Rocky Wirtz has officially only been on the job for 17 days now, but he’s quickly putting together a body of work that might make him worthy of executive of the year in the NHL.
The 54-year-old Wirtz, who took over the Chicago Blackhawks when his father died Sept. 26, has given every indication that he intends to clean up the mess that the Blackhawks have become. That, dovetailed with an emergence of young players who appear ready to make the Blackhawks a playoff contender, could finally spell the end of a moribund and forgettable era in Chicago that has seen the Blackhawks fade almost completely from relevance on the local sporting scene.
Need proof? Well, consider that Monday the Blackhawks issued a news release to announce they have entered into discussions with Comcast SportsNet executives to begin discussing televising some Blackhawks home games this season, “with a long-term strategy for televising additional home games in the future.”
In Chicago, this would be akin to Fidel Castro taking up the cause of capitalism.
Bill Wirtz was under the arcane and mistaken impression that if he actually showed his hockey team on television, it would encourage people to stay away from the rink on game nights. But he found out over the last decade that he could accomplish that all by himself by putting together a shoddy organization and allowing its best players to go elsewhere.
Once a hockey hotbed, Chicago has essentially turned off the Blackhawks to the point where four-digit attendance figures have become the norm. (The Blackhawks “announced” attendance is 12,727 per game this season, but that is bloated by giveaways and, well, out and out lying about how many people are actually in the building.)
The Blackhawks have been second last in NHL attendance in the two full seasons since the lockout and, despite a promising start to this season and some good young players in the lineup, are last in the league so far this season. That doesn’t include the New Jersey Devils, who have yet to play a home game.
But the best move Rocky Wirtz made after taking over the hockey team was getting Bob Pulford out of the hockey department and to the other side of town at the family’s corporate headquarters. Pulford’s official title was executive vice-president, but he was essentially Wirtz’s right-hand man and spent much of his time poisoning the environment in Chicago and using his sway with Wirtz to undermine others who worked for the organization.
In fact, although Bill Wirtz has to take his share of the blame for what has happened to the Blackhawks since their run to the Stanley Cup final in 1992, many observers there feel Pulford has done more to damage the organization than anyone else.
The speed with which Rocky, who had distanced himself from the team before taking over after his father died, jettisoned Pulford speaks volumes about what he thought of Pulford’s work.
Wirtz will undoubtedly continue to clean up the organization in the coming months and, as it should be with an organization that has missed the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons and hasn’t been out of the first round in the past 10, there aren’t too many people who are safe.
But there are signs of hope. Going into Tuesday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Blackhawks are a very respectable 5-3-0 and have a solid core of young players, including two of the most dynamic rookies in the league in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
When the Blackhawks roared back in the third period to defeat Toronto 6-4 last Saturday night, they officially served notice they will no longer easily and passively accept defeat.
Kane has been spectacular since the start of the season and if both he and Toews continue their fine play and stay healthy, there’s a very real chance that both the winner and runner-up for the Calder Trophy could come from the same team for just the eighth time in NHL history and just the second time in the post-expansion era.
The first time post-expansion that it happened was in 1976 when Bryan Trottier finished first and Glenn Resch second for the New York Islanders – and we all know how well that turned out. The only other time was in 2002 when Atlanta Thrashers Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk finished 1-2 and, well, that one didn’t turn out so well.
The fact that the Hawks are a team on the rise is the way it should be. After all, this is a team that has a top-10 pick in the draft four years running (including the top three the past two drafts) and six of the past eight years.
But at least there is some palpable hope and enthusiasm surrounding this team for the first time in forever. It has often been said that people in Chicago desperately want to be Blackhawks fans again, if only the team would give them a reason to be.
Perhaps Rocky Wirtz, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will finally give it to them.
Ken Campbell’s Cuts appears regularly only on The Hockey News.com. Want to get the inside edge from Ken himself? You can reach him at email@example.com.
One of THN’s senior writers, Ken Campbell gives you insight and opinion on the world of hockey like no one else. Subscribe to The Hockey News to get Ken’s expertise delivered to you every issue.