Friends, acquaintances, and people that lack self-respect and teeth who root for the St. Louis Blues, I want to take you back to a time in the not-so-distant past. A time when gasoline cost $1.40 per gallon. A time when Aramark served weird grey meats on buns and sold them for 8 dollars as hamburgers at the United Center. A time when WWF referred to awesome wrestling and not animal charities. April 2002 to be exact.
On April 18th, 2002 the Chicago Blackhawks were gearing up for their first playoff game since Claude Lemieux hung four points on Jeff Hackett to send them to the golf course in 1997. They’d enter the playoffs as a 5 seed, facing the St. Louis Blues in the opening round.
Fans had waited 5 years for playoff hockey and their positivity radiated throughout the streets of Chicago. “Could this be the year, dad?” a young girl would ask her father. “Well sweetie, it could be the year. You see, this year we have Phil Housley to lead our power play. We have Tom Fitzgerald to do something that he does. And we have sandpaper and grit in guys like Lyle Odelein and Aaron Downey. Sandpaper and grit are very important, honey. Those two things, along with being good in the room and having good leaders basically are the recipe for success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Remember that when you’re an adult and you want to talk about hockey with other people who are smart hockey fans. 12 years from now, you’ll be the smartest hockey person if you remember that toughness and leadership = wins.”
Like I said, optimism and hockey knowledge basically flooded the streets. And that, friends, was why the area around the United Center began to be gentrified. Because Chicago knew, together, that 2002 was the year that the Roar would return to West Madison Street.
Brian Sutter had taken over the head coaching duties of the Blackhawks in 2002. He replaced Alpo Suhonen, and Sutter did some pretty cool things like make sure his team scored more goals than they gave up, win more games than they lost, AND he kept Eric Daze healthy all year. Truly remarkable accomplishments that undoubtedly pleased Emperor Bill Wirtz. A long playoff run was nigh.
Anyway, back to the date at hand. April 18th, 2002. Sutter and company traveled down to Hell and got prepared to take Game 1 against the aging, decrepit, turd sandwich-eating, shanty dwellers. A 4/5 seed matchup for the ages. Old rivals, set to go to battle once again. Sutter, taking on his old nemesis and mustachioed mouthbreather (at the time, he’s reformed now) Joel Quenneville.
Without describing it in too much detail, your Chicago Blackhawks mopped the floor with St. Louis in game 1. A 2-1 victory that probably could’ve easily been 8 or 12 to 1. Alexander Karpovtsev scored the game winner and was unsurprisingly the first star of the game. His on-ice vision and his ability to activate Sutter’s complicated breakout was too much for the Blues to handle and he happily put Chicago into the driver’s seat for the series. Also, according to ESPN, St. Louis couldn’t even afford to sell out a playoff game because the city is actually filled with garbage fans. Seriously the building as at 94% capacity.
Game 2 took place on 4/20 (ha!) and the Blues cheated to win 2-0. For some reason, the NHL would only let Aaron Downey play 7 minutes for Chicago and that clearly impacted the momentum and grindiness of the Hawks.
Who even cares about that loss though. The Blackhawks were happy to be out of hotels that were infested with St. Louis rats and Provel globs. They were getting prepared for game 3 at home – The NEW Madhouse on Madison. The playoff atmosphere was palpable, fans were buying Joe Reekie sweaters with NHL Playoffs patches sewn on left and right. The Fandemonium was running out of novelty Michael Jordan gear. There was finally hockey in April in Chicago!
As fans scurried to their seats, there was a new video montage showing the highlights of Daze’s 38 goals, and somewhere in the 300 level aging fans recounted the time that Dave Manson beat the shit out of Scott Stevens at center ice on St. Patrick’s Day. As fans rose, one of the original Anthem Singer rotation guys- David Honore (who actually pointed to the flag during the anthem about 6 years before CornDog) waddled onto the ice and belted out the Star Spangled Banner, playoff hockey was underway. Once again, the league conspired with the Blues and Jocelyn Thibault was yanked after two periods in which he gave up four goals on 17 shots. The hometown heroes were shut out again and the referees threw out Hawks legend Lyle Odelein for cross-checking Bryce Salvador in the mug. Horrible officiating and being on the tail end of playing on back-to-back nights did in the Hawks and they headed in to game 4 behind in the series.
The City still believed in their Blackhawks, though. They tried to channel the competitive spirit of James Black and the slick skating of Cam Russell to slice through the tight checking St. Louis defense. Brian Sutter called upon his secret weapon, Steve Passmore, to shut down the Blues and save the Hawks from falling further behind. Passmore immediately re-frosted his tips, and tightened-up his goatee to help intimidate his opponents. Sutter also called upon a rookie foreign power, Vladimir Chebaturkin, to throw off the St. Louis familiarity with the Chicago forwards.
The team in red hopped on their charter plane and flew back down to Hell. Once they landed they made sure not to touch anything on the street out of fear of disease. It was a smart plan, orchestrated by mad-genius Sutter.
Passmore was electric in Game 4, as his coach had hoped. He stopped 24 of 25 shots, and couldn’t have been better if he tried. Because he tried really hard and just wasn’t very good and this was a pretty good showing for someone who was bad at the game of ice hockey. The lone goal was scored by Pavol Demitra. Chebaturkin played 11 frenzied and electrifying minutes. Fans everywhere wondered aloud in unison, “Who the hell is this guy? And why is he playing so much?” They would get no answers.
Unfortunately, Gary Bettman and the NHL held Aaron Downey on the bench again for under 6 minutes and he was not allowed to score any goals. The rest of the Blackhawks decided to not score in solidarity with their shunned star. They’d head to game 5 down 3-1 in the series, and after not scoring for three games, they seemed ready to explode with goals all over St. Louis. Like a Jackson Pollack painting filled with bright reds, jet blacks, and arctic whites.
With the series at a crossroads, your heroes headed back Chicago looking to give their fans something to cheer about. Boy, did the fans ever cheer. The Blackhawks scored 3 goals in the second period to take a 3-1 lead.
And that is how the Blackhawks played against the Blues and changed the course of hockey in Chicago forever.
As you prepare for tonight’s bloodbath in St. Louis, pour an extra shot of Malört for our heroes. If you leave a shot out over night on your nightstand, Brian Sutter will slide down your chimney and pour it in your eyes, which is sort of the same feeling you’d have gotten had you watched any of those 5 games he coached in the playoffs during that fateful spring.
Never forget, Hawks fans. Never forget.