Jerry Krause once controversially remarked: “Organizations win championships.” It gave Chicagoans pause to even consider the possibility. Admittedly, the guy, though not an athlete, knows something about winning. Krause won six NBA championships as GM of the Chicago Bulls.
Parse his words, though, and there’s a hidden message. Or at least one less discussed when it comes to the line-in-the-sand philosophy that forces fans to choose sides between players and executives. In professional sports, the norm is for a team to win only one championship in a given era. A group of the same players on the same team rarely wins multiple titles. It’s entirely possible for a collection of overwhelmingly talented players to win a single championship without much organizational influence. Except, of course, writing a few checks. But the plurality in Reinsdorf’s comment holds true for dynasties like his Bulls of the Nineties: To win multiple championships, to dominate an era in modern day professional sports, requires an adept organization with the ability to manipulate the salary cap, draft well and develop talent.
Yet the irony in his statement is it’s entirely more apropos in qualifying the success of his co-tenants in Chicago’s United Center, the Chicago Blackhawks. On Monday, the Hawks won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, unequivocally earning the right to be called a dynasty. A Game 7 overtime goal in the Western Conference Finals last season kept them out of the Stanley Cup in 2014. Otherwise this core group of Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane et al might have four to their name.
Some might claim this team undeserving of the designation. They haven’t won any of their Stanley Cups in successive years. But those are people who fail to understand the difficulty in winning just one. Unlike basketball, where teams can win championships on the backs of just a few stars, every player on an NHL roster sees significant time nightly. The best teams run four quality lines on the ice. See, you can’t win a Stanley Cup – let alone three – by signing a few key free agents or assembling a Big Three. Every year for these Blackhawks is like putting together a new, slightly jumbled jigsaw puzzle. Role players are key pieces to the bigger picture.
Because so many play on a hockey team, winning sports coolest trophy requires many role players to play above their value. Those role players then command bigger contracts in free agency. And in the hard-capped NHL (meaning there is no leeway or luxury tax), teams often are unable to re-sign those players. It’s a constant cycle. Teams are required to find new, underappreciated, undervalued players to replenish their ranks. They also have to draft well, cultivate that talent in the organization’s minor league system and eventually promote them to the NHL. The Blackhawks have done so flawlessly. They are the NHL’s model for success.
Sure, they are fortunate to have drafted – and subsequently keep – both Toews and Kane. The former is on the shortlist of sports’ best captains. The latter is to the NHL what Stephen Curry is to the NBA. Or Lionel Messi to soccer. He is the NHL’s magic man. At any given moment, he could do something spectacular – a quality only he possess. But for every star in the organization, there’s a guy like Andrew Shaw. He is an undersized but feisty forward whose ability to frustrate goaltenders has been crucial to this team’s success. Most talent evaluators are capable of identifying can’t-miss prospects. Those who can find quality role players are in a more exclusive club. No organization does that better than the Blackhawks.
Of course, there’s also the team’s coach, Joel Quenneville. His ability to mix and match his lines, motivate his personnel and develop players at the NHL level has been paramount to the organization’s success. But it’s ownership that ultimately chooses the coaches, talent evaluators and front office executives. This dynasty truly starts from the top.
While the players parade the Stanley Cup around Chicago and their hometowns this summer, the Blackhawks’ brass will once again be tasked with figuring out how to remain competitive. It’s paramount that they sign forward Brandon Saad to a long-term contract. He is a young key to this team’s future.
On local postgame coverage last night, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman – named after the Stanley Cup, by the way – was asked about Saad. Appropriately, Bowman said he was going to enjoy this win. He’ll worry about that later. Thing is, that’s a guarantee. Bowman and the Blackhawks will worry about it. They will also figure it out. They always do. It’s precisely why this dynasty is sure to keep going.