either way, his selection in this Sunday's draft is a given.
There are 6-7 other T-birds who are also draft eligible. The odds are some of them will be passed over, after all, the draft is only seven rounds and teams select players from the WHL, OHL, QJHML and other Junior programs as well as the NCAA, USHL, U.S. high schools and Europe. But it is not out of the realm of possibility that when all is said and done, 3-4 T-birds have their names called from the podium.
After Theodore, the most likely T-bird to be drafted is another defenseman, Jared Hauf. You can't teach size and Hauf, at 6'5" has that in spades. But he also has the potential to become a solid, if not spectacular, stay-at-home defenseman at the next level. Seattle's defense did a good job in that seven game playoff series against Kelowna keeping it a low scoring affair; Hauf was a big reason for that. I thought his improvement from his first game as a 16 yr old, two seasons ago, to the end of last season was the biggest leap taken by anyone in that talented group of '95 born players on the team and I see him taking another giant step or two before his WHL career is over. Hauf is still learning how to use his size and reach but he understands that it's his best asset. He needs to fill out his frame and improve his skating but I think NHL teams see his potential.
Jerret Smith is another Thunderbird defenseman who could be drafted this weekend. Smith has good size, plays well at both ends of the ice and like Theodore and Hauf, his best hockey is still ahead of him. Smith is one of those players who just goes about his business without much flair or hype but just gets the job done. LIke most players at the WHL level looking to move up, his skating must improve. He may not have as high a ceiling as Theodore or Hauf, but if he reaches his full potential I can see him being a solid d-man on a third pairing in the NHL. He sees the ice well and makes a good first pass. With more time on the power play next season, his offensive numbers should improve going forward.
For Roberts Lipsbergs this will be his second year of draft eligibility. He was passed over last time but after one season playing in North America, he undoubtedly has opened some eyes with his offensive ability. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk has said he already possesses an NHL shot. Lipsbergs has to round out his game to get to the next level, become a better player in his own end and be more consistent in the offensive zone. He's not going to get much bigger so he'll need to play tougher but he's a very smart, crafty player and I think he realizes there is an opportunity out there for him to get to the next level.
A couple of other players with an outside chance of being drafted are Conner Honey, Riley Sheen and Taylor Green. All three made Central Scoutings final rankings of draft eligible North American skaters. Of those three, Taylor Green is the most intriguing prospect to me. Green didn't make the list until the final rankings came out this spring. That means he was starting to catch the eyes of the scouts once he began to get more consistent ice time. I'm sure what garnered him some attention is his 6'6" frame. But Green also has soft hands that showed while playing as a forward, even though he is a natural defenseman. He also shows a willingness to shoot and has a decent shot from the blue line. He needs to work on his skating and get better at using his large frame, but time is on his side. So while there is an outside chance he gets drafted, if he doesn't get the call on Sunday, don't be shocked if he gets an invite to an NHL training camp. In fact, whether it is just one T-bird or 3 to 4 who get drafted this weekend, I expect a handful of T-birds to be at NHL camps this year.