“The pride is back,” read a homemade sign hanging off a balcony in Chicago’s United Center late last season.
The simple spray-painted message on a white bed sheet hadn’t been seen since the early 1990s when the Chicago Blackhawks were among the hottest tickets in a sports-crazy town.
Now, after years of disappointing teams and a half-empty building, the Blackhawks are relevant once again in one of the country’s biggest markets.
Anyone who has been close to a hockey rink in the past year has heard about the resurgence of the Original Six team.
It all began with the club’s selection of Patrick Kane with the first overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Despite the buzz surrounding Kane, the city’s frustrated fan base wasn’t convinced that the 18-year-old phenom was enough.
Then lightning struck in the form of W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz, who took over the Blackhawks after the passing of his father and long-time chairman of the franchise, William W. Wirtz. Rocky Wirtz instantly sent a message to Blackhawks fans. Change was on the horizon.
Wirtz brought in one of the most respected executives in all of sports when he named John McDonough team president. McDonough came from the Chicago Cubs, one of professional sports’ most popular franchises. With more than 24 years of experience in the Chicago sports scene, McDonough came into his new job with a mission.
“We had to change the culture here,” said McDonough. “Winning had to become part of the vernacular.”
Part of changing the culture was looking to the past, where winning and tradition were hallmarks of Blackhawk hockey. Within weeks, McDonough and Wirtz reached out to some of the biggest names in the team’s history.
“We needed to get out of the grudge business,” said McDonough. “We were in grudges with former players and former coaches. Forging agreements with [former Blackhawks] Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, to me, were of paramount importance.”
The three Hall of Famers were tabbed as official Blackhawks’ ambassadors to represent the team at events around the Chicago area. Along with Esposito, Hull and Mikita, current Blackhawks went out into the community making appearances all over Chicagoland. Interest in the team began to rise.
In February, the team announced that it would hold its first ever Chicago Blackhawks Convention in the summer of 2008. Some in the local media and not-yet converted fans snickered at the idea. The buzz was growing, but was the fan base?
The convention, the first of its kind in the NHL, sold out within days. By mid-March the team had sold out more games that season than the previous five combined.
If fans weren’t yet convinced that the culture had changed, Wirtz and McDonough sent another message. The team announced that, for the first time in its history, all 82 regular-season games would be broadcast live on television in 2008-09. The team’s long-standing policy of not televising home games was perhaps the most unpopular issue among fans.
The Blackhawks had always been committed to youth hockey in Illinois and that was one of the things that certainly would not change.
“Youth hockey has our full commitment,” McDonough proclaimed. “It is of paramount importance that we consistently connect and work closely with our youth hockey market in Illinois.”
To solidify that commitment, the Blackhawks hired Annie Camins to be its first-ever director of youth hockey. Camins can be found in rinks across Chicago promoting not just the Blackhawks, but the game of hockey.
Even though the Hawks fell just three points shy of the playoffs in 2007-08, fans knew that better days lay ahead.
While there was disappointment in not making the postseason, the team found there was much to build on. The club saw a 32 percent increase in attendance from 2006-07 to 2007-08, but there was more work to be done.
During a busy offseason of adding top-end free agents, including defenseman Brian Campbell and goaltender Cristobal Huet, bringing back fan favorites and recommitting to a fan base just waiting for something to cheer for, the Blackhawks struck gold.
On July 16, 2008, the NHL awarded the Blackhawks the 2009 Winter Classic to be played on New Year’s Day at McDonough’s old stomping grounds, Wrigley Field.
Blackhawk fever hasn’t just made a comeback, it has become a full-blown epidemic. The proof can be found at the box office.
McDonough said that the team has a chance to surpass its all-time season-ticket sales record. Last year, just 3,400 season tickets were sold; that number has grown to more than 13,000 for the upcoming season.
All of the exciting things happening in Chicago are pleasing to the Blackhawks president, but there’s still one thing left to do.
“We’ve marketed the team aggressively, we’ve got a good business plan in place, we have great hockey people in place,” said McDonough.
“Now it’s time to win.”
Photos - Ross Dettmann, Getty Images