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Chicago fans starting to warm to Blackhawks after decade of apathy

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

CHICAGO - Only two years ago, there were good seats available for pretty much every Chicago Blackhawks game. Lots and lots of them. Heck, in some spots, you could practically have your own section.

Nowadays, the Blackhawks are such a hot ticket even seats way up high in the United Center are filled. The Indian Head logo is all the rage, spotted across the city on men and women, young and old, on everything from jerseys to caps to pyjama bottoms.

As a video on the Jumbotron before a recent game proclaimed, "Hockey never left Chicago, but it has definitely returned."

"It's great to see this many people here," Brian Jack said, keeping a protective hand on the shoulder of his 8-year-old son, Kevin, as they made their way through the crowded concourse before Monday night's win over the Colorado Avalanche.

"It's nice to see energy in the building. There's electricity in the air."

A year after the season-ticket base dwindled to 3,400, it's now a franchise-record 14,000. Every game so far has sold out, including a regular-season record 22,690 for the Oct. 25 game against the Red Wings. Merchandise sales are up a whopping 60 per cent from last year.

The Blackhawks are winning on the ice, too, off to their best start since 2001-02. They take a three-game winning streak into Sunday night's game against Calgary, and have won five of their last seven. They are stocked with young talent, including Patrick Kane, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft who won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year last season, and Jonathan Toews, also a Calder finalist.

"You used to hear, 'No one cares about the Hawks.' We do, and more people are now," longtime fan Eli Babich said. "It's slowly becoming a hockey town like it was in the '70s, '80s, even the early '90s."

An Original Six franchise, the Blackhawks have a long and proud history in Chicago. Some of the sport's greatest names played here - Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Chris Chelios - and the team has won three Stanley Cups. The old Chicago Stadium was one of the best venues in the game, so raucous and loud the building would shake and the national anthem would get drowned out in the din.

But after losing the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals to Pittsburgh, the franchise began a slow, painful decline that drove it to the brink of irrelevancy, on and off the ice.

The team missed the playoffs in 1998 for the first time in 29 years, snapping the second-longest streak in NHL history. They have been back only one time since. Favourites like Chelios, Tony Amonte and Ed Belfour left, and there was a revolving door of coaches.

In 2004, ESPN called the Blackhawks the worst franchise in professional sports.

"The last few years have been downright painful," said Phil Gonzalez, a season-ticket holder for the last decade.

Fans directed their anger at longtime owner William Wirtz, derisively nicknaming him "Dollar Bill" for his refusal to televise most home games and his penny-pinching approach to contracts. They showed their disapproval the only way they knew how: by staying home.

It got so bad the minor-league Chicago Wolves actually outdrew the Blackhawks for a Sunday afternoon game in 2004.

When Wirtz died in September 2007, his son, Rocky, replaced him as chairman.

"I was a little skeptical," Gonzalez admitted, "thinking, 'like father, like son."'

But Rocky Wirtz's Blackhawks are nothing like his father's.

Less than a month after taking over, Rocky Wirtz put several home games on television. All home games will be televised this season.

"If nothing else, we had to just eliminate the negative," Wirtz said. "Everyone talked about it, the games on television - or lack thereof - and not about the team's performance."

Wirtz then lured Chicago Cubs president John McDonough to do the same job with the Blackhawks.

McDonough was the Cubs' marketing genius, transforming a perennially underachieving team that played to sparse crowds into national darlings whose ballpark became baseball's shrine, packed regardless of the weather or the Cubs' record.

Remember that Beanie Baby craze that swept the major leagues a few years ago? McDonough's idea. Same for the wildly popular Cubs Convention.

"People ask all the time, 'Are you starting from scratch?' I think in many ways, we started before scratch," McDonough said. "We had to go in a completely different direction. Not slightly different, not deviate a little bit, not just try this. It had to be a completely different approach. Probably shockingly different."

Though they talk often and Wirtz is involved in major decisions, he has given McDonough the freedom to do what he does best.

The weekend he got his new job, McDonough sat down and listed ideas to revive the Blackhawks, not just in Chicago, but around the country. He wound up with six or seven pages of notes.

"People say some of these things were low-hanging fruit," McDonough said. "I will tell you that fruit was cemented to the branches of that tree."

