DETROIT — Jonathan Toews sat in a weary but victorious Chicago Blackhawks dressing room late Monday night, quiet except for the din of interviews and unspooling hockey tape. I asked if he knew how long it had been since the National Hockey League witnessed the occasion his team earned – a Game 7 between the Blackhawks and their Original Six rival Detroit Red Wings.
“No,” Toews replied. “How long? Do you know?”
1965, I told him.
“Oooh,” he answered, with a whoosh of air that conveyed three emotions:
1. I’m tired.
2. That’s a really long time ago.
3. This is going to be fun.
Fans from every country, province and state – except Michigan – may rightly view the Blackhawks’ 4-3 win in Game 6 as a parting gift straight from the hockey gods. The Red Wings will (happily) take leave of the Western Conference next season, reducing their travel significantly while enabling them to renew divisional acquaintances with their Original Six brethren in Toronto, Montreal and Boston.
One casualty of the move is the Hawks-Wings rivalry. It’s not going away quietly. Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull – who played on the Chicago team that went seven rounds with Detroit 48 years ago – must be proud.
The seventh-seeded Wings were intent on ending the series Monday, and through two periods it seemed they would. Detroit allowed a power play goal when the game was not yet four minutes old, but fourth-liner Patrick Eaves tied it near the end of the first. The Red Wings seized the lead midway through the second, on a knuckle-puck wrister from a 24-year-old Swede named Joakim Andersson.
Would the enduring image of the Presidents’ Trophy winners really be goaltender Corey Crawford, futilely flapping his glove at the rookie’s first career playoff goal?
No. The Blackhawks beat Detroit’s Jimmy Howard three times in the third, three different ways: Michael Handzus banked a wrister off the post, Bryan Bickell batted in a rebound, Michael Frolik executed a nifty backhand on his mildly controversial penalty shot. Detroit’s Damien Brunner narrowed Chicago’s lead to one goal with a late slapper, but the Red Wings played too sloppily in their own zone during the third to thwart the destiny of a seventh game.
“It’s kind of what we expected from Day 1,” Toews said. “If we were up in the series, or we were down, we knew it’d be tough for any team to finish it off before the seventh game.
“So here we are.”
Detroit assistant captain Niklas Kronwall stood in a somber dressing room after the defeat, lamenting the chances his team gave away. “We started making plays we normally don’t,” he said. “We made it hard on ourselves for a few minutes.” Still, he managed a modest grin when asked about the opportunity before his team Wednesday at the United Center.
“It’s special,” Kronwall said. “Original Six. The history and tradition behind it. To win tonight would have been even better, but now we’re in this situation. We’ve done it before. We played at Anaheim in Game 7. We played well. We were able to grind one out. We can do it again.”
Told how long it had been since the last Game 7 between the teams, Kronwall sighed affably and said, “Oh, there you go. It’s been a while. It’s meant to be, huh?”
Toews, who set up two Chicago goals in a determined Game 6 effort, seemed curious about the near half-century between Game 7s. He asked who prevailed in that ’65 Cup semifinal and was pleased to learn it was Chicago. “Hopefully,” he said, “we keep that trend going.”
The decisive game was in Detroit back then, at an old barn on Grand River Avenue that was razed more than 30 years ago. But a unique memorial to it remains in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena, in the form of a massive green freeway sign: OLYMPIA STADIUM, EXIT WARREN AVE.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock walked past it on his way to a news conference late Monday night, following what will be his team’s last home playoff game against Chicago (notwithstanding a Stanley Cup Final) in a very long time.
“If I would have told our whole team before this series – if I would have told Detroit and Michigan before this series – that we were going to be playing Chicago in Game 7,” Babcock said, “I think everyone would have been excited about that.”
He paused. He shrugged. He let the idea sink in, a reminder that the Wings had not conceded anything to their ancient rivals, in a series that has been fierce, competitive and clean.
“I love Game 7s,” Babcock continued. “I’m excited about it. We got a chance to push them out of the playoffs. Should be a lot of fun.”
He started to smile but stifled it quickly. He unscrewed the top to his bottled water, took a sip and put the cap on again. Then he picked up the scoresheet and glared at it while waiting for the next question.
See you in Seven, for the first time since Mikita, Hull and Gordie Howe.