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Top 15 Chicago sports stories of 2015

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Top 15 Chicago sports stories of 2015

It was a massive year in the Chicago sports world. From league MVP's to record-setting streaks, including another championship to celebrate. New faces emerged, stars became superstars and so many memorable moments took place. Here's our take on the Top 15 Chicago sports stories of 2015:


15. Elena Delle Donne wins WNBA MVP

THE STORY: It was going to take a special season for anyone to keep Maya Moore from winning back-to-back MVPs in 2015. What Elena Delle Donne accomplished was just that.

The 26-year-old led the WNBA with 23.4 points per game, ranked third in rebounds (8.4) and blocks (2.06), and set a WNBA record by shooting 95 percent from the free throw line.

She led the Sky to a second place finish in the Eastern Conference before bowing out to Indiana in the conference semifinals.

Delle Donne received 38 of the 39 first-place votes and finished with the league’s best PER (32.72) in more than a decade. She was valuable off the court, too, winning the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award for the second straight season.

THE QUOTE: "We have a pretty young team and that's where we kind of faltered before and unfortunately weren't able to get where we wanted to in the playoffs. I think my leadership as a whole has been what's impressed me the most and been the biggest challenge for me." - Delle Donne 

 

14. Illinois fires AD, football coach amid allegations

THE STORY: Illinois athletics experienced much turmoil throughout 2015, beginning with a summer of allegations of student-athlete mistreatment from former and players in multiple sports and ending with an ongoing search for a new athletics director.

Former Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic made waves in May, when he took to Twitter to accuse head football coach Tim Beckman of being an abusive bully who demonized injured players, forced players to play injured and threatened removal of their scholarships.

Simultaneously, a group of former women's basketball players alleged an environment of racial hostility and sued the university. Those allegations launched separate independent investigations into the two programs.

While the investigation into the women's basketball program found no evidence of the alleged racial mistreatment, initial findings of the investigation into the football program backed up Cvijanovic's claims and led to the firing of Beckman a week before the start of the season. Illini AD Mike Thomas was also removed from his position on November 9th. 

Interim coach Bill Cubit finished the season and was given a new two-year contract while the university is still searching for a new athletic director. 

THE QUOTE: "The preliminary information external reviewers shared with me does not reflect our values or our commitment to the welfare of our student-athletes, and I've chosen to act accordingly." - Ex-Illini AD Mike Thomas, who was fired later in the year.  

 

13. The emergence of Jimmy Butler

THE STORY: Following the 2014 season, Jimmy Butler rented a house in Houston and committed himself fully to getting better…literally. The Bulls guard cut off internet and cable in the house, worked out with friends from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., stopping only for meals and naps.

That hard work paid off, and then some.

Butler returned to the Bulls a new player, earning Player of the Month honors in November, his first All-Star appearance in February and the Most Improved Player award in May. He shattered career-highs in all major categories, including points (20.0), rebounds (5.8) and assists (3.3) per game. He was rewarded with a five-year maximum contract in June, joined USA Basketball in August and assumed the role of the Bulls’ leader when training camp began in September. He made good on that leadership earlier this month when he called out Fred Hoiberg, saying the head coach needed to be harder on his players, Butler included.

In a year in which Joakim Noah struggled mightily and Derrick Rose dealt with more injury, Butler’s rise to stardom was a necessity for a Bulls franchise whose championship window may not be open much longer.

THE QUOTE: There can never be enough vocal leadership and I have to bring something new to the table, so why not make that my thing for this team? The thing I can bring most is to lead. I have to get better at it - I think we all have to - but that's the first step in me becoming the player I want to be. – Butler on being a leader for the Bulls

 

12. Banks and Minoso pass away prior to 2015 MLB season

THE STORY (Banks/Minoso): Baseball (and Chicago) lost two iconic and legendary ambassadors in 2015. "Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks died at the age of 83 in January and five weeks later, Minnie Minoso, aka "Mr. White Sox," passed away at age 90.

Not only were Banks and Minoso the first black players of their franchises, but they changed baseball in Chicago for generations to come.

