Back for the summer in Detroit, I paid close attention to the Western conference finals. The matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks was the Original Six rematch so many fans and perhaps even the NHL wanted, and while it was not a particularly close series, I think it marks the restart a wonderful rivalry.
As Chicago closed out their series against the Vancouver Canucks, fans chanted, “We want Detroit.” Sports talk radio lit up with callers talking about how they wanted to destroy the winged wheelers and closed out every call with the Chicago chant of “Detroit sucks.” The only problem with their enthusiasm was that Detroit had not even advanced to the conference finals yet.
While Chicago was excited for the series against their one-time rival, Detroit didn’t particularly pay much attention to the young Chicago team. Detroit sports radio didn’t shy away from talk of the next series, though. It focused on how to annoy Chicago the most, not how to beat them. The discussion included changing Nikolai Khabibulin’s Wikipedia page to say Bibsy instead of Khabibulin. After the Internet debauchery, many predicted the series would only last four games, with the Red Wings making quick work of the Blackhawks.
Regardless of how long the series went or who won, it was an important step in creating a serious divisional rivalry.
Before the playoffs even started the Blackhawks took shots at the Red Wings in their pre-playoff rally videos. It was something that the Red Wings haven’t had to deal with since the days of Patrick Roy. It was the first time a team went out and attacked the team who has one the Cup twice this decade.
Detroit has been on top of the NHL for the better part of the last two decades. They haven’t won every year but they’ve always been a contender. Detroit hockey fans had everything; they had their heroes in Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, tremendous regular seasons to follow, a rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche, and of course back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Even though the team still had their star players and heroes and all that success, Detroit’s fans didn’t have the rivalry that really makes sports fun. The Avalanche had faded away, and no one in the division was relatively competitive. It was something sorely missed in Detroit, but now that’s about to change.
To a degree, the success of the Caps and the Penguins has overshadowed the growth of the Blackhawks’ young stars. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have helped take a franchise that hasn’t been competitive in over a decade relevant again and propelled them into the playoffs. The biggest hockey crows of the season were in Chicago this season, and it was a wonderfully raucous environment. That success has also brought them closer to competing with their once division rivals.
While the Hawks lost the Winter Classic against Detroit contested at Wrigley Field, the outcome of that game don’t really reignite the rivalry. It is playoff matchups, big thumping hits in the postseason, a dash of controversy, that really jumpstart rivalries. The Blackhawks and Red Wings met all of those criteria, brief though their series was. While the series itself helped push the rivalry along a bit, it was Niklas Kronwall’s hit on Martin Havlat that will keep hockey fans in these cities talking about this rivalry a while..
Whether clean or dirty, the hit has increased the physicality as well as the hatred between the two franchises. In game four we saw Chi-town looking for vengeance. The Blackhawks became frustrated after going down 3-0 early in the second, and they went for blood. It is that physicality that will define this rivalry.
Even though their series is over, the rivalry between the two Midwest towns is just getting started.
It has been a long time since Detroit has had a serious divisional rival, or contender for that matter. The Blackhawks show promise to be the next one, and Detroit will join in if Chicago keeps “poking the bear.”