The Chicago Blackhawks are in an unique position of time in terms of appreciating their fan base.
On the one hand, the Blackhawks are getting accustomed to being one of the hottest tickets in town. They’ve led the NHL in home attendance for the past four seasons and have averaged 21,000-plus fans at the United Center throughout that period.
On the other hand, the Blackhawks aren’t that far removed from being among the league’s worst-attended teams. The Blackhawks averaged less than 14,000 fans in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons and were second to last in home attendance in each of those seasons. Even in the 2007-08 season, they were in the bottom half in attendance.
Now that the 2013 season is underway, it’s apparent most Blackhawks fans have rushed back to their team and have put aside any resentment created by the NHL lockout. It’s a welcome sight for the Blackhawks, but it’s also one they stress isn’t being overlooked.
“We’ll never, ever take our fans for granted,” Blackhawks executive vice president Jay Blunk said in a phone interview on Friday. “We’re fortunate our fans are back and back en masse.
“We’ve led the league in (attendance) over the last four years. That wasn’t always the case here. Everyone knows that. Everyone knows the fans are precious and central to our organization. We have to proceed in a humbled manner with our fans, and we always will.”
Much of the NHL has to be feeling in a similar way right now. Fan support was strong throughout the league during the first week of play. Sixteen teams have averaged 18,000-plus fans and only five teams have drawn an average of less than 17,000.
The Blackhawks’ numbers for attendance and TV ratings are surging.
The Blackhawks have held just one home game this season, but they packed in 21,455 fans into the United Center on Tuesday for their franchise-record 191st consecutive capacity crowd, which dates back to the 2007-08 season.
Blunk expects that streak to continue this season.
“There’s definitely been an extreme amount of demand for these tickets because there’s only 24 games,” Blunk said. “There’s a voracious appetite for Blackhawks tickets. We do have tickets available for every game. That being said, by the time the game rolls around, we anticipate each one of these will be sold out this year.”
The TV ratings have also been higher than they’ve ever been. Comcast SportsNet set a station record for a Blackhawks regular-season game with a 5.4 rating during Tuesday’s telecast of the Blackhawks’ home opener against the St. Louis Blues. Thursday’s telecast of the Blackhawks-Dallas Stars game was the most-watched road regular-season game in Comcast SportsNet’s history with a 5.13 rating. The season opener against the Los Angeles Kings had a 6.6 rating on NBC.
Blunk said the Blackhawks have also received positive feedback for their fan initiatives. The Blackhawks recently launched “Fan Salute” to thank fans for their patience during the lockout. The Blackhawks are offering chances to win autographed items, game tickets, meet-and-greets with the team and other prizes.
“When you’re in the depth of one of those labor negotiations, you’re certainly concerned that our fans are suffering,” Blunk said. “When we come out of that, you’re never going to take that for granted. That’s why we wanted to make sure coming out of the lockout we made a gesture to our fans. We wanted to make sure it was a collective effort from management to players to the entire organization.
“No matter what other teams were going to do, we felt we had to do something massive, something really unique for our fans. That was sort of the initiative. We have to put our best foot forward. That’s what we came up with. We wanted all fans to have access to it. No matter who you were or where you were, you had access to the program.”
Blunk said the Blackhawks weren’t able to hold an open scrimmage like a lot of other NHL teams did because of scheduling and short notice with the United Center. The Blackhawks did allow youth hockey players who were supposed to play at the United Center during a game’s intermission in October, November and December to attend the Jan. 16 scrimmage because their scheduled games had been canceled during the lockout and could not be made up.
“We felt like we owed them,” Blunk said. “We felt like it was a good use of the United Center that night.”
Despite the consistent attendance figures and spike in TV ratings, Blunk said the Blackhawks aren’t about to rest when it comes to their fans.
“We sort of always approach it as an underdog situation,” Blunk said. “Even when the ratings are growing and the attendance has been really strong, we still consider ourselves the underdog. We still feel like we have to outwork everyone.
“It’s a competitive entertainment market. We feel very fortunate to have our fans back. But even with our fans back, we’re still going to approach it as the underdog.”