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.

Marian Hossa named Blackhawks' nominee for 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy

Marian Hossa named Blackhawks' nominee for 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy

The Chicago chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association has selected Marian Hossa to be the Blackhawks' nominee for the 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which recognizes perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

The 38-year-old winger has bounced back in a huge way following a 2015-16 campaign where he had only 13 goals and 20 assists in 64 games. 

Hossa is tied for second on the team with 24 goals and ranks sixth on the club with 42 points in 66 contests this season. He ranks fourth among active players with 1,131 points, and recently surpassed Pat Verbeek to move into 35th all-time in goals scored with 523.

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Three finalists from the 30 NHL teams will be named at the end of the regular season.

Pit Martin (1969-70) and Bryan Berard (2003-04) are the only two players in Blackhawks history to win the honor.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."