If you haven’t spent much time in Chicago, it’s almost impossible to understand how shocking it is to witness how quickly the Blackhawks franchise has been resurrected. Apologies for another Bill Simmons reference, but I recall how he stated that the Patriots were the “Fredo” of the Boston sports scene almost all of his life, which in turn made their rise as a dynastic power in the NFL this past decade more flabbergasting than the fact that Red Sox have won two World Series in a four-year period. Well, the Blackhawks weren’t even at the Fredo level for the last three decades in Chicago sports – they were more like the horse’s head in the bed. From before the time I was born, the Blackhawks organization did everything possible to beat down its fans and thereby preventing the team to draw new followers. The late franchise owner Bill Wirtz spurred the third most letters from ESPN viewers voting for the worst owner in all of sports (along with providing ammunition to The Worldwide Wide Leader to name the Hawks as its hockey representative to challenge the Clippers as the worst franchise in sports) and it was well deserved – even in a town that has rarely had sports owners that have befitted its major media market size, he stood out in terms of ineptitude and penny-pinching. Most famously, Wirtz blacked out all the team’s home games on television in Chicago area with the stubborn belief that it was for the protection of its season ticketholders. Of course, he ignored the Cubs and Bulls in the very same city leverage television exposure to build up wide-ranging fan bases, thereby allowing those teams to play to capacity crowds even when they’re playing horribly. At the same time, in the early-90s, when the Blackhawks had a stable of young stars like Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour, Wirtz decided not to pay up to keep the core of a club together that made it to the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals. This sent the franchise into a funk where it had only one playoff appearance between 1998 and 2008 in a sport where the majority of teams make it to the postseason. Only two years ago, the Blackhawks ranked next-to-last in the NHL in attendance and played to around 50% capacity at the United Center.
Then, Bill Wirtz passed away in fall 2007, which meant that control of the team was left to his son Rocky. I will never wish physical ill will upon anyone, yet Wirtz’s death and Rocky’s takeover has saved a franchise that I didn’t really believe could be saved. Rocky immediately got deals into place to not only lift the television blackouts on home games, but even get a package onto over-the-air WGN. The younger Wirtz hired Cubs marketing guru John McDonough (widely credited as the person that turned Wrigley Field into a recession-and-bad-team-proof destination – it’s easy to forget that up until the mid-1980s, Wrigley was more than half empty every game) to become team president and the franchise that was in the witness protection program all of the sudden became the most aggressive team in terms of marketing in Chicago sports. McDonough used those Cubs connections to nab this past year’s NHL Winter Classic for Wrigley Field, which was a massive success for both ticketing and casual fan exposure purposes. The team drafted two budding young superstars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews while shelling out money for top tier veterans such as Martin Havlat. Those horrendous attendance figures from two years ago have been turned around in meteoric fashion, where the Blackhawks vaulted up to first place in all of the NHL for average home attendance this season (and that doesn’t include the game at Wrigley Field) with every date being a sellout. They’ve induced people like me to watch more NHL games, write more blog posts about hockey, and scroll through the DirecTV guide to figure out where the hell Versus is located over the past three weeks than the past three years combined. After years of Hawks fans looking for any reason to keep interest in the team, the Original Six franchise is providing so many reasons to watch that the bandwagon is in full effect. (By the way, a follow-up on my recent bandwagon post is forthcoming.)
All of this has culminated in a scenario so perfect that it is as if it were written by a suddenly clairvoyant Gary Bettman. (Note that this is about as incongruent of a notion as a suddenly clairvoyant Bud Selig.) The Blackhawks have made it to the Western Conference Finals after taking down the Vancouver Canucks and will battle for the right to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. They’re in a great position for their potential opponent, where they’ll get either home ice against the Anaheim Ducks (the better situation purely from the perspective of giving the Hawks the best chance to advance) or a match-up versus the hated Detroit Red Wings (the better situation from the perspective of both long-time hockey fans that appreciate the rivalry and drawing in new fans with two marquee franchises). (Personally, it’s hard not to get giddy at the thought of a Hawks-Wings series even though that’s a much tougher series. When I ranked the various Chicago-Detroit rivalries a few years ago, I noted that the hockey rivalry used to be as intense on the city’s sports scene as Bears-Packers but the play of the Blackhawks had depressed it to the point where no one seemed to care about it anymore. This has obviously turned around 180 degrees since that time, where our favorite phrase has some teeth to it again. Frankly, in terms of historic rivalries, the Hawks playing the Red Wings for the conference championship would only be eclipsed by the following hypothetical postseason scenarios (in reverse order of insanity): (3) Cubs vs. Cardinals in the NLCS, (2) Bears vs. Packers in the NFC Championship Game, and of course, (1) White Sox vs. Cubs in the World Series that would be promptly be followed by Armageddon.) With the Bulls’ playoff run over and the Cubs and White Sox playing a lot of mediocre baseball, the Hawks look to finally be at the forefront of the Chicago sports stage for the first time since the 1960s (even when they last made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, it coincided with the Bulls going for their second NBA championship). Combined with the recent success of the Boston Bruins, which with the Blackhawks made up the two teams that I identified three years ago that needed new ownership in my “Modest Proposal to Save the NHL” (while it hasn’t happened for the Bs, the team actually winning games again is the next best thing) and a showdown between the two best players in hockey, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the NHL actually looks like it has some life again. That doesn’t mean that it can continue to ignore my suggestions in my “Modest Proposal” post (if I were commissioner, the Campbell and Wales Conferences would be back effective immediately), but there at least looks like there are some building blocks in place.
Regardless of the rest of the NHL, Chicago finally has the hockey team that it has deserved for being such a passionate Original Six city. For years upon years, the Blackhawks were the one sports team in town that couldn’t do a single thing right for the fans, but under the Rocky/McDonough leadership, they are now the team that can do no wrong.
(Image from Chicago Tribune)