Why the Chicago Blackhawks' success starts with solid team chemistry
Last season was a rough one on many fronts for the Chicago Blackhawks.
As the losses piled up and the cloud of uncertainty surrounding Corey Crawford continued to vex his teammates, the Hawks began coming apart at the seams.
There was no fight. No drive. Very little passion and resiliency. And not nearly enough chemistry on or off the ice.
All of the intangibles necessary for sustained team success just weren't present.
"We let those little things -- the little mistakes, the losses here and there -- just build into bigger things," Jonathan Toews said.
With that in mind, Toews made a decision we would expect from one of the sport's best captains: He brought in a Navy SEAL to address his teammates two days before this season began in Ottawa.
"We wanted to start the right conversation with positive dialogue in the room (by) holding each other accountable and doing the little things right," Toews said. "With Special Ops and military guys, obviously the stakes are a lot higher if they make mistakes on the battlefield. They have to be overprepared for every situation and make sure that they're accountable to their teammates.
"It's fun to hear from guys like that as far as the little things you can bring to mind and assess your own performance. I think he helped us create the right mindset in the locker room."
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The mindset that veterans Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford are trying to create is simple: Team success is virtually impossible without solid team chemistry.
When you love your teammates, you're more likely to stick up for them when somebody is blasted at center ice or along the boards. More likely to lay out in front of an 90-mph shot. And more likely to step up in a game you're losing late.
Build friendships, trust and accountability and the possibilities are endless.
Just ask the Vegas Golden Knights.
The expansion team of a year ago came together in training camp, formed an even tighter bond when a horrific attack on their city cost 58 people their lives and proceeded to put together perhaps the most impressive season in NHL history.
Or ask the 2010 Blackhawks.
Sure, they oozed with talent, but the bonds they formed off the ice had them fighting harder for each other on it.
"In 2010, one of the biggest reasons why we won was because of chemistry," Keith said. "We wanted to win it for each other."
"When we went out, it was 15 guys together -- not just two or three," Adam Burish said.
Or ask the 2013 Blackhawks.
Facing a 3-1 series deficit to Detroit in the Western Conference semis, a 38-year-old Jamal Mayers -- despite appearing in just 19 of 48 regular-season games -- delivered a hard-hitting locker-room speech. Mayers knew Toews, Kane and Co. would listen because he made a concerted effort to get to know his teammates when he joined the Hawks the season before.
The speech hit home. The Hawks rallied to stun Detroit and eventually claim the Stanley Cup.
"Kind of gave us a lot of belief," Kane said. "Just a real passionate speech. When you hear the emotions come out, the excitement, the heartfelt feelings -- that's when it hits you a little bit harder."
Plenty of current Hawks point to teams they've been on that probably overachieved thanks to a kinetic energy that existed in the locker room.
Examples include Nick Schmaltz's 2015-16 North Dakota squad that won a national championship, Luke Johnson's Rockford IceHogs team that advanced to the Calder Cup conference finals last May, and Chris Kunitz's 2016 and '17 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins.
"We weren't supposed to win, but we were a close group," said Kunitz, who has been on four Stanley Cup-winning teams. "We enjoyed each other. We had fun. You really enjoyed coming to work."
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The Hawks' stars are much busier with families and other commitments than they were in 2010.
Finding time to form the all-important friendships that help a team overcome myriad issues isn't so easy.
This generation also spends a lot of time on their phones or retreating to their apartments to play video games.
"It's a little bit different now for sure," Kane said. "When I came to the league, you still had your cellphone, but it wasn't like you're on social media checking things out all the time.
"If anything you're texting and that was it. So you're forced to hang out with each other, forced to talk to each other."
So is it up to the veterans to foster an all-inclusive atmosphere? Certainly, but it can't fall solely on their shoulders.
"We're trying to encourage that everyone can pull the rope and step up," Toews said. "We're going to have fun working and winning together."
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By bringing in the Navy SEAL, Toews certainly stepped up before the Hawks departed to take on Ottawa in the season opener. As did other veterans who addressed the team during the hourlong meeting inside MB Ice Arena.
"It was a really good talk," said the 39-year-old Kunitz. "Guys that were here last year talked about some of the things that they thought were wrong with the team or why it didn't have success.
"(They gave) perspective to new guys coming in of what makes good chemistry or good teams that you've played on before. … When you were in there, you really felt that team-building aspect that hopefully helps us win down the road."
All of this isn't to say a team with perfect chemistry is the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Talent is obviously ingredient No. 1.
But the Hawks have plenty of that, and if they come together they give themselves a better chance to outperform the experts' rather dismal predictions.
It's a process that obviously will not happen overnight. Kunitz admitted the team didn't socialize much on their opening road trip to Ottawa and St. Louis. But guys were playing cards on the bus and plane, so he believes it's a good start.
Certainly the results have been positive so far as the 2-0-1 Hawks have come from behind in the third period in all of their games. The big names are leading the way and if the younger, inexperienced players start coming up big … watch out.
Who knows what could happen.
"It's already a different feel," Toews said. "We're already creating a different culture in this room as opposed to last year. Guys are excited.
"It's fun to be around the rink and getting (a couple) big wins in overtime to start the year is a good way to reinforce that feeling."