Blackhawks Learn ‘Rebuild’ Is A Dirty Word In Chicago

You can see why Chicagoans might be a little emotional after Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman accidentally pronounced the dynasty dead. Deep down, we knew. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, whom we still remember as bouncing baby rookies, haven’t won a Stanley Cup in five years.

Plus, Bowman has been ejecting the core parts of the team that won three titles. But it didn’t seem official until he created a mess by sending a letter to fans using the word “rebuild.’’ He then had to explain that to Toews and Kane, who are still around. And now Bowman is talking to every radio station, newspaper, TV station, camera and scribbling pen in town trying to walk it back.

Oh well. Dynasties aren’t forever. Chicago knows. We saw the Michael Jordan dynasty end, but that one was so much more abrupt. The Chicago Cubs aren’t exactly a dynasty, but theirs is in that awkward stage now where they still can win, maybe, but don’t. 

It’s hard to know when to pull the plug. Or how. Or if there’s some way to keep a dynasty going.

“When you’re on top,’’ Bowman said Thursday on WSCR 670-AM, “you’re doing your best to prolong that and your best with short-term moves . . . There’s always a reckoning coming.’’

I guess that’s it with dynasties in professional sports. Eventually, they all end, especially in the era of salary caps.

The young core of players wins championships and demands big paydays. And then some of them flame out. Along the way, you’ve traded prospects and draft choices to add pieces who are ready to help a dynasty keep winning now.

But it all runs out eventually. A team starts getting old and draft choices are gone and the minor leagues are empty.

Even the New York Yankees will never be the New York Yankees again. 

At the end of the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance’’ released this summer, you were left wondering why the Bulls gave up before going for their seventh title? No one gives up too soon. But the Bulls pushed out coach Phil Jackson, Jordan retired, and within weeks, they’d dismantled, getting rid of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and others.

They thought it was better to get rid of everyone, open up salary space and see if they could bring in new stars right away. But established stars didn’t want to come anymore. So the Bulls drafted high schoolers Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, who didn’t pan out until they left the Bulls. Well, 22 years later, the team is still bad, still starting over with new coach Billy Donovan.

In hockey, right before the Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings were a dynasty, and they prolonged theirs by taking European players with later draft picks. But then they got old and too expensive, too.

The Cubs built theirs by bringing in architect Theo Epstein, who sold off anything he could for young players and draft choices who developed. Now, he’s looking for a way to rebuild on the fly. His core isn’t old yet, but they demand big salaries and need help. And the minors are empty.

Bowman is playing a dangerous game with the Hawks, though, trying to keep Toews and Kane — and defenseman Duncan Keith — for their ticket-sales value while building a new young team around them. He already let goalie Corey Crawford go.

He could trade Toews and Kane right now — if they would forget about their no-trade clauses — and land a bunch of great young players and draft picks. But fans wouldn’t forgive him.

“We’ve been putting a lot of emphasis on young players,’’ Bowman said. “This isn’t a new shift.’’

Bowman now says the plan to rebuild with young players has already been around for a few years. The only thing new is that he’s decided to be more transparent about it. 

“We have a lot of good pieces,’’ he said. “It’s not like we’re starting from scratch.’’

Nice try, Stan. It looks as if the Hawks are going to try to hold Toews, who’s 32, and Kane, 31, in place while he rebuilds a championship team around them. 

That seems highly unlikely. In fairness, when Bowman became the GM in 2009, he was handed a team that was ready to win its first Cup in decades. And then he had to ship off a lot of talent because it was so salary-cap crunched. So he did rebuild around Toews and Kane once, and the Blackhawks won Stanley Cups in 2013 and 2015.

I won’t forget the first time I saw Toews and Kane. It was December of 2007, their rookie year. Kane was a teenager, and for the first time in years, Chicago was buzzing over the Blackhawks. I was a skeptical columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. Then the game started. 

It took 15 minutes for me to breathe. I started calling friends: You won’t BELIEVE this! They could be the next Jordan and Pippen. Or Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Kane was in complete control of the puck, and Toews had a sense of where to be. If a puck flew into the upper deck, Toews would’ve been waiting there to catch it.

The Hawks beat Phoenix 6-1, and I asked their coach — some guy named Wayne Gretzky — what he thought.

“Much more speed, obviously,’’ he said. “More finesse. Talent goes a long way.’’

But eventually, it goes away.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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  1. To have Sustained success in the salary cap era you need guys whose value exceeds the contract and repeat it over and over, especially with young guys since they are more easily underpaid. in the Stan bowman era since the third cup, Few good young players, bad trades and bad contracts is his Recent legacy. No 3rd or 4th line depth on the team. Crawford, Kane, Hossa and Keith were probably the only guys with long term deals who met or exceeded value. But more than offset by bad deals. And with the expensive core aging, keeping them prolongs misery.

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