Irrelevance to Prominence: The Revival of the Blackhawks Franchise

 

In the 2013-14 season, the Chicago Blackhawks have once again positioned themselves as a major power in the Western Conference. The team’s local popularity has seen an expeditious rise in recent years, and the competitive makeup of the roster all but assures the perpetuation of that trend.

Naturally, then, Chicago hockey fans are quite content. The mindset of a typical hockey fan, after all, is decidedly present-centric. They experience immediate gratification and instantaneous disappointment in every fight, hit, goal, win, and loss. Present events understandably dominate thought patterns; that which is immediate in the environment is inevitably immediate in the mind.

It is sometimes difficult, then, to remember what preceded this current era of Blackhawks prosperity. Difficult to genuinely recall the experience of cheering on a team with a transcendently atrocious amalgam of management and player personnel. Difficult to recollect that the aforementioned natural inclination to think contemporarily – a habit that inspires so much happiness in today’s Blackhawks fans – used to inspire in them unmitigated misery.

Hockey is, literally speaking, no more than a game. But as with any sport, it means much more to its fans. The emotional ride of NHL fandom can offer nearly boundless satisfaction just as easily as persistent gloom. Fans revel in the electricity of every win and stew in the irritation of every loss, always believing there is some chance at their team winning the Stanley Cup… until there isn’t.
This emotional continuum is, in its essence, what makes fandom so rewarding. Every relative low has a matching relative high.
Seven seasons ago, the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, and Chicago Blackhawks were among the worst teams in the NHL. The three franchises combined championship drought totaled an absurd 121 years at the time.
They have combined for four Stanley Cups since.

Chicago has two of those four, and has also – figuratively speaking – traveled the furthest, metamorphosing from an outright embarrassment into a near dynasty. In the Blackhawks’ plunge into organizational disaster and subsequent return to notoriety, then, we have the quintessential case study in fan and organizational dynamics. Beginning with the organization’s nadir in 2004, let us take a detailed look at how a once-proud franchise ultimately became proud again.

 

Rock Bottom: Blackhawks Named Worst Franchise In Professional Sports

In February of 2004, an ESPN report ranked the Blackhawks as the single worst franchise in North American sports (as measured by a mixture of several major parameters). At the time, Chicago was in the midst of an absolutely ghastly season in which the team would eventually compile only 20 wins and 59 points in 82 games.

The ESPN piece, of course, was not in itself a problem for the Blackhawks; rather, it was simply representative of the numerous colossal systemic issues plaguing the organization. These problems reaching an effective critical mass (embodied in the form of the ESPN report) constitutes the lowest point of the darkest period in Blackhawks history.
So what were these issues, exactly?

 

Issue #1: Bill Wirtz’s Abortive Policies As Blackhawks Owner

Bill Wirtz, unceremoniously nicknamed “Dollar Bill” by fans due to his stingy nature in hockey-related matters, was almost inarguably the single largest contributor to the Blackhawks’ slide into utter irrelevance. Wirtz’s frugality was a constant across his 41 years of presiding over the organization, and was the chief reason behind the steady defection of star Blackhawks players during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The team generally remained competitive despite Wirtz’s penchant to pinch pennies, but such practices inescapably result in a dearth of roster talent – it is simply a matter of when, not if. This was hardly more apparent than in 2004, when the Blackhawks produced the aforestated 59 point season. The average payroll among NHL teams that year was $44,400,490, but the Blackhawks clocked in at a comparatively minuscule $30,867,502.

Wirtz is perhaps most infamous for his seemingly archaic refusal to allow local broadcasts of Blackhawks home games. His reasoning, as told by Chicago Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf: “Bill Wirtz truly believed that it was unfair to the season ticket-holders to give away the home games on TV for free.” Put differently, Wirtz believed televising Blackhawks home games was an insult to fans who consistently paid to attend them live. There was speculation that Wirtz may have also believed that making home games unavailable on television would increase live attendance, a belief that – if actually held – drastically contradicted the Blackhawks’ floundering attendance numbers in the early 2000s.
This was likely the most destructive of Wirtz’s policies, as it concurrently severely limited Blackhawks exposure in the written and electronic media and alienated current and potential fans.

