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How to tell when a team is hot

Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 8:09 a.m. CDT

I’ve just about seen everything now. At least on TV.

While flipping channels the other day, I came across a sports channel showing the Chicago Blackhawks doing a skate-around. (For those who don’t know, a skate-around is a light practice the morning of a game to keep players loose.)

The network wasn’t showing game replays or interviews with players; it was just the players going through a very light workout. To their credit, I guess, the commentators weren’t discussing the drills, they were analyzing the upcoming playoff opponent. But instead of showing the commentators sitting behind a desk, there were Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp flipping wrist shots at Corey Crawford, who may be the most important player on the team.

If you want to see a dynamic team at the top of its game right now, it’s the Blackhawks. (It’s certainly not the White Sox or the Cubs.) The team, loaded with stars that fans will be reading about years from now, has an inexplicable trait of overwhelming an opponent without totally dominating the scoreboard, which may explain all their overtime – and exciting – games.

Actually, the best way to tell if the Blackhawks – or any team, for that matter – are hot is if people who don’t normally pay attention to them start following them. Like me. Another sign is when you refer to them as “they,” instead of by name, and everyone knows who you’re talking about. (“So when do they play again?”)

Still, I have to wonder how many people are fanatical enough to watch any team skate around for half an hour. The only reason I watched was because I kept expecting the network to switch to something else.

In this area, hockey is kind of an elite sport a little out of our reach. It’s not the kind of game families can play at summer reunions between fried chicken and Aunt Millie’s homemade potato salad. And I don’t know of many fathers who come home from work to bat the puck around with their sons in the backyard. Yet at its core, hockey just may be the most exciting sport there is, combining speed and power with amazing athletic ability.

The late Canadian sportswriter Andy O’Brien once wrote that hockey “makes baseball seem like casual exercise prescribed by the doctor for old gentlemen with stiff joints.” In his book “Firewagon Hockey,” he noted: “Beside it, football looks like something they bring into the nursery to keep the children out of mischief.”

To me, the most amazing thing about hockey is that everything is done on skates. Players seem to skate backwards just as fast as they can forward. As a kid, I could barely stand up on skates, let alone pass a puck or bash into someone.

Many years ago, in the heyday of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, I sent away for a Blackhawks yearbook. In 1969, a color team photo cost $1; pictures of individual players, 50 cents; a yearbook, $1; a schedule, 50 cents; and a car window decal, 25 cents.

I’m sure if the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup this summer – their second in four years and the fifth in their 86-year history – all of those things are going to cost a lot more than they already do.

But I still don’t care to watch them just skate around on TV.

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