Another banner year proof of Blackhawks' place among the elite

CHICAGO -- The first Stanley Cup arrived so early in Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews' career that he didn't really grasp the difficulty most players have in trying to win it.

Toews was 22 years old and just three years into the league when he and the Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2010. The Blackhawks had failed to reach the playoffs in his first season, advanced to the Western Conference finals in his second year and won the Stanley Cup in his third one. Based upon that experience, Toews thought the Stanley Cup would always be easily attainable.

The two seasons that followed the Blackhawks' 2010 championship served as a Stanley Cup reality for Toews. The Blackhawks were bounced from the first round in 2011 and 2012. Just like that, Toews began to comprehend how special the 2010 championship had been and how arduous winning any more would be.

Toews' appreciation for the Stanley Cup has grown even greater with time. While the Blackhawks have accomplished more than any other team in recent history, winning three Stanley Cups in the past six years, it's not something Toews or the team's core have taken for granted. As the Blackhawks raised their 2014-15 season Stanley Cup championship banner at the United Center on Wednesday night, they recognized the grandness of their achievement.

"I think maybe the second time around you're not as quite as naïve, so you realize how tough it is," Toews said. "It is incredible. You still catch yourself even having gone through all this stuff that we've gone through this summer similar to the first couple times, there's still moments where you catch yourself going, 'Wow, we won it a third time.'

"I think once is amazing. I think everyone appreciates the chance to be able to do that once in your career. To do it twice, I think, is incredible. But three is just so rare, especially for a common group of guys who have been there for all three. It is quite an accomplishment that we can be proud of."

It's a pride that is extended beyond the Blackhawks' current players. Cliff Koroll was a winger on the Blackhawks' teams that lost in the Stanley Cup finals in 1971 and 1973. The 1971 defeat was especially heartbreaking for him, because the Blackhawks had built a 2-0 lead in the second period of Game 7 and lost 3-2 to the Montreal Canadiens.

Koroll, who still lives in the Chicago area and often attends Blackhawks games, has had some of those memories softened with each banner raised.

"1971 keeps coming up no matter where I go," said Koroll, who is the Blackhawks Alumni Association president. "No matter where I travel, people recognize you. One of the first things they always ask is what happened in '71. It's been a tough pill to swallow, but winning three Stanley Cups in the last six years has really healed some of those wounds. Those scars aren't as deep anymore. Their success has really been great for all of us back in that era especially."

The accomplishment is admired beyond the Blackhawks' family.

"What the Blackhawks have been able to accomplish is something very special," one Western Conference general manager wrote in a text. "The resurrection of an Original Six franchise back to prominence in the NHL has been amazing to watch and has set the standard that everyone is measured by."

One Eastern Conference assistant general manager wrote in a text: "The Hawks' excellence is certainly recognized throughout the NHL and reflects the leadership throughout the organization from Rocky Wirtz to John McDonough and Jay Blunk to Stan Bowman to Joel Quenneville and to Toews and [Duncan] Keith. The Hawks' remarkable turnaround from the early 2000s on and off the ice is a blueprint to mimic indeed."

The past and present Blackhawks are hopeful the winning times aren't coming to an end anytime soon. Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was presented his third Stanley Cup championship ring on Sunday, would like at least one more to add to the collection.

"I like even numbers," Hjalmarsson said. "I would rather see it be four. Let's try for at least one more."

The Blackhawks were halted the past two times in their quest to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the salary-cap era. Blackhawks coach Quenneville especially learned from those experiences the importance of a strong start to the season.

Quenneville had that on his mind for much of training camp. He kept the focus on preparing this year's team for the upcoming season rather than reminiscing about the previous season. He did take a few moments Wednesday to share his thoughts on the Blackhawks' 2014-15 season, which included battling through off-ice adversity created by rumors of players' personal lives, inconsistent play during the regular season, a severe injury to Patrick Kane late in the season and a grueling playoffs where they won 11 of 16 games by one goal.

"It was a special year," Quenneville said. "That was definitely the toughest Cup we ever had to win or try to win. It was tough to win. It seemed like it was never going to end. It was hard-earned. It'll be nice to reflect [during the banner-raising ceremony], but then let's turn the switch."

What a lot of people haven't turned the switch on is the Blackhawks' past. Some still believe it's important to remember where the organization was not that long ago. As good and popular as the Blackhawks have been lately -- they had their record 330th consecutive home sellout Wednesday -- they were just as bad and unpopular less than a decade ago.

The Blackhawks made the playoffs once from 1998-2007, and the fans expressed their dissatisfaction by not attending games. The team averaged fewer than 16,000 fans for six of those seasons, an average that dropped to 12,727 during the 2006-07 season.

"When I started doing the broadcasting, it was when the Blackhawks were in the middle of where they made the playoffs once in 10 years and the United Center was half full," former Blackhawks player and current Blackhawks radio analyst Troy Murray said. "The turnaround has been incredible. In the city, in the community, it's all Blackhawks now. Ten years ago, it was all negative Blackhawks."

Blackhawks backup goaltender Scott Darling knows all about tough times. He grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Illinois, and came to games with his father as a child. Darling always had a love for the Blackhawks, but it wasn't shared by most of his neighborhood friends.

"When it all turned around, it was incredible," said Darling, who brought the Stanley Cup to his hometown during the summer. "Being a Blackhawks fan the whole time, it's just great for the city. When I was a kid, nobody in Chicago cared that much. Now all these people I grew up with are the biggest Hawks fans. They totally embrace the hockey and it's totally fun to see."

Trevor Daley, acquired from the Dallas Stars by the Blackhawks during the offseason in the Patrick Sharp trade, is learning what it's like to be on the other side. He knows expectations are high.

"The Blackhawks, they're the team you want to measure yourself up against every night," Daley said. "They proved it again last year. I know the last few years, playing the Blackhawks, you know we're going to have a tough night. They keep on winning. When you win in this league, you set yourself at a pretty high standard. When teams come in, they try to match themselves against you. I guess I inherited that now. I'm looking forward to the opportunity."

The Blackhawks' banner-raising ceremony lasted nearly 30 minutes. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in attendance and was met with the customary booing from the crowd. The ceremony included fans' bracelets which illuminated, videos and images displayed on the ice and video board, and player, coach and front-office introductions. The Blackhawks' Corey Crawford, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and Kane hooked the banner, and it was raised to the rafters between the Blackhawks' 2013 and 2010 championship banners.

"You don't just pass it by and move on to the next thing," Toews said. "You definitely learn how to appreciate it. We realize these are important years; these are special years. They're not going to get any better than the time we have right now. When we have the opportunity, we have to take advantage of it. I think that's kind of the attitude we have going forward and this year, and after that as well."