Bill Wirtz is widely regarded as the second worst owner in hockey history behind only the disreputable Harold Ballard. His combination of penny-pinching and willing determent of local Blackhawks coverage elicited an unparalleled vitriol in the team’s fans, culminating in fans booing his pre-game memorial following his death in 2007 – one of the most distasteful moments in Chicago sports history (0:15).

 

Issue #2: Declining Fan Interest and Attendance at Blackhawks Home Games

As established, the Blackhawks’ popularity was in a declivitous decline during the dreadful 2003-04 season. At year’s end, the average attendance figure was 13,253 – the franchise’s lowest in more than two decades. Around this time, it was estimated that there were only 5,000 season ticket holders, and the Chicago Tribune no longer bothered to assign a beat writer to Blackhawks road games. A home game against the Florida Panthers on February 29th, 2004 drew less fans than a Chicago Wolves (AHL) home game that same night. The prevailing attitude towards the team was one of apathy, having moved on from despondence and acrimony. Among team supporters, the Wirtz name had been synonymous with melancholy for years, but it lost even this undesirable sentiment as Chicago hockey fandom continued to wither away. People no longer cared.

 

Issue #3: Blackhawks Player Personnel

Longtime fans will undoubtedly remember the “ABC” line, trumpeted in 2004 as three-fourths of the future of the organization. The nickname was drawn from the last names of the line’s three members: Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell, and Kyle Calder. True to the adage “someone has to score,” the three each put together respectable seasons in 2003-04. The “real” merit of these players, if you will, is manifested in their lack of accomplishment after leaving the Blackhawks for more credible NHL organizations.

Tyler Arnason had a wildly unpopular few years in Colorado after a brief, unsuccessful stint with the Ottawa Senators, and earned a reputation as an exceedingly lazy player. He had only one reasonably productive year after departing Chicago, notching 49 points in 2006-07.

Mark Bell has not eclipsed the 30-point mark with any other NHL team since being traded in 2006. He also ran into legal trouble subsequent to the trade, including a hit and run and DUI. Bell has played 5 NHL games in the last 6 years.

Kyle Calder – generally the most well-liked by Blackhawks fans of the three players during their tenures on the roster – was traded soon after Bell. His single-season high for goals after leaving Chicago was 9, and he has not played an NHL game since December of 2009.

You may have noticed that I referred to the above trio as “three-fourths” of what was in 2004 labeled the future of the Blackhawks. The fourth player, Tuomo Ruutu, is the most recognizable of the bunch.

Tuomo Ruutu, Wirtz Blackhawks

Drafted 9th overall by Chicago in 2001, Tuomo Ruutu has been a member of the Carolina Hurricanes since 2008 (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

Blackhawks fans were (understandably) starved for positivity, and the natural byproduct of this was to vastly overhype the team’s prospects. To Ruutu’s credit, he deserved a substantial share of that hype; he was widely believed to be the best player not in the NHL in the years immediately prior to joining the Blackhawks. Chicago’s otherwise horrific 2003-04 season found its lone bright spot in Ruutu, who led the team in goals as a rookie with 23. That he went on to do this in the World Cup of Hockey the following summer only drove Blackhawks fans’ hopes higher:

Unfortunately, Ruutu’s development stalled, and his 23-goal, 44-point rookie season would prove to be his most productive year in Chicago. Lofty expectations served to make this disappointment only more acute, and while Ruutu went on to have several strong seasons in Carolina, he never quite amounted to what even the more reasonable fans projected. Setbacks like this were (regrettably) par for the course regarding player personnel for the Wirtz-led Blackhawks of the 2000s. A poisonous blend of routine failed draft picks, stinginess, and the established negative reputation of the franchise (largely attributable to Wirtz) was responsible for the ’03-04 roster – a team that may well have been the most talent-scarce in franchise history.