Minoso was a seven-time All-Star and one of only two major leaguers to play in five different decades. Banks hit 512 home runs and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977. 

THE QUOTES: “In the Latino culture, especially Cuba, Minnie Minoso was the biggest thing in the sport. I wanted to be just like him, and when I look at him now, I still want to be like him. I am so grateful for what he did for us." - former Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant in 2011

“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all-time. He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known." - Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts 

11. Cubs clean up in MLB awards

THE STORY (Bryant/Maddon/Arrieta): The Cubs earned three major MLB awards in a span of three days in November, taking home the Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant), Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon) and Cy Young (Jake Arrieta) for the National League.

Bryant was an easy choice for ROY after hitting 26 homers with 99 RBI, an .858 OPS and 5.9 WAR, proving from the second he was called up in April that he was worth every bit of hype heaped upon him.

Maddon steered the ship of a 97-win team that far exceeded any expectations set forth before 2015, keeping things light for all the young players in the clubhouse and bringing the Cubs all the way to the NLCS.

Arrieta, meanwhile, completed his transformation into one of the best pitchers in the game, leading the majors with 22 wins, 33 starts, four complete games and three shutouts while posting a 1.77 ERA, 0.865 WHIP and 236 strikeouts. He narrowly beat out Dodgers co-aces Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw for the NL CY.

THE QUOTE: “My timing and my tempo in my delivery was as close to perfect as I feel like I could have possibly been." - Arrieta on dominance in 2015

 

10. NFL Draft in Chicago produces Kevin White soap opera for Bears

THE STORY: The Bears dealt Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick, opening up new general manager Ryan Pace to select receiver Kevin White with the No. 7 overall pick as the NFL Draft returned home to Chicago for the first time in 51 years.

The Draft may have generated a total economic impact of more than $81 million, but it resulted in a season-long headache for the Bears as fans will have to wait until next year to see White in uniform.

White was "day-to-day" with a "leg injury" in training camp before it came out that he was actually dealing with a stress fracture. He wound up on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list to begin the regular season.

White returned to practice in late November, but the Bears opted to play it safe and sit him down for the entire season rather than risk further injury to their No. 1 pick.

THE QUOTE: “I’ve been through so much. I’m ready to turn this city around.” - White after being drafted by Bears

 

9. Blackhawks bid farewell to Saad, Sharp, Oduya

THE STORY (Saad/Sharp): The Blackhawks lost nearly half their team following 2010's Stanley Cup win due to salary cap restraints, but 2015 may have been tougher to swallow.

Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya — three integral parts of multiple Stanley Cup winning teams in Chicago — each found themselves wearing a different sweater when the 2015-16 season began for that same reason, leaving holes in the hearts of Blackhawks fans.

The three of them made enormous impacts on and off the ice, with Sharp only one of three players (along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) to have been there for both the bad of finishing near the very bottom of the league in 2005-06 and the good of three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

THE QUOTE: “I don’t think we ever came close on a contract. It wasn’t for lack of effort. I respect their side. It just didn’t work for us, and it obviously didn’t work for them. That’s why we had to move on.” - Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman on negotiations with Saad

 

8. Chris Sale's strikeout streak amid disappointing White Sox season

THE STORY: Chris Sale made history in 2015, striking out 10 or more batters in eight straight starts. That tied the MLB record set by Pedro Martinez in 1999. 

Sale also set a new White Sox record by striking out 274 batters throughout the season, eclipsing Ed Walsh's record of 269 set in 1908. 

Sale's record-setting strikeout run was set against the backdrop of a largely disappointing season for the White Sox, who were expected to contend in 2015 after "winning" the offseason by making moves for Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera and Zach Duke, committing $128 million in the process. 

Expectations were at an all-time high, but the Sox finished their third straight losing season (76-86), sitting in fourth place in the AL Central and 10 games out of the closest playoff spot.

