Commentary

Rocky's upset victory

Wirtz, McDonough helped transform Blackhawks from joke to model franchise

Updated: November 8, 2011, 5:56 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Even with their boisterous United Center neighbors off on an extended vacation, the Blackhawks accept their relatively subordinate position on Chicago's sports landscape gracefully.

There are the major offseason moves by the Cubs and Sox. And all the Bears have to do is simply play out their schedule, let alone score their biggest victory of the year on Monday Night Football to stay competitive in the playoff hunt.

[+] EnlargeRocky Wirtz
Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesOne of the ways Rocky Wirtz has formed a strong bond with Blackhawks fans is by sitting with them during home games.

"The Bears get a 25 [television] rating rolling out of bed," says Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz. "We have to work for our 3. But it's better than three years ago, when we got a .6."

Financially, the Blackhawks are still operating in the red. Last season, one year after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup, they barely made the playoffs and then lost in the first round. Before that season began, they purged their roster of eight mainstays from the championship team. And the season before that, the team fired its popular Hall of Fame head coach and parted ways with its well-liked general manager.

It still paled to two years prior, when Wirtz took over the team following his father's death. "Four years ago, we didn't have good relationships with anyone -- the media, fans, corporate sponsors, players," he says. "We were at war with everyone."

In 2004, ESPN The Magazine's Ultimate Standings, which measures how much teams give back to fans, ranked the Blackhawks' last in the NHL and 119th, or second-to-last, among all NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB franchises.

And yet the Blackhawks have not only bridged the gulfs of which Wirtz spoke and overcome their perpetual low rung on the city's relevance meter, but have become Chicago's model professional sports franchise, the best example we currently have of an organization that has earned the trust of its fan base.

While the Bears, win or lose, draw regular and emphatic criticism about everything from their coaching staff to their handling of player personnel to the fitness of their ownership; the Bulls, who still bear the brunt of the breaking up of a dynasty 13 years ago, now face fans' alienation of the NBA during a potentially season-long work stoppage.

Meanwhile the Sox risk falling further into the shadows of their North Side counterparts with the departure of one electric personality, the hiring of a first-time manager and the possible exit of perhaps their best pitcher of all-time.

And the Cubs, who would have been well-advised to begin their front-office sweep when the Ricketts family took over as new owners two years ago, are just now beginning the arduous process similar but even more daunting than the one that once faced the Blackhawks.

"Four years ago, there was indifference at best," says Hawks team president John McDonough. "The first two years were a blur. We changed out a good percentage of our staff -- hockey operations and business operations. There had to be a seismic culture change. We had to have people think differently about themselves and about the Blackhawks. There had to be a really strong sense of urgency too. This wasn't sit back and assess the terrain and see where we are in a couple of years.

"You're not going to get it all right, but we understood we were going to have to earn our way back into this because our fans gave us a second chance when maybe we didn't deserve it."

The key moves have been well-documented. Putting all home games on TV. Making amends with former greats like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and hiring them as team ambassadors. Doing the same with the equally beloved former coach Denis Savard, who was replaced with current coach Joel Quenneville, now a buddy and racetrack companion.

With all the talk about the relative youth of the Cubs' new baseball braintrust led by Theo Epstein, who will be 38 in December, the Hawks now employ a front-office staff whose average age is 32. GM Stan Bowman, now 38, was 36 when he took over for Dale Tallon.

But there is more to it, a "Blackhawks' way," similar to the model the new Cubs management team strives toward, and a philosophy of simply doing the right thing when it comes to their players and fans.

"It costs you a little bit more to do the right thing, maybe 10 percent," reasons Wirtz. "But it pays off 100 percent."

Ask Wirtz about good business and he will, more often than not, offer an example from the Wirtz Beverage Group, one of the nation's largest liquor distributors and the source of the Wirtz Corporation's main profits. And he will begin by talking about customer service.

"It's all about keeping people engaged," he says. "Money is one thing but what we get from fans is three hours of their time when we're competing with everything there is -- family, TV, Halloween the other night, not just other sports, everything, and they've been terrific."

Wirtz We've come a long way, but we're not where we want to be yet. Once you take satisfaction, you get left in the dust.

-- Rocky Wirtz

Besides special offers and opportunities for the more than 14,000 season ticket-holders, those on the waiting list (currently more than 10,000) are catered to as well and have an ongoing communication with the team.

Wirtz, who has raised ticket prices twice since he has been in charge, once his first year and again last year, now finds his team with the 10th-highest prices in the NHL, according to the 2011 Ultimate Standings. It should be noted, however, that the Hawks, unlike some teams, pay about 12 percent off the top in city and county taxes and also pay for their own traffic detail.

"I want to put more emphasis on corporate sponsors and less reliance on ticket sales," Wirtz says. "We have a non-elastic product and we have to be very careful. But I think people understand that we were so low to begin with [second-lowest in the league when he took over] that we're catching up."

Wirtz says he reads every piece of mail that comes to the team and he is still mobbed by well-wishers and autograph-seekers at the Blackhawks' fan convention, a new endeavor under his and McDonough's regime.

Recent statistics compiled by the Hawks tell them that 70 percent of their fan base is "brand-new" and it is armed with that knowledge that they go about their daily business.

"We don't take one viewer, one fan, one attendee, one listener, any of it for granted," McDonough says. "We don't assume any of these people are going to come back and I think it's that kind of mentality that has been a consistent refrain throughout the last four years."

