It took seconds -- no, it took an eternity -- for the red light to blink and the truth to settle: the Blackhawks had won the 2010 Stanley Cup Final in overtime of Game 6, beating the Flyers, 4-3, in one of the most bizarre finishes in the history of sports. How fitting that 49 years of hockey frustration vanished like this, in another team's building, with Patrick Kane flipping in a puck that seemed to disappear in the net's mesh.
After all the sporting jinxes the city of Chicago has been through -- and don't think there weren't painful flashbacks to Mark Prior on the mound for the Cubs, circa 2003, before a foul ball sailed into the stands and crushed a million dreams -- an awkward, almost anticlimactic goal seemed absolutely perfect.
"I knew it was in right away," insisted Kane of his short-side goal at 4:10 of the extra period that snuck like a prowler past Philadelphia goaltender Michael Leighton, just as the Flyers appeared primed for another preposterous comeback.
"You don't predict something like that. (But) I don't think he would have thrown his gloves (in the air) like that if he wasn't 100 percent sure. He sold it pretty good if the puck didn't go in," said Jonathan Toews, shortly after he was selected as the playoff MVP, the first Blackhawk to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
It's been a charmed year for Toews, the captain of this babyfaced and hugely talented team that could reverse style on a dime, shredding the ice with firepower and getting down and dirty with the grittiest of them. He won Olympic gold for Canada in February, steered the Blackhawks through a season that was both dominant and, as it is for any Chicago team, fraught with moments of extreme anxiousness, captured the Conn Smythe, kissed the Cup at the ripe age of 22.
"I'm exhausted now -- more tired than I was during the game," he said. "The last couple of nights have been torture, not being able to sleep, being so excited every moment of the day. It's everything it was hyped up to be."
His most gracious, coolest maneuver came when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed off the silver chalice to Toews, who later admitted he'd thought earlier of what he'd do if this chance ever came. Just as he envisioned, Toews turned and promptly passed the Cup to Marian Hossa, the player who'd become an unwitting symbol of how difficult it is to reach this professional peak. He'd been a focal point of two Stanley Cup finalists, a bridesmaid with Pittsburgh in 2008 and Detroit in 2009, and the fact he was here again, in the Finals for the third straight year, with his third team, should have been regarded as a high achievement, not failure.
Nevermore will Hossa's name be the answer to unfair jokes. Nevermore will he play a hockey game as if he's being led to the gallows.
"Yeah, it was getting a little scary there," Hossa said with a large grin. It was difficult to tell if he was referring to his just-miss Junes or to the third period of Game 6, when the Flyers knotted the score 3-3 with 4:01 remaining in regulation on a goal by Scott Hartnell that felt as if it were a thunderbolt from the hockey gods signaling Philadelphia was far from done.
But that's the beauty of these Blackhawks, and Hossa in particular. Under stifling pressure they focused on simple shifts, exactly the strategy coach Joel Quenneville had preached throughout the playoffs. Don't get caught up in trying to amend organizational failures that stretched all the way back to 1961, the last time the Blackhawks won the Cup, Quenneville kept telling them. Don't worry about smashing curses.
And so it was that Chicago refused to get flustered by the Flyers' late and furious resurgence. Kane scored, time came to a stop, long seconds passed, the buzzer sounded and pockets of red-and-black joy exploded like firecrackers throughout the rink. Soon there was Duncan Keith, the tough guy who's sacrificed all those teeth, wiping away tears during the celebratory frenzy on ice, and John Madden, an old-hand at these things, clutching his daughter and talking about how this one was extra special because of what it meant to the city of Chicago, and goalie Antti Niemi, hardly a standout but solid when he needed to be, skating around as if he had been transplanted to a backyard pond in Finland, where kids have the same dreams as their North American brothers, and Troy Brouwer sending shout-outs to his ailing father, at home in Vancouver recovering from a blood clot in his brain.
In every corner there were giddy and sometimes poignant scenes, images impossible to conjure just a few short years ago.
"What a relief," Hossa said, when someone wondered what had gone through his mind as he hoisted the Cup on his shoulder. "I took a strange path to get here, but yeah, what a beautiful relief."
Behind him hundreds of Blackhawk fans had made their way down to the first few rows. They had braved their way into the heart of orange and black territory and now they were thunderous, pounding on the glass and breaking into spontaneous "Da da da, da da da," those catchy Chelsea Dagger lyrics that anchor the Blackhawks' theme song.
"They've been great all season," Hossa said of the delirious, screaming Chicago fans. "They've sold out our building game after game. I guess it wasn't always like that."
Why no it wasn't, but there's no need to dredge up the ghost of Bill "Dollar Bill" Wirtz, the longtime owner who for years made the Blackhawks a punchline and alienated a once-loyal fan base. When his son Rocky replaced him as chairman in 2007, it was as if the entire organization went through a cleansing, a rebirth.
It was surreal watching the Cup in all its layered glory being passed through greedy hands, with certain engraved names appearing to jump off the panels.
Bobby Hull. Stan Mikita. Al Arbour.
Now to be joined by Tomas Kopecky, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp. That's a sentence long-suffering Blackhawks fans never thought they'd read.
Hull and his fellow old-timers stayed away from the Wachovia Center Wednesday night, classy moves by men who not so long ago were estranged from the organization. It was the young guns' time, they figured, the spotlights meant for Toews and Kane, for Hossa and Keith, for all the Blackhawks who changed forever Chicago's dreary sporting landscape.
In the weeks leading up to this night, Hull, the Golden Jet, had told any Blackhawk who bothered to ask that should it happen, should 49 years of wretchedness be erased, they needed to embrace the magic as if it were the most precious thing that might ever come their way.
"My biggest regret," Hull said recently, "was not being more present, and by that I mean I wish I had soaked everything up and enjoyed it more, but I didn't realize how fleeting a championship was. I was a 22-year-old snotty kid back then (when Chicago beat Detroit for the championship in 1961). I guess I thought it could happen every year. If I could do it again I'd relish everything, I'd take that Cup and drink champagne from it even though there were little babies who had peed in it."
Hull no doubt will be on one of the floats in the Blackhawks' ticker-tape parade Friday morning, as Chicago's latest icons travel down Michigan Avenue and over to Wacker Drive and take the Cup on the first leg of what figures to be a wild summer. Kane will bring it to his hometown of Buffalo, Hossa to Europe, Toews through the Canadian prairies and perhaps to the North Dakota campus.
Babies will soil it, champagne will be sipped from it, the names engraved on it forevermore. It might even be extra sweet, this Cup's journey, because to win it the Blackhawks had to defeat a team that simply would not quit. The Flyers didn't have Chicago's pure talent but they sure did have heart, and for seven mind-blowing weeks they put on a never-say-die show that ought to be the rallying cry for any future underdog, in any sport.
How draining, emotionally and physically. was this series? Shortly after he scored the winning goal, Kane said he was sure his legs were about to buckle at any second, but then he was yelling greetings to his family, his friends and "three beautiful sisters" who were along for the ride. "I can't believe it," he said again and again. "It's unbelievable. We just won the Stanley Cup."
Indeed, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Believe it, savor it, because sometimes these things only come along once every half century.