Healing the Black(and blue)hawks
Photo Credit: j_rho, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s remarkable how quickly the #1 pick can completely reverse the fortunes of a struggling sports franchise. Whether it’s football, baseball, basketball or hockey, getting “the guy” – the one everyone agrees will be a star – changes everything. Two years after gracing the covers of Slam Magazine and Sports Illustrated as a sixteen-year-old, and being named the “Chosen One”, LeBron James was selected #1 overall by the 17-win Cleveland Cavaliers. By year four, James had the woebegone Cavs in the NBA Finals. Joe Burrow was selected #1 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020, and in year two the Bengals had broken their 33-year playoff-win drought and reached the Super Bowl.
Now, it’s the Chicago Blackhawks turn – and it so happens that the Blackhawks are more than a little familiar with the franchise-altering top pick. But unfortunately for the Blackhawks, it’s the end of an era. Stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook played a major role in the previous decade, powering the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup Championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015. In the 2010s alone, the Blackhawks brought home as many championships as they had in their previous century of existence.
Today, though, the Blackhawks are a shell of their former selves. Head coach Joel Quenneville, who was part of those three championship teams, was fired in 2018. Keith, Seabrook and Hossa are all retired. Kane was traded midseason to the New York Rangers after spending the previous sixteen years of his career in Chicago. Toews is all that remains from those fantastic squads of the early 2010s, and even he’s barely hanging on to an NHL career as the 35-year-old enters his 16th season.
It’s been a rough few seasons for the Blackhawks. When you win three championships in six years, expectations tend to get pretty lofty. And while the Blackhawks remained competitive until quite recently, they never had enough juice to get back to the promised land. After missing the playoffs in consecutive years from 2020-2022, the bottom fell out. The Blackhawks of old were officially dead.
Incredibly, of all the years to throw in the towel (as the Blackhawks appeared to do as they traded away nearly every notable player in an attempt to slide further and further down the standings), the Blackhawks seemed to have picked the perfect moment. Expected top pick Connor Bedard, a 17-year-old Canadian forward, appears to be a star in the making. He's already considered the best prospect to enter the NHL Draft since Connor McDavid in 2015 and is even drawing comparisons to "the Great One". McDavid has five All-Star appearances on his resumé and became the youngest player to ever win the Art Ross Trophy (for leading scorer in the NHL) in 2017. Blackhawks fans are reasonably losing their collective minds – and they purchased over $2 million worth of season tickets just hours after securing the top pick!
So, unlike the recent NFL draft, there isn’t going to be much mystery over who the Blackhawks are going to select at #1. It’s going to be Bedard, and the question isn’t whether he’s going to turn around this once-proud franchise, it’s when. The Blackhawks have experience with franchise-altering #1 picks – just ask Patrick Kane, the only other top pick in the Blackhawks’ entire history.
And like LeBron and Burrow, Kane made a difference in the win column immediately. The Blackhawks went from bottom-feeder to nearly making the playoffs in year one. They went playoff contender to Western Conference semifinalist in year two. And in year three, Lord Stanley came back to Chicago, ending their 49-year championship drought – one of the longest in North American professional sports.
The last few years have been seasons to forget for the Blackhawks, but it appears the tide is turning. Like Kane before him, Bedard is well-positioned to skate into superstardom and lead his team back to playoff success. Sixteen years after bringing their first-ever #1 pick into the fold, the Blackhawks have that opportunity once again. And if history tells us anything, we should probably expect the Blackhawks to start racking up wins – and quickly too.