He reached out to Hull and Mikita, who'd been estranged from the franchise for decades, and rehired beloved broadcaster Pat Foley. The Blackhawks signed agreements with Comcast SportsNet and WGN, the regional radio and TV powerhouse, and partnered with the Cubs and White Sox to broaden the team's exposure.

Borrowing from his days at the Cubs, McDonough announced a Blackhawks fan convention, a first in the NHL. It drew 10,000 fans in July, when most Chicagoans' are thinking only about the Cubs, White Sox and Bears.

The team also opened training camp with a festival that included a fun run, 3-on-3 street hockey tournament and public practice. For the home opener, players walked a Hollywood-like red carpet on their way into the stadium.

"The biggest challenge in a city like Chicago is cutting through the clutter," said Jay Blunk, the Blackhawks' senior vice president of business operations after being McDonough's right-hand man at the Cubs.

"That's why you have to be innovative and bold," Blunk said. "We have to try things that have never been done. Some of them won't work, some of them will."

More than anything, Wirtz and McDonough infused the Blackhawks organization with a positive, forward-thinking attitude. Mediocrity - or worse - would no longer be tolerated.

When attendance began climbing last season, McDonough made it clear crowds of 10,000 or 12,000 were nothing special, even if they were vastly bigger than what the Blackhawks were used to.

"I saw 10,000 empty seats," he said. "I'm not accustomed to 10,000 empty seats, and I don't like it."

There aren't many these days.

The Blackhawks finished last season with 12 sellouts at the 20,500-seat United Center, and drew 18,752 for a pre-season game. They had another full house against the Avalanche, even though it was a Monday night and unseasonably warm.

"It's been a great turnaround," said Brent Seabrook, who, in his fourth season in Chicago, is one of the longer-tenured Blackhawks. "Even the refs came up to me tonight and said, 'It's fun coming to this building when it's packed.' And it is."

Most encouraging to Wirtz and McDonough is the type of fans the Blackhawks are drawing. Parents with young kids, like Jack and his son; a lifelong fan, Jack bought season tickets for the first time this year. The all-important 20-something demographic, too, a generation that was all but lost during the team's self-imposed exile.

And the attendance boom has come despite a rise in ticket prices. The Blackhawks lost US$19 million in 2005-06, the first season after the NHL lockout, and William Wirtz estimated the team would lose another $20 million in 2006-07.

Last year, Wirtz Corp. had to lend the Blackhawks millions simply so the team could make payroll.

"I thought we'd get fans back," Wirtz said. "I didn't think we'd get the fans back and raise ticket prices at the same time."

Especially when times are so tough economically. But fans, having felt unappreciated for so long, have wholeheartedly embraced the "new" Blackhawks.

When Wirtz introduced Hull and Mikita at their "welcome back" game last March, he was cheered. Wirtz watches games from a seat on the lower-level, not a luxury box, and fans will come by to chat, often thanking him. (He also answers every letter and e-mail he gets, saying it's "rude" not to.)

"It's humbling," McDonough said. "...But we're only going to sustain all this by winning."

Dale Tallon, who took over as general manager three years ago, has carefully built a strong, young core that should make the Blackhawks a playoff contender for years to come. Kane and Toews, the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, are already the NHL's best young scoring tandem.

Kane led all rookies with 72 points last year, while Toews tied for third with 54.

But the Blackhawks aren't a bunch of Mighty Mites. Brian Campbell, the top free agent defenceman available, signed an eight-year deal over the summer, and the team's leading scorer is veteran Patrick Sharp.

Chicago missed the playoffs by just three points last season. When the team started slow, coach Denis Savard was fired and replaced by Joel Quenneville. The Blackhawks are 5-1-2 since then, putting them behind Detroit in the Central Division.

"The fact they've repaired (relationships with the fans) and moved the franchise forward, the fact they have great young players and future stars and are going to be competitive for a long time, all those things are great developments for the NHL," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "It signals there's going to be a healthy and revived franchise in Chicago, which is good for the league."

Wirtz and McDonough make it clear this is just the beginning of the Blackhawks' transformation. They want the Blackhawks to be a model franchise, not just in the NHL, but for all pro sports. They want the playoffs to become a regular part of the schedule, and they want to win the Stanley Cup.

In that respect, Wirtz is exactly like his father.

"The common denominator," he said "is to win."



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