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It was early June 2007, at the Wells Street Art Festival, on one of those summer Sundays in Chicago that makes the winter all the easier to forget for another six months.
I had just arrived at the Fireplace Inn to meet my younger brother Josh, who was in town for my graduation from a master's program at the University of Chicago. Josh, who lives in Las Vegas, was with his friend from college, and with them were a half-dozen members of the Chicago Blackhawks.
These were the younger Blackhawks, guys bouncing back and forth between the NHL club and its American Hockey League affiliate. Not that it mattered. The Blackhawks had no recognizable stars.
The players had carved out a little space at the bar (no table service here). Byfuglien bought a round of shots for us and then expressed sticker shock at the price (no freebies here). A few girls walked up to talk to a few players, but not because they were looking to land a pro athlete.
The Blackhawks, past and present, stayed there all day, drinking in broad daylight and no one noticed. No one took cell-phone pictures and splashed them across the blogosphere. They were just some young guys having fun, completely anonymous to the world.
In late October 2007, I crossed paths with the Blackhawks once again. I was at the United Center covering a "major news announcement." We all knew what it was. Former owner Bill Wirtz had died, and his son Rocky had taken over the franchise. Things changed quicker than anyone expected.
Peter Wirtz, considered to be the favorite to replace "Dollar Bill," left the organization on Oct. 7, and by Nov. 5, Rocky announced an abbreviated TV broadcast schedule for home games for the 2007-08 season. If you're not from Chicago, and don't follow hockey, you might be confused, or perhaps think you're reading about a team in Siberia, not sports-crazy Chicago. The Wirtz family -- Bill had been team president since 1966 and fully took over the reins of the franchise after his father Arthur died in 1983 -- refused to air home games on television. Every once in a while, the team would throw its fans a bone and televise a sold-out game here or there. The reasoning was that putting games on TV penalized the season ticket holders and other fans who paid for their seats. It's tough to overstate how backward this logic was, so it's best just to move on.
Rocky Wirtz hired Cubs president John McDonough to run a 20th century (forget 21st century) front office, and there was no debate about the franchise's next move.
"Absolutely, I wouldn't have accepted the job if there was even the possibility that all games wouldn't be televised," McDonough said last week. "I would not have been interested. You could've had a winning team, but if all the games were not on TV in the year 2007 or 2009, you're somewhat anonymous for me."
|With young starts such as Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks are positioned for the long haul.|
Of course, the games had to be on TV. The voluntary home blackout irritated fans greatly, but since the Blackhawks made the playoffs for 28 straight seasons, breaking the streak in 1998, it didn't cause any riots -- even though the team hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1961, an embarrassingly long drought. Since 1998, the team only made the playoffs once, until this season. Maybe the blackout was a good thing.
Since moving to Chicago in 2003, I had never considered going to a Blackhawks game, watching a road game, or even reading a newspaper article about them. I used to joke that the beat writers could put their Social Security numbers in the middle of their stories and be safe. Who was reading about this team? To me, the TV thing was paramount. It was nothing but a middle finger directed at the team's fan base.
"I never understood that," said Hawks winger Adam Burish, who grew up and played collegiate hockey in Madison, Wis. "I used to be like, what do you mean you can't watch it on TV? In Madison, every college hockey game was on TV."
So, the team made this mind-blowing announcement and everyone was happy. (Team staffers showed up for the news conference, smiles plastered to their faces. "Footloose" is on TV as I write this, and I can't help but find a corollary as I watch the kids finally able to dance in public.) But there was a weird vibe from the whole scene, seeing how the death of Rocky Wirtz's father had prompted the change.
Now, fast forward 17 months. I'm at the Edge Ice Arena in scenic Bensenville, Ill., talking to Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer about that day I crossed paths with them nearly two years ago. I ask how life has changed since then, now that the team has been embraced by the city again. These guys aren't at the level of Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios quite yet, but both players said they've signed autographs while walking their dogs in the past week. They said dinner reservations are no longer a problem, public appearances are now the rule, not the exception, and it's doubtful they're worried about buying rounds of drinks.
"No one knew who we were; it was great, it was fun," Byfuglien said. "But now it's even more exciting, and we're a part of it. The way things have turned around and you know your name's out there, it's something you have to really think about."
In the last two seasons, the Chicago area has dealt with a Blackhawks blitz as the team scheduled its players' appearances like Miss America winners. I joked with some players that last season I could have called the team and asked for two players to help me unload my groceries, and that not only would they have come, but they'd bring a lectern and a backdrop. These guys were at more Cubs and Sox games last summer than a national baseball writer.
"This is my third year with Chicago," Burish said. "My first year, no one was doing any appearances, and I know the Blackhawks would try and force places to have players come and speak, or do something. Now there's stuff going on every day."
