Stars provided Blackhawks the winning message
The stars and the scrubs alike took a spin with the Stanley Cup before it finally wound up in Joel Quenneville's hands.
The Blackhawks coach wouldn't have it any other way.
The last team standing had just put away a tough young Tampa Bay squad, 2-0, in Game 6 on Monday night, and earned the right to call itself a dynasty after winning its third NHL title in six seasons.
But minutes later, Quenneville recalled the sting they all felt barely a year ago, when the Kings elbowed the Blackhawks out of their way by converting a fortunate bounce in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
When Quenneville gathered the team before this season, the first thing he told his players was, "It's going to be a battle and a war just to try to make the playoffs."
And almost in the next breath, after he scanned the faces of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and a handful of others, he put that bitter memory to rest.
"I'm fortunate to be around them," Quenneville said. "I walked into a team ready to go. They took off and they kept things going. ...
"They make guys around them better, play the right way, send the right message. New guys coming in, they see that's the message, how important winning is to the team, to the players, to the town, to the organization. It's infectious."
One of those "new" guys, 32-year-old veteran Antoine Vermette, joined the Blackhawks in March after general manager Stan Bowman was forced to find some replacements in the wake of a serious shoulder injury to Kane.
He was the front-line center with the Coyotes, but had no problem taking a back seat with the third line here.
"You want to contribute, of course," Vermette said. "But what made these guys special is that from top to bottom, everybody is the same. They all want to win. Coming into a situation like that, it wasn't hard to fit in."
Fitting in is a lot easier, of course, with a team on a roll. But among the core of seven players who have been around for all three titles, it isn't hard to remember when the current toast of the town was just toast.
The climb back toward the top for the Blackhawks began with the end of the lockout in 2005, when former player and then-general manager Dale Tallon quit pursuing draft picks and free agents with wide bodies and narrow skill sets, instead rolling the dice on two skinny kids — Toews in 2006 and Kane in 2007 — who hardly looked the part of All-Stars and Olympians they were about to become.
Quenneville came aboard four games into the 2008 season and Bowman, whose shrewd personnel moves have kept the Blackhawks on top during the salary cap era, joined the organization the next year.
Teaming with Keith and Brent Seabrook — two of the league's top attacking defensemen, already in the fold — Toews and Kane also gave Chicago one of the most potent offenses in the league.
The problem, at least at first, was how few people in town noticed there was a hockey revival under way.
That was because the late William "Dollar Bill" Wirtz, the club's tight-fisted owner, stubbornly kept games off television and had chased away legacy names like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
Then, Wirtz died in September 2007.
The Blackhawks made the postseason after a six-season hiatus, but those fans who chose self-exile only grudgingly began trickling back.
It wasn't until Wirtz's son, Rocky, was in control for a full season — putting the games back on TV, bringing guys like Hull and Mikita back as ambassadors and putting up statues outside United Center — that all was forgiven, and then some.
Average attendance jumped 7,000 seats by the end of the 2008-09 season.
Considered one of the worst franchises in sports less than a decade ago, the Blackhawks have remade the franchise into the model of professionalism.
They looked lucky to be in the Stanley Cup Finals, let alone leading the Lightning, 3-2, headed into Game 6.
Once the puck dropped, though, the same team that looked tired and out of sync somehow kicked their game into another gear.