On the day after the Blackhawks delivered Chicago a new sports low of this decade, it still stung badly enough to wince at the memory.
It felt worse instead of better. It made even less sense Monday morning than it did Sunday night when Alec Martinez scored at the 5-minute, 47-second mark of overtime to give the Kings a 5-4 victory in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. It ruined many commutes, ruled conversations at work and wrecked any semblance of focus.
Welcome to what will feel like our city's longest summer of sports ever — an Indian-headless summer. The living rooms and decks of Hawks fans will resemble personal penalty boxes as they ignore the Stanley Cup Final and imagine what might have been.
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Time eventually will dull the ache created by the Hawks' stunning elimination by a Kings team every bit as tough mentally and physically, but no sports team in town figures to fill the gaping void. Not with the Cubs and White Sox chasing respectability instead of pennants. Not with the Bears relaxing for another 50 days until they report to Bourbonnais thinking Super Bowl. Not with the Bulls tilting at windmills in their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love.
There will come a day when all of those local sporting interests will compel us to drop everything and stare again but, for millions of people planning on a third Stanley Cup in five years, that day rests far off in the distance. Instead of talking dynasty, suddenly they are cursing destiny and the lucky bounce the puck took off Hawks defenseman Nick Leddy's shoulder past goalie Corey Crawford with the gut-wrenching, game-winning goal.
Yes, the sun came up Monday morning in Chicago. But fittingly it also rained, reflecting the mood downtown.
This is the downside of dealing with high expectations, something with which Chicago's sports fans historically have had little experience. The higher they soar, the lower spirits sink when hope is lost. Consider the 2013-14 Blackhawks Exhibit A. This is why this Hawks defeat represented the most difficult the city has endured since the Cubs blew Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. (It's hard to top the significance of a loss significant enough to warrant its own documentary.)
The Bears losing Super Bowl XLI to the Colts didn't cause as much angst because, deep down, nobody really expected Rex Grossman to outduel Peyton Manning — not even after Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. The Hawks failing to repeat after their 2010 Cup championship shocked fewer observers because salary-cap concessions forced general manager Stan Bowman to dismantle the roster. A first-round exit in 2011 confirmed those limitations more than it labeled the Hawks underachievers.
Nothing else in the post-Bartman Era really comes close. Derrick Rose's knee injury cast a pall over the city, but that was an injury, not an outcome. One emailer compared the collective emptiness to the despair that descended on the lakefront on Dec. 29 after Randall Cobb caught a 48-yard touchdown pass in the final minute as the Packers eliminated the Bears from the playoffs. Not to minimize that response, but it followed a regular-season game and not a winner-takes-the-conference-championship affair.
The 1986 Bears offer perhaps the most apt comparison. Trying to repeat as Super Bowl champs after their legendary '85 season, the Bears entered the playoffs 14-2 only to lose 27-13 in the divisional round to the Redskins on Jan. 3, 1987. "They went home to their city neighborhoods, their suburban retreats or their homes beyond; some of them numb, some of them angry, some disbelieving,'' the Tribune reported a day later.
For Hawks fans of a certain age, the civic reaction possibly reminded them of perhaps the most bitter defeat in Blackhawks history: Game 7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup Final against the Canadiens at Chicago Stadium. Just as they did against the Kings, the Hawks took a 2-0 lead on home ice. And just as the Hawks would do 43 years later, they squandered it. Historians consider the 3-2 loss to the Habs the standard for heartbreakers, but don't expect a panel discussion comparing '71 and '14 letdowns at next month's Blackhawks Convention.
The legends of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita still emerged unscathed from that ignominy. Likewise, one day they still will cast Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in bronze outside the United Center and name streets after Joel Quenneville and John McDonough off the Magnificent Mile. Legacies remain intact.
Slowly, the pain will subside and a city so conditioned to having its teams disappoint the masses will realize the Hawks didn't lose Game 7 as much as the Kings won it. There is a difference, even if it understandably appears too soon for Chicagoans to see it.