Hawk Talk: Hockey's sad summer

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Hawk Talk: Hockey's sad summer

Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011
Posted: 10:27 a.m.

By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

READ: Two former Blackhawks die in plane crash

The puck cannot drop soon enough.

Blackhawks fans have been feeling that since shortly after last April's first-round playoff elimination. But all hockey fans can't wait, and for reasons beyond the anticipation early September brings as NHL training camps prepare to open.

Unfortunately, they'll only provide a distraction, not answers to what Jonathan Toews characterizes as the worst summer the sport has ever experienced.

Three popular people off the ice who put on their enforcer faces when they took the ice apparently took their own lives, either by mistake, or by design. Then came news Wednesday that 43 other lives were lost, many with NHL ties, in the plane crash carrying Lokomotiv, Russia's Kontinental Hockey League team that finished in third place last season.

Locally, the crash - and the losses - hit home for a handful of Blackhawks, besides the deaths of two of their former players, Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev. Joel Quenneville coached Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, and Karlis Skrastins, and undoubtedly knew head coach Brad McCrimmon well, as an opponent during his playing days and as a longtime assistant coach around the league. New Hawks Brandon Segal was a teammate of Skrastins, Andrew Brunette with Salei, and Jamal Mayers with Demitra. And the player most deeply affected is Marian Hossa, whose body gained a much-needed rest this off-season, but who'll report to camp with a huge emotional burden. He was a close friend with fellow Slovakian Demitra, and were linemates during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Hossa also played under McCrimmon during his days as an assistant coach in Atlanta and Detroit.

It's unfathomable how fate led McCrimmon and those players to that team. McCrimmon left Mike Babcock's staff in Detroit after three years to pursue head coaching, and he wound up there. There are probably general managers around the NHL who thought of offering some of those players contracts or tryouts, but didn't. Or the players chose a more secure situation with Lokomotiv. That's how Cup-winning former Blackhawk Brent Sopel wound up signing with another KHL team, and he was among the dozens of current and former players who tweeted out their shock, sadness, and condolences upon hearing the news.

What made the crash shortly after takeoff more disturbing was the age of the aircraft being used, and how other similar jets had already been phased out after being used for more than three decades. Some Europeans countries reportedly wouldn't allow them in their airspace.

The NHL already had enough "hows" and "whys" to seek answers for already this summer following the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak. Give the league credit for being so proactive over the past couple of years in concussion prevention and treatment. Now, it has a new, albeit related, concern it must address with the trickle-down effects of fighting on players' mental and psychological health. By all accounts, Belak was a warm, happy guy to be around, until family members revealed after he reportedly hanged himself about his battle with depression. It's a connection that Mayers admitted to my colleague Tracey Myers the other day is "awful. It certainly raises a lot of questions as to 'Why?'"

The connection opens the debate about fighting's place in the game, just as hits to the head did for the concussion debate. The focus must be placed on the prevention of another Belak, Rypien, or (former Bear) Dave Duerson from happening. There's no telling how many former players have managed to be lucky enough to persevere through those symptoms.

This offseason's been full of press releases from Commissioner Gary Bettman expressing sadness on behalf of the NHL over these losses that run so much deeper than the ones in the standings. Teams soon begin taking the ice here, and cheers from packed arenas will follow, a welcome diversion from this summer filled with so many dark clouds. If anything good is to come from it, the NHL, and KHL has more on its plate moving forward in finding ways to prevent anything like these incidents from happening again.

Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Eight draft picks in about 3 ½ hours. It was a busy Saturday for the Blackhawks, and when general manager Stan Bowman talked that afternoon about the team’s Day 2 haul, he came prepared.

“I have my little cheat sheet,” Bowman said of the paper on which he had written the Blackhawks’ eight newest prospects.

After a few days’ worth of moves the Blackhawks focused on the future, taking nine players over two days at the NHL Draft. It was a successful weekend for the Blackhawks, who hosted the draft for the first time and built up assets, especially on the blue line. Five of the Blackhawks’ nine selections were defensemen.

“One of the things we talked about was looking at the market. There’s a high value on defensemen. We’re not necessarily looking at the draft but our team this year and over the next couple of years; those are the assets that are valuable around the league,” Bowman said. “Look at the trade Calgary made [for Travis Hamonic], defensemen are a valuable commodity. That was a priority coming in and we were able to accomplish it.”

What comes next

The Blackhawks got what they wanted at this weekend’s draft but the focus will soon shift, as free agency opens on July 1. It remains to be seen what the Blackhawks will have cap-wise come a week from now. Currently, according to CapFriendly.com, they’re $1.445 million over the $75 million cap. It’s doubtful the Blackhawks apply the long-term injured reserve tag on Marian Hossa during the offseason. It’s possible they could still trade Marcus Kruger to gain some space. Bowman said, one way or another, “there will be some movement.”

“We’ll bring some players in, I don’t know how many, what position or what level,” he said. “This is where there’s a lot of activity, the couple weeks in the middle of June until the middle of July. That’s when the most changes happen. We’ll go to work, now that we’re past this.”

Wait for it

The Blackhawks also have to decide whether or not to qualify restricted free agents Dennis Rasmussen and Tomas Jurco. Bowman said that’ll be decided by Monday.

“I’ve had discussions with both agents,” he said. “I don’t have an answer right now but we’ll have that worked out in the next day and a half.”

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson heard some of the rumors, but not to a large degree. The former Blackhawks defenseman wasn’t spending a lot of time on the internet reading up on his potential fate. He figured he’d still stay put in Chicago.

“But when my agent called me about the 10-team list, I understood it was serious. Stan [Bowman] wouldn’t ask for that unless they made up their mind already,” Hjalmarsson said via conference call on Saturday. “That’s when it hit me that I’m probably not going to put the Hawks jersey on anymore.”

Indeed, Hjalmarsson’s next jersey will be that of the Arizona Coyotes, who acquired him in exchange for defenseman Connor Murphy on Friday. Hjalmarsson’s departure marks the end of the line for another Blackhawks core player, and this one is jarring in how it will change the team’s defense.

Speaking of change, Hjalmarsson faces a lot of it himself now. Sure, there’s the obvious change for a guy who’s played his entire career in one place. It’s new surroundings and a new team, on which he knows former Blackhawks teammate Antti Raanta and fellow countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

But the Coyotes have dealt with a lot of upheaval lately. Goaltender Mike Smith is gone. So is veteran Shane Doan. On Thursday, head coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes parted ways.

“They’re on a rebuild, a lot of new faces, lot of changes,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s tough to know what to expect but I think they’re a hungry organization that wants to win like other teams. I’m looking forward to try to contribute with playing my game, just try to get the organization back in the playoffs.”

Hjalmarsson should find chemistry with Ekman-Larsson – the two were teammates in the Winter Olympics in Sochi – and Hjalmarsson will likely play a bigger role with the Coyotes. Arizona will probably look to Hjalmarsson a lot during its rebuild, given his Cup-winning history.

The first 24 hours were full of mixed emotions of Hjalmarsson. With his limited no-move clause, he was always a likely candidate to be moved from a Blackhawks team laden will full no-move clauses. He’s turning a page, but he won’t forget his time in Chicago anytime soon.

“I’m trying to always be a positive guy,” Hjalmarsson said. “I spent my whole 20s in Chicago, 10 unbelievable years. I didn’t think I’d win three Cups. Hopefully I can get one more before my career is over. I had the best time in Chicago, enjoyed every single year, playing in front of the best fans in the league. I’ve been spoiled. Now it’s time for me and my family to move on and seize the opportunity in Arizona and create some new fond memories.”