Tonight’s game at the soon to be renamed Bank Atlantic Center will seem like a high school reunion for some as the Chicago Blackhawks make their only visit this season to South Florida to take on the Florida Panthers. The Blackhawks are off to a flying start this season, and have re-emerged as an NHL powerhouse in the last few years after spending most of the past decade at the bottom of the NHL standings. An original six team that was rich in heritage, had a number of star players who were ultimately traded away, had hit rock bottom. From 2000 to 2009 the Hawks had one playoff appearance to show for themselves, which was in 2002, and that resulted in a first round exit.
For roughly 30 years the white haired Bob Pulford had been the teams general manager, and while “Pully” had his moments, the Blackhawks ended the 90′s by trading superstars Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios. The trio formed the heart of the organEYEzation and with their leaving town, so left the rich tradition of what was known as “Hard Hawk Hockey”. Mike Smith was hired in 2000 to be the general manager and last three years, while being heavily criticized for drafting and trading for mostly European players, most of which never worked out. The stars were gone, the “roar” was gone, and the seats were empty. It was a sad thing to see, even for a guy like me here in South Florida, who grew up in Chicago still rooting for his team. Something had to be done and soon too bring back the rich tradition and work ethic that the Blackhawks were known for.
Dale Tallon who spent five years with the Hawks as a player, was the color announcer with play by play man Pat Foley, until he ultimately moved into a front office position in 1998 where he served as director of player personnel till he was named assistant GM to Pulford.
Dale was named the club’s eighth general manager in 2005. While his first season there was busy, it also ended up disappointing as the Hawks finished with a 26-43-13 record good enough for 14th in the Western Conference. Despite signing hi profile players as Nikolai Khabibulin, and Adrian Aucoin, along with role player Martin LaPointe, the Hawks were terrible, and a rebuild was underway.
In the coming years starting that summer, Dale began drafting future superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. He signed free agents like Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa. He traded or should I say “stole” players such as Kris Versteeg and the very handsome Patrick Sharp. He even found a 26 year old goaltender in Finland (Antii Niemi) who ended up being the Stanley Cup winning goalie after taking the job away from free agent Cristobal Huet. Dale built the team over a five year period by using all the tools available to a general manager’s disposal. The draft, free agency, trades, all while purging the roster of players that no longer fit the mold of what he wanted. All these players had a few things in common. They were talented, but they were also character guys who worked hard and knew how to win. It seemed that each year after Dale took over, he added pieces to make the team stronger till he ultimately felt he had all the right pieces in place. This even included firing head coach and former Blackhawk favourite Denis Savard four games into the 2008-2009 season, replacing him with Joel Quenneville. As we all know in June of 2010 the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup with much of what Dale had put together for them, even though Dale had taken a senior advisor role with the team at that point, his mark was felt and he was given most of the deserving credit for assembling that team.
On May 17th 2010 almost a month before the Hawks won the Cup, it was announced that Dale would become the new general manager for the struggling, and spiralling Florida Panthers, replacing “interim” GM Randy Sexton. People from South Beach to Vero Beach rejoiced! It appeared that the new ownership group led by general partner Cliff Viner was tired of the losing ways and wanted a change. First a change to respectability, but also a change of culture and mindset. The pessimists all wondered if this was for real, or was it smoke and mirrors.
Dale’s initial move was the draft in June of 2010 here he picked up players like Erik Gudbranson, Quinton Howden and Nick Bjugstad. He made some minor free agent signings and also made a few trades along the way with Nathan Horton being one of the players sent packing. The trade worked out for Horton as he won the Stanley Cup last season, but people were put on notice with that move, that if you didn’t want to be here you wouldn’t. And if you didn’t play hard and produce you won’t be here either.
The Panthers struggled through the 2010-2011 season, and for the most part the season was a wash, especially when the trade deadline came. Dale moved out players like Cory Stillman, Bryan McCabe, Radek Dvorak, and Bryan Allen. The moves were made as these players were no longer seen as being part of the teams future. At the same time Dale was shredding salary in a effort to rebuild his way. With this summers draft the Panthers put more emphasis on their future and drafted among others Jonathan Huberdeau who came “this close” to making the team out of training camp. Dale also spent the summer as one of the busiest GM’s in recent history bringing in 11 new players as he continued to restructure the team. Bringing in ex-Blackhawks and Stanley Cup winners Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg. He also signed veterans Jose Theodore, Tomas Fleischmann and former Panther Ed Jovanovski among others. Dale also parted ways with head coach Peter DeBoer almost immediately after last season ended, even though DeBoer still had one year remaining on his contract, and brought in current coach Kevin Dineen.
I know for most of you this is a review, but you can’t help but notice the similarities in each organization. The Florida Panthers so far this season are off to their best start since 1999-2000 which ironically was the last time they qualified for the playoffs. They play a significantly more exciting brand of hockey under Dineen, and on paper the talent level is superior to any team that’s taken the ice here in Florida for at least a decade if not longer. The atmosphere is better, the players are better, and the expectations are higher than they’ve been before. However, those expectations are real.
The similarities of these two teams are very familiar to Dale, as they are to some of the players he’s acquired. Tonight’s game features a truckload of players who’ve played with each other, and know each other very well. The teams are on two different paths however as the Blackhawks are working towards getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals this year, and the Florida Panthers are working at getting respectable, and getting into the playoffs, at the same time while building a winner. I am biased of course when I say this, but of all the teams the Panthers play against, there’s nothing you “dislike” about the Hawks. They are fun to watch, and make every game exciting. The brand of hockey they’re known for recently is what Dale Tallon is working on putting together for the Panthers.
Tonight’s game for Florida is just another test in a long run of assignments this season as the Panthers continue to prove that they can be a playoff contender. There will be a little extra spice in the crowd, and a little extra jump in the players legs tonight as this game promises to be one of the best of the year. The players on this Panther team are only concerned about one thing tonight, and as you’ll read in Harvey Fialkov’s article, that concern is winning. Nothing else really matters.
It’s a big game for Dale too. And one thing that he has going for him is that his players love playing for him. Ask any current Hawk, and any former Hawk who’s now a Panther and they’ll tell you what a great guy Dale is. These days you need every advantage that you can get, and if Dale Tallon’s personality and will to win can resonate down to every player in the Panther dressing room, then yes, Dale can win twice.
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