There is a school of thought that McDonough and Rocky Wirtz have saved hockey in Chicago, or they rejuvenated the team with their new-age marketing techniques like televising games, hiring popular ex-players as "ambassadors," encouraging fans to come to games and advertising. One longtime critic thinks they're just the beneficiaries of a salary cap (which Bill Wirtz helped champion), no-brainer decisions and good timing.
"For 10 years, there was this illusion that Blackhawks fans won't come back," said Mark Weinberg, one of the creators of the popular Blue Line hockey publication that satirized Wirtz and Co. during the 1990s. "There was this suspicion that they lost a generation or two of hockey fans, but it turned out that was BS. There was an easy way to bring back Blackhawks fans: win some games."
McDonough disputes that, but he isn't effusive over the team's success just yet, mostly because he thinks there is still more work to be done.
"I don't think there's any part of the journey, I would define as easy," McDonough said. "Not one easy moment. But with all of the attention on the Blackhawks and the fact that we have a really good young team, makes all of this appealing to advertisers, as does the sense that the building will be filled. We have an attractive, young demographic, and we have a good product."
In 2006, the team was not a good product. During this height of the dark ages, a friend of mine bought a Blackhawks mini-plan and we ridiculed him mercilessly. It was like buying an Oldsmobile or a new tape deck. Why bother?
He went to one game and fell in love with hockey all over again. He called a season-ticket representative and said, in essence, sign me up for a full season next year.
The bored voice on the other line replied: "I don't take orders for next season until May. Call me back then." Click.
The Blackhawks averaged 12,727 fans in 2006-07. Only the St. Louis Blues drew worse, by a couple hundred bodies. And I have a sneaking suspicion the Hawks, in true Chicago style, rigged those numbers.
Last season, they were 19th in attendance, drawing almost 17,000 a game. This season, the change was instant. They have the highest average attendance in the league at 22,244 fans per game. The team had a 300 percent increase in season ticket plans between last season and this season. Now, I'm somewhat of an expert in ticket prices. Since 2003, I have worked for Team Marketing Report, which produces the annual Fan Cost Index, a ticket price survey for the four major sports. In 2006-07, the average season ticket price of the "general" tickets, which comprise about 86 percent of the United Center, was $40.68. This season, the same tickets average out at $52.22. The "premium" tickets, about 14 percent of the capacity, averaged $85.60 in '06-'07 and $114.30 now (The team has announced it won't raise prices next season).
So, you know the Blackhawks are drawing about 10,000 more fans a game, including the suites and clubs and other hubs for the well-moneyed, and you see the prices they charge. So take out your abacus, do some estimating and you can figure out how much the Blackhawks are making now on ticket sales alone. And then you factor in that TV ratings are through the roof, and that advertising at the UC, and on TV and radio, is way, way up, ignoring the financial crisis that has hammered other teams. And after you're done doing that, if your last name is Wirtz, you can feel free to make cash register noises.
Instead of focusing on the bottom line, McDonough said it's best to focus on the improvements on the hockey side.
"The attention doesn't belong on the business side," McDonough said. "What happens on the ice is paramount. ... Chances are we're going to lead the league in attendance. I'd like to see the team lead in wins."
Blackhawks fever began last season with the TV buzz, the hiring of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito as team ambassadors, and the excitement over a young, talented team put together by the organization's unsung hero, Dale Tallon. It was cool to be a Blackhawks fan again. That mood continued in the offseason with the addition of a fan convention and the rehiring of longtime radio man Pat Foley, who was unceremoniously fired in 2006. But when the team got off to a bumpy start in October, the front office (now aided by the legendary Scott Bowman) executed what McDonough called probably the toughest decision he has had to make in his pro sports career: firing fan favorite Denis Savard four games into the season and hiring Joel Quenneville as coach. The players teared up at the news and Burish said a lot of them realized it was time to grow up.
"It was a tough day when Savvy got fired," winger Patrick Kane said. "More than a coach, he was a friend to a lot of guys on the team. But Quenneville has done a good job. He's been in the league 30 years. He has a lot of experience, he's won a ton of games and that's what he brought to a young team. ... I thought the move was appropriate, and it seems to have worked out. You look back and you say it was a good move, it was the right move."
The Blackhawks host Calgary in their playoff opener Thursday night -- their first postseason game since 2002 -- as the fourth seed in the Western Conference. The Hawks won six of their last seven games, and there is a very good chance they'll roll past the brittle Flames and into the second round. And yes, that means a lot more dollars in the team coffers, no matter how they spin it. But it also means more hockey for the fans of a city that cherished the game, had it (essentially) stolen from them, and now have it back again.
"I can't wait," Burish said. "Most of the guys have smiles on their face because they haven't experienced it yet. I know from talking to guys who have been there, that it's a different game, everything's cranked up. Guys say that first game, when you come out, you say, 'Who turned the volume up?' That's what you play for."
Perhaps there is nothing to make fun of about the Blackhawks anymore. And maybe, just maybe, Bill Wirtz is having a laugh about that right now.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com