THE QUOTE: “Looking over to the dugout seeing everybody standing up and the crowd was going crazy so that took a little to soak in and appreciate that moment. It comes and goes real quick, but I’ll never forget that.” - Chris Sale

 

7. Cubs land Jason Heyward in crazy offseason

THE STORY: The Cubs may have "won" the offseason, pulling off an aggressive series of moves, committing $276 million to help improve a 97-win team and try to position the team for contention once again in 2016.

First, the Cubs signed John Lackey, giving the 37-year-old pitcher $32 million over two years.

The Cubs then traded away former franchise cornerstone Starlin Castro and signed Ben Zobrist as part of a joint move, helping to lengthen the lineup and also adding more depth to the pitching staff with Adam Warren coming to Chicago in the Castro deal.

Then the big news hit, as Jason Heyward chose the Cubs over the Cardinals and Washington Nationals in a deal that may forever change the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry.

THE QUOTE: "It'd be a beautiful thing to win a World Series for one." - Heyward at his introductory press conference

 

6. Jake Arrieta throws no-hitter in Los Angeles

THE STORY: Arrieta flirted with a no-hitter a handful of times before actually putting it all together one fateful August night in Los Angeles. The 29-year-old righty steamrolled the Dodgers on Sunday night baseball, allowing just a single walk and striking out 12 in his first career no-no.

The event was made all the more enjoyable watching Arrieta and the Cubs react to the spectacular performance while wearing onesies as part of a Joe Maddon themed road trip.

The no-hitter may have secured Arrieta's Cy Young award, overshadowing Greinke and Kershaw while displaying his dominance in full force on national TV. If there was any doubt whether Arrieta was one of the elite pitchers in the game before, those questions evaporated after his historic outing in LA.

It was also the signature outing in what became the best second half in the history of Major League Baseball, as Arrieta went 12-1 with a 0.75 ERA, 0.727 WHIP and just 55 hits allowed in 107.1 innings.

THE QUOTE: “We want every ball hit to us. After the fifth inning, we said: ‘We got this.’ Because that guy is nasty. Every time. It’s unbelievable.” - Starlin Castro on Arrieta

 

5. Patrick Kane's roller coaster year hits a high with 26-game point streak

THE STORY: Patrick Kane put an emotional offseason behind him and jumped out to one of the best starts of his career, earning at least a point in 26 consecutive games from Oct. 17 to Dec. 13. Along the way, he broke the record for longest point streak by an American-born player (19 games), surpassed Bobby Hull for the franchise record (21) and set an NHL record for the longest streak since 1992-93.

Kane also emerged as the NHL's leading scorer heading into the Christmas break, seeking to become the first U.S.-born player to win the Hart Trophy for league MVP and Art Ross Trophy, awarded annually to the player who records the most points during the regular season.

THE QUOTE: “I think it's one of those things when you realize what elite company you're in, when you're with these great players that have had these great streaks, it definitely humbles you. I obviously feel honored and very fortunate to be involved with names like those. It's something I'm trying not to think about too much. I just go out and play the game." - Kane on point streak after extending it to 25 games.

 

4. Bulls fire Tom Thibodeau, hire Fred Hoiberg

THE STORY: Change was inevitably coming to a Bulls franchise after LeBron James knocked them out of the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons.

And it came as no surprise that Tom Thibodeau was the scapegoat for the franchise’s postseason struggles. Thibodeau was fired after five seasons in Chicago, in which he compiled a 255-139 record and won Coach of the Year in 2011.

Struggles with the front office over playing time and rest to key players were the main factor, but perhaps the Bulls also needed a change of pace from the defensive-minded Thibodeau.

They got that change of pace, literally, with Fred Hoiberg, who was hired in May. The former Iowa State head coach, known for his up-tempo offensive philosophy, has led the Bulls to a 17-12 record in his first season.

THE QUOTE:  "To ensure that the Chicago Bulls can continue to grow and succeed, we have decided that a change in the head coaching position is required. Days like today are difficult, but necessary for us to achieve our goals and fulfill our commitments to our fans." - Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf on firing of Thibodeau


3. Bears bring in Fox/Pace new regime

THE STORY (Pace/Fox): The Bears quickly made fans forget about a tumultuous 2014 season by hiring proven winner John Fox as the 15th head coach in franchise history and Ryan Pace to replace exiled general manager Phil Emery.