The Hawks have members of their executive staff available to fans at every game and that still includes Wirtz, keeping up his habit of attending every home game and sitting on a folding chair alongside his wife Marilyn, midway up the 100 level in the northwest corner of the stadium.

Again comparing it to the liquor business where suppliers and retailers are the customers and thus his priority, Wirtz still comes by the personal touch naturally.

On Halloween this year, the Wirtz home welcomed approximately 700 trick-or-treaters enticed not just by the choice candy but the Blackhawks hockey puck that was also dropped into their bags.

Rocky's late father and Blackhawks' owner Bill Wirtz used to give out chocolate hockey pucks. "I said the real ones are better," says Rocky, who was at the game that night but had Marilyn tell kids they could come back the following Saturday morning if they wanted him to sign their pucks.

That little extra is also expected from Blackhawks' players, who do more than their share of signing autographs and participating in the overall marketing of the club. To that end, they are also strongly encouraged to visit upstairs with the front-office staff.

"I think they realize that because of their cooperation, they play a major role in what others have called a resurgence," McDonough says. "They understand it because we've been off the map for a long time ...

"We have to be available and we recognize that the visibility of our players, how they handle themselves in interviews, how important it is even for our ambassadors to appear at things. And not just appear, but make a positive impact at these things. So we talk about that from the time they get here."

It is questionable whether the reins may get a bit tight at times. While former players have seldom criticized the Hawks after leaving during the current regime, Brian Campbell, whose exodus to the Florida Panthers shed the Hawks of $7 million-plus in payroll, may have been referring to control issues or perhaps simply his loyalty to Tallon, when he said recently, "The [Florida] locker room is a lot of fun just like it was in Chicago with [Tallon in charge]. You're not walking on eggshells around here. It's go play hockey and work hard. I think that's what he expects, and have a lot fun. I think that's the best thing about Dale. You can say what you want to say and express your opinion. You're not walking around intimidated by anybody or scared to go out there and do anything. It's just a fun atmosphere."

The Hawks shrug.

"I don't know what he means," Wirtz says. "I don't think our players feel that way. I wish Florida well. They have a long way to go."

McDonough, it should be noted, hand-delivered a championship ring to Tallon, who drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and acquired Patrick Sharp. The Hawks also had Tallon's name inscribed on the Cup, though he was not the GM the year they won, a gesture Tallon called "very classy."

"We expect a lot," Wirtz says of his players. "We ask them to do a lot charity-wise, signing autographs but there's nothing they won't do."

While not contractually obligated, every member of the Hawks attended the fan convention this past summer. And in return for their cooperation, the players have been rewarded by upgraded facilities and first-class travel (the team chartered a plane last year to transport the team's Olympians from Vancouver to their game the next Tuesday in New York; and paid for all staff and their guests to attend the overnight trip to Washington D.C. to be honored at the White House).

McDonough is still getting thank-you notes after the team's third annual parent-son trip, this last one a three-day, all-expense-paid father-son golf outing to Florida.

The Hawks were also the first NHL team to travel with full-time security and a team doctor.

"Around the league, words spreads quickly," McDonough says. "Baseball was much slower. But around the NHL, people sense that there's a change in a franchise. It spreads within about two hours. We hear now that Chicago has become a destination. ... "

[+] EnlargeTBD
Chase Agnello-Dean/Chicago BlackhawksThe Hawks can teach the Cubs and Sox a thing or two about reviving a franchise.

While the Hawks disappointed fans with a grueling up-and-down season last year in defending the Cup and barely squeaked into the playoffs, they redeemed themselves by fighting back from a 3-0 deficit in their first-round series against Vancouver and pushing the eventual Stanley Cup finalists to a Game 7, which the Canucks won at home in overtime.

Bowman went out and got the enforcers on defense that fans were clamoring for during the offseason and were obviously needed, and the team, currently sitting in first place in the Central Division, looks to be back in the running.

The Hawks lost to the Canucks in a rematch Sunday night, but considering it was the 14th game of the season and a long way from must-wins and postseason relevance, the atmosphere inside the United Center, with a crowd of nearly 22,000 for the team's 154th straight sellout, may as well have been April.

"We've come a long way," Wirtz said, "but we're not where we want to be yet. Once you take satisfaction, you get left in the dust. You have to keep raising the bar. With the hard cap, we have to consistently bring in players, fill in key spots, draft well."

Hockey News just recently graded the Hawks' draft an A-plus.

Wirtz and McDonough praise Bowman for going "six, seven layers deep" in obtaining a consensus on many key decisions. And McDonough says Quenneville has become "the face of the franchise."

"He's a lot of fun off the ice, but all business on," says McDonough, "and in many ways, he reflects what the fans see."

What they see now is a team that moved up to 16th in the 2010 Ultimate Standings, 103 places higher than in '04. The Hawks fell to 36th in the 2011 standings, which includes everything from stadium experience to fan relations to bang for the buck (wins in the last three seasons), ranking them behind the Bulls (26th) but ahead of the Sox (57), Bears (74) and Cubs (112).

For the Hawks, it's just more motivation to improve.

"I think we have an obligation to humanize this franchise," McDonough says. "This isn't just about wins and losses and accumulating points. This is about trying to do the right thing, the consistent excellence we talk about on a day-in, day-out basis. We have to live that. We're an original six team in the city of Chicago, to me the greatest sports city, the greatest city in the country. We have an obligation to try to do things right and in a first-class fashion."

Not a bad dictum to follow.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.