Cristobal Huet's tight smile suggested he would have rather avoided the question, except that wasn't really an option for the newest member of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Certainly not after Huet, 32, signed an eye-popping contract with Chicago soon after the free-agent market opened last month. The $22 million deal for four years was a stunner because that's what teams pay for a No. 1 goalie and the Blackhawks already had one of those in Nikolai Khabibulin. And complicating matters even more is Khabibulin's salary, which will be higher than Huet's this season.
|Cristobal Huet joins Chicago, making the salary of No. 1 goalies. (Getty Images)|
In the meantime, GM Dale Tallon says he's open to both options, which effectively turns a potentially distracting goaltending situation into a subplot of what is a watershed season for the Blackhawks.
Life has not been happy for the venerable Original Six franchise during much of the last few decades. It has generally struggled on the ice and the gate, while all but falling off the sports map in Chicago. However, the organization has gone through a major sea change in philosophy over the last year, breathing the kind of life into the brand that hasn't been around since the heydays of the 1960s and 70s. Season ticket sales are up, renewals are running at nearly 100 percent, and there is already a waiting list for the Winter Classic in January at Wrigley even though tickets are not yet on sale.
"There's definitely a buzz around them," said Mitch Rosen, program director for the Score, a Chicago all-sports radio station and former Blackhawks broadcast rights holder. "Obviously it's a little quieter now because of the season, but when they do something big like a signing, people want to talk about it. I think the respect for the organization is at an all time high."
Credit that to a transformation that began last September when Rocky Wirtz assumed control of the team after his father William Wirtz, passed away at age 77. The elder Wirtz ran the team with an iron fist for four decades and was among the most influential league owners. But he also was a penny pincher when it came to the Blackhawks and eventually drove the team into the ground by letting many marquee players leave in contract disputes. And he became vilified for refusing to broadcast home games in the Chicago area.
Things changed almost immediately when Wirtz's son took over and quickly hired away Cubs marketing whiz John McDonough to be his team president. Chicago began broadcasting home games on television last season, welcomed back and honored previously shunned former legends like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, and most important, put an exciting and talented young team on the ice that was stocked by many of the high draft picks the Blackhawks accumulated during recent lean years.
None of those moves was quite enough to get Chicago into the playoffs, but the signs were promising and by the second half of the season, sold-out games were no longer the fantasy they had been for many years. Since then, the Blackhawks have been trying to keep up the momentum, and have managed to stay at least part of the sports conversation in Chicago this summer with attention-grabbers like the Wrigley game, a fan fest in mid-July that drew 10,000 people, and last week's signing of Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman as a hockey operations consultant.
But winning is still what matters, which explains why the Blackhawks jumped so hard into the free-agent pool last month. Aside from Huet, they landed one of the top prizes in defenseman Brian Campbell for $56 million over eight years. Both deals were widely seen as over the top. Tallon conceded the point, but suggested that for the organization, striking while the proverbial iron was hot was critical. "July 1 you always overpay," Tallon said. "The thing is now we have the resources to do it. We created a buzz in this market, we started to sell more and more ticket sponsorships and we want to continue, so you're going to overpay. But we wanted to make a statement."
On paper, the Blackhawks seemed to have succeeded. Campbell is among the top puck-moving defensemen in the league, and he'll join a young blue line led by homegrown talents Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Up front, Chicago has an improving young offense that features budding superstars Jonathan Toews, who will become one of the youngest captains in history in his sophomore year, and Patrick Kane, last season's top rookie. The goaltending should be solid regardless of who plays.
So the Blackhawks, who finished just three points shy of a playoff spot last season, look ready for the next step this time around.
Anything less though would be a big step backward for a team that can't afford to squander the enthusiasm it has created in one of the most critical market places for the NHL.
"They've done everything right as an organization and made themselves competitive enough to excite people, but it all comes down to what it does on the ice, and you really won't be able to get the right barometer on them until January," the Score's Rosen said. "People started getting into the Blackhawks a lot more last year, and I think it's going to be the same come October when the season starts.
"But if they're 10, 12 points out of first place by January 1, I'm not sure everything is so hunky dory."