Fox joined the Bears after four seasons with the Denver Broncos in which he compiled a 46-18 record and led the team to the postseason in every year of his tenure, including a Super Bowl appearance during the 2013 season.

Pace joined the Bears after 14 seasons with the New Orleans Saints as a member of player personnel department.

The tandem of Fox/Pace brought in proven commodities at both coordinator positions in Adam Gase (offensive) and Vic Fangio (defensive).

THE QUOTE: "I talked to a lot of people about this and I leaned on a lot of people that I trust, and they told me how great of a job this is." - Pace on coming to Chicago

2. Cubs postseason run follows 97-win season

THE STORY: The Cubs streaked into the postseason, going 45-18 from July 29th on, finishing with 97 regular-season wins and the third-best record in baseball (even though they were still only third in the NL Central).

Jake Arrieta then went out and dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game, hurling a five-hit shutout and continuing his run as the best pitcher on the planet.

The Cubs moved on to the NLDS, where they lost Game 1 to the St. Louis Cardinals before jumping all over their biggest rival, winning three games in a row - including two in a rambunctious Wrigley Field - to head to the NLCS for the first time since 2003.

Of course, the Cubs then ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets, as the offense went silent and Maddon's squad was swept out of the playoffs with four straight losses. 

But it was still a banner year for the Cubs in many phases, from the success on the field to the renovations around Wrigley Field that included glowing reviews of the new monster videoboards (which Kyle Schwarber helped christen in the playoffs).

THE QUOTE: “Still playing meaningful games in the middle of October is really important and a very valuable experience for everybody involved. Moving forward, it’s only going to make us better.” - Jake Arrieta after losing NLCS to Mets.

 

1. Blackhawks win third Cup in six years

THE STORY: How could a list of 2015 moments be complete without the only championship in Chicago?

For the third time in six years, the Blackhawks brought Lord Stanley back to Chicago, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games of the Stanley Cup Final. Only this time, they got to celebrate on home ice, something they hadn't done in 77 years (since 1938, to be exact).

During their playoff run, the Blackhawks became the first team in the NHL history to win four multiple-overtime games in the same postseason, and finished the year with a perfect 33-0-0 record (8-0 in the playoffs) when leading after two periods, the only unbeaten team in that scenario. The Blackhawks also tied Boston for the fourth-most Stanley Cup victories in NHL history, trailing only Montreal (23), Toronto (13) and Detroit (11).

THE QUOTE: “We wanted it. We wanted it for each other, for the city. In so many ways, winning a championship like this in your own city in some ways transcends the sport. Everyone wants to be a part of it. It's amazing. You can feel the energy. I’m trying my best to explain it but it's pretty tough. It’s definitely overwhelming.” - Jonathan Toews after winning Stanley Cup

 

Just missed the cut:

- Notre Dame's two-point, last-second losses at Clemson and Stanford

- Brandon Marshall traded to Jets

- Kris Bryant starts season in minors, gets called up April 17th

- Northwestern football has only fourth 10-win season in school history

- Bears sign, then release Ray McDonald

- DePaul hires Dave Leito as head basketball coach, again

- Robbie Gould's late game FG woes cost Bears back-to-back games

- Notre Dame's Malik Zaire injured, DeShone Kizer's emergence

- D-Rose’s game-winner over Cleveland in Game 3 of Eastern Conference playoff series

- Fire part ways with coach, hire new GM and coach

- Lance Briggs announces retirement, joins CSN

- White Sox land Todd Frazier in three-team trade

 

 

Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

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Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

ST. LOUIS – Eddie Olczyk’s morning at Scottrade Center was full of hugs and handshakes, of questions and encouraging words, of smiles and even some tears.

It was a busy morning but a good one for Olczyk, who Wednesday night will do his first hockey broadcast since being diagnosed with colon cancer in August. For the first time in a while, Olczyk felt like himself.

