Breaking Up the Blackhawks

When I was a kid and a crazed Red Wings fan, the franchise bosses and the NHL broke our hearts by dismantling the best team in the world.
From 1950 to 1955, the Wings won four Stanley Cups in six seasons, ’50, ’52, ’54, and ’55.  And that they lost in 1953 (after sweeping the ’52 playoffs, half of them by shutout) should have called for a congressional investigation, or a mass saliva test for everybody on the squad.  The guys were that good. 
In such a highly competitive league, it was mind-boggling then to see the dominant Red Wings of that era broken up … not by jealous rivals or by instra-squad dissension, but at the direction of the team’s own front office.  Wings general manager and resident tyrant Jack Adams was admittedly trade-crazy, perhaps over-worried about his club growing old overnight or becoming overconfident from success.  But the rumors ran deeper, and more disturbing, than that.  After Adams banished a third of the 1955 club following their latest championship season, the word around town was that the Wings-owning Norris family was interested in boosting their other National Hockey League holding, the Chicago Blackhawks, and Adams had been ordered to stock the lousy Chicago franchise with Red Wings youngsters and role players.  Indeed, Chicago and Boston were regular bottom dwellers in the NHL of those days, and it apparently fell to the Red Wings to sacrifice their deep lineup via backroom shenanigans aimed at bringing parity to the league.  Thus were the Wings literally caused to fall apart.
Despite the stripping of the team’s roster to boost the NHL have-nots, the Red Wings stayed highly competitive — if no longer dominant — through the 1956-57 season, in which they won the regular season championship, but saw the Cup go to the Montreal Canadiens, the league’s new dynasty.  By then Adams and the Norrises were apparently alarmed at the activities undertaken to institute a players union across the six-team league.  Unfortunately for Red Wings fans — and for ten-year-old me fretting nervously on Detroit’s east side — it was Wings team leader Ted Lindsay who was the key man in the union plans. 
It still pains me to type this, but … following the ’57 season, in which the first-place Red Wings had placed Lindsay as the NHL’s first-team All-Star left wing and young goalie Glenn Hall as first-team goalie … the team traded both to last place Chicago in the off-season, getting next-to-nothing in return. 
This all came to mind in recent weeks with the dismantling of the new Cup-winning team in Chicago.  After a tiny wait of 49 seasons themselves, the Blackhawks powered to a 2010 Stanley celebration.  But in the new NHL, teams are no longer torn apart because of shady back-office dealings or player punishments.  Rather, a league-leveling spending cap causes teams to walk a razor’s edge of yearly contractual tricks in attempts to assemble their best players in short bursts of financial manipulations.  Thus did Chicago boast the best talent in the league this past season, talent that now must be divested as contractual payouts demand.
Incredibly, just weeks after helping lead his team to the Cup, 260-pound mauler and scorer Dustin Byfuglien was banished to Atlanta (do they play hockey down there? … answer: barely) in a multi-player deal and salary dump-off that saw him joined by Brent Sopel and Ben Eager, two other Hawks with champagne still on their breath.  They are among several newly discarded Chicagoans.  It seems crazy, no? 
It’s weird to see what happened here in the mid 1950s happening in Chicago today.  You’d think the NHL would owe it to the fans to keep great teams skating together on home ice, season after season.  Apparently it just goes to show, or shows to go, that power and money — even more than team spirit, or hometown pride — are what make the NHL go ’round.  Season after season.  And century after century.