Shortly after joining the Chicago Blackhawks late in 2005, Patrick Sharp was given a stack of business cards. On the back, there was a website where fans could log on to get two free tickets to a Blackhawks home game. He was told by the team’s promotions department to give them out to everyone he met. Sharp and his teammates gave out as many as they could, then would look in the stands when the puck was dropped and see a wide swath of nothing but empty seats. Just the year before, the Blackhawks had earned the ignominious honor of being the worst franchise in sports by ESPN.
That was back in the dark ages. The team was terrible and management and ownership were paying a steep price for treating their fan base like a piece of lint on their collar. Decades of neglect and incompetence had given the organization a serious case of dry rot. It wasn’t that people hated the Blackhawks for what they did. It was far worse than that. They simply didn’t care about them. Ask anyone who has ever run a sports franchise and he’ll tell you that apathy is far worse than hate. And that’s precisely what happened to the Blackhawks, once a proud member of the NHL’s Original Six and home to Hall of Famers Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito. They had become irrelevant in their own market, the third largest in North America, and anyone who still had a Blackhawks sweater had it buried deep in the closet. “You could see your friends in the stands because they had their own sections,” Sharp recalled. “We could walk around town and nobody would stop you. It was almost as if the Wolves, the American League team, had more credibility than we did.”
Until this year, there were just six players in NHL history – Johnny Gottselig, ‘Mush’ March, ‘Doc’ Romnes, Louis Trudel, Paul Thompson and Roger Jenkins – who could lay claim to having their names twice on the Stanley Cup as members of the Chicago Blackhawks. That group became a lot less exclusive and more than doubled when Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Sharp were added to the list. And with two Stanley Cups in four years, this is about as close to a dynasty as we’re going to see in the NHL these days. The potential for more is on the horizon with this group. And that’s good for Chicago, great for the NHL and the business of hockey and wonderful for anyone who has an appreciation for comeback stories and the rich history of the game.
It’s also good news for those who respect the integrity of the regular season. The Blackhawks are the first team in five years and the second in 10 to be the league’s best team from the start of the regular season to the end of the playoffs. Their 36-7-5 record prorated over an 82-game schedule would have given them 132 points, which would have tied them with the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens for the most in NHL history. Even with the advantage of two more games and the extra points that come with overtime and shootouts, that’s an impressive feat. (Take those away and the Hawks would have been a 113-point team over 82 games.)
That the Blackhawks have turned things around on the ice and will be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future is indisputable. Their core players are still young enough to have the skills to win and hungry enough to want to do it. And their GM, Stan Bowman, is very good at what he does. On the day before the Stanley Cup final, captain Jonathan Toews, who has the potential to be the best two-way player in the league for the next decade, talked about how when the Blackhawks lost in the playoffs in 2011, it felt like somebody was taking “their” Stanley Cup away from them.
“Once you win the Cup once,” he said, “you feel like it’s yours. You don’t want to give it up. As a team, as an organization here in Chicago, we definitely want to prove that we mean business. We want to be in it every single year.”
It has been a startling transformation, really, ushered in largely by chairman Rocky Wirtz, the team’s third-generation owner. Shortly after his father Bill died in 2007, Rocky took the organization over only to find out that the team wasn’t going to make payroll. The organization was in shambles and was hemorrhaging money, but within just more than a year, Chicago was filling the NHL’s second-biggest building past its capacity, leading the league in attendance for each of the past five seasons and playing a brand of hockey with a group of young players who had finally proved they were NHL-caliber. Sharp, Keith and Seabrook were part of that first group and Bill Wirtz’s death coincided with the organization turning the corner on the ice.
“We felt like we had some good players and we felt like we were all developing and becoming NHLers at the same time, the right time,” Sharp said. “We got beat up on for a couple years, then drafting Toews and ‘Kaner,’ new ownership, they all came together at the right time.”
Fans could finally watch their team score a goal at home on TV, something they could never do when the team was run by Bill Wirtz, who thought blacking out every home game would drive people to the turnstiles. The Chicago faithful has responded not only by filling the seats, but also by setting ratings record after ratings record in the local market on television. It’s not uncommon for the Hawks to not only garner better ratings than the Cubs, White Sox and Bulls in the market, but rout the other local teams in the playoffs.
And it’s all good for everyone involved. Chicago is a major contributor to an NHL that continues to see its overall revenues rise. And it’s very good for the Wirtz family, whose son realized quickly that people like to eat and drink when they go to a game. Every drop of alcohol comes from the Wirtz liquor distributorship.
And nothing makes a team relevant like winning. Nobody knew the Blackhawks a few years ago, but Kane said now he has to go out with his hat around his eyes and his head down low if he wants any privacy. The Stanley Cup is theirs, so that won’t be dissipating anytime soon. And there seems to be more where that came from.
“We want to remain at this level,” Bowman said. “The fans of Chicago have come to love this team.”
And it seems light years away from the days when players had to hand out business cards just to get noticed.
This article appears in THN's Stanley Cup issue.
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