“It feels normal. It feels comfortable,” said Olczyk, who will be alongside Doc Emrick when the Blackhawks face the St. Louis Blues. “I just feel invigorated. Seeing a lot of familiar faces, guys busting chops and a lot of well wishes.”

Olczyk went through his usual game-day routine, including quick chats with Blackhawks players following skate. On Wednesday those talks were that much more special, for both sides.

“Great to see him,” said Ryan Hartman. “When I first saw I was pretty excited to see him back. It’s definitely a presence you know when you’re watching games, that voice you heard growing up. He looks good, looks healthy. He’s in a battle but he looks really good.”

Olczyk will also be in the booth on Thursday night when the Blackhawks host the Edmonton Oilers. Past that, he’ll play it by ear. He’s talked to NBC and Blackhawks president John McDonough, who Olczyk said gave him an “open canvas” in terms of scheduling. If Olczyk feels good on Saturday and the Blackhawks play on Sunday, he’ll try to get back in the booth.

“We think about him every day and we’ve had the pleasure of having him come by a couple of times. Having him be here today for a road game is great to know,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But he has a tough battle ahead of him and he’s doing everything he can to fight it. We support him every single day.”

Olczyk started chemotherapy treatments in September and he has his good and bad days. Those will continue for a while. So will his fight to completely beat this. But for at least the next two nights Olczyk gets to return to a normal routine, and that’s the perfect panacea for a trying time.

“I’m overwhelmed with everybody,” Olczyk said. “But this is the best medicine I’ve had in a long time.”

Lance Bouma's second chance has meant steady work with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Lance Bouma's second chance has meant steady work with Blackhawks

Lance Bouma took his place at fourth-line left wing as the Blackhawks rolled their forward rushes on Tuesday morning. As the Blackhawks have tinkered with their trios, Bouma, whose final two seasons with the Calgary Flames were filled with uncertainty, has found a consistent role in this lineup.

“Obviously I was brought here for a reason,” Bouma said. “Things didn’t go the way I wanted them to in Calgary. To come here to Chicago and have that role, it’s been a lot of fun so far.”

The Blackhawks knew what they wanted from Bouma and his fellow fourth liners: some physical play, some energy and if there are any scoring opportunities, bonus. It’s a second chance for Bouma, whose contract was terminated by the Flames on June 30.

“I think it’s definitely a motivator knowing that you get in that situation where all of a sudden, ‘OK, I have to almost start over again and I have to prove to a new team that I belong in this league and I can play,’” coach Joel Quenneville said on Tuesday. “There are always circumstances where teams make decisions like that. We’ve been a part of it. And moving forward as a player, you’ve gotta look at it as a fresh opportunity. It’s an opportunity to get back to playing your game.”

After recording 16 goals and 18 assists in the 2014-15 season, Bouma signed a three-year, $6.6 million deal with the Flames. The next two seasons didn’t go as planned as Bouma dealt with injuries, inconsistent play and healthy scratches. So getting that call from the Blackhawks was a huge lift.

“I was just looking forward to a fresh start and something new,” he said. “I just was ready to come into camp and have a great season and it’s been great so far.”

[MORE: Eddie Olczyk expected to return to broadcasting booth this week

Tommy Wingels, who has centered the Blackhawks’ fourth line the last several games – and will again vs. St. Louis on Wednesday – said Bouma looks “refreshed” this season.

“Obviously whether it’s a team doesn’t want to bring you back or it’s a trade or buyout, there’s certainly something that deep down gets you going,” Wingels said. “I think it was a good summer for him mentally to come to a new organization, come to a new group of guys and re-establish his game. It’s tough when you’re with the same coaches, same team for so long; maybe what you do gets taken for granted. He looks good and he’s skating really well and I think he moves really well for a big man. He’s strong on the pucks and he’s a good asset for us.

Bouma isn’t here to be a top-six player. He’s not here to fulfill a contract that he no longer has. The Blackhawks needed depth, energy and a physical presence and in brining that, Bouma has earned steady work.  

“We knew the player coming in that we wanted him to play that style and he’s done a good job of it, too,” Quenneville said of Bouma. “So it’s something we were looking for in our needs and it fit perfectly."