 

The Blackhawks’ Nadir: A Summary

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Blackhawks chanced into enough cheap, high-end talent to keep the team competitive despite Bill Wirtz’s aversion to significant spending. Further, the absence of televised home games in Chicagoland was not considered particularly odd, as a number of other NHL teams still employed the practice (albeit not for the same reason as Wirtz). The team was moderately successful, and while there was some grumbling among fans, it was almost inaudible.

The late 90s and early 2000s, however, saw a reversal in fortune. Sans (flukey) 2001-02, the Blackhawks entered a swift and arduous decline. Bill Wirtz’s deleterious policies, plummeting attendance and fan interest, and talent-anemic player personnel rapidly evolved into massive impediments to organizational success.

If Chicago’s downward spiral of the early 2000s was a precipitous freefall, then the 2003-04 season was the calamitous crash. The franchise was in ruins, never having been less successful on the ice or less popular off it.

 

Blackhawks’ Gradual Escape From the NHL Cellar

While the franchise made far more blunders than good moves during the aforementioned freefall, several positive events were actually put into motion before the miserable 2003-04 campaign. While they did not make an appreciable immediate difference, two organizational moves – draft picks, to be precise – stand out as rather brilliant in retrospect.

 

The Blackhawks Draft An Elite Defensive Pairing

First was Duncan Keith, taken 54th overall in 2002.

Duncan Keith Blackhawks Wirtz

Keith has developed into one of the league’s best defenseman, winning the Norris Trophy in 2010 and the favorite to do so again in 2014 (Icon SMI)

 

A tremendous value at 54th overall, Keith has been one of the best players on the present-day Blackhawks roster for more than half a decade. As mentioned, drafting him did not pay immediate dividends; indeed, Keith’s first NHL game occurred more than three years after he was drafted. His previously latent ability finally emerged in the 2007-08 season, and he has become one of the best players in hockey.

Keith’s prospective defensive partner was drafted a year later at #14 overall.

Brent Seabrook Blackhawks Wirtz

Brent Seabrook supplies a tremendous mix of physical play, offensive ability, and defensive excellence (Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE)

 

Seabrook was one of many great players selected in what was arguably the best draft in league history. Like Keith, he played his first NHL game in 2005-06. His rookie year was extremely promising, as he amassed 32 points in just 69 games and somewhat miraculously managed to be a +5 on a Blackhawks team that ended the year with a hideous -74 goal differential. Seabrook has since grown into a high-quality first pairing defenseman.

With two eventual franchise cornerstones banked, the Blackhawks nevertheless had plenty of maneuvering left to do. The disastrous 2003-04 season saw Chicago wind up with the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 draft, as Washington had won the draft lottery and thus  shunted Chicago back a spot from 2nd to 3rd. The result was Cam Barker, who proved to be a monumental disappointment… as per the now well-established norm of the Bill Wirtz era. The Blackhawks selected Jack Skille seventh overall in 2005, and in doing so continued their trend of failure early in drafts.

The lack of noteworthy early draft success (outside of Keith and Seabrook) would thankfully end there.

 

The 2005 Blackhawks Offseason: Positive Steps

In the summer of 2005,  two definitively positive steps were taken by Blackhawks management – truly a rare sight at the time for an organization that had constantly been getting in its own way for years.

When the curtains finally fell on the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season, the Blackhawks were in every bit as precarious a position as they had been in disastrous 2003-04. The roster was utterly devoid of high-end talent, and the entirely unremarkable trio of Arnason, Bell, and Calder were still considered franchise players. There was no reason to think that team management would have a change of heart and decide to spend in free agency for the first time in relative eons… but that is precisely what transpired.

Nikolai Khabibulin Blackhawks Wirtz

Nikolai Khabibulin played several seasons for the Blackhawks. He joined the roster in 2005, left in 2009 for a stint with Edmonton, and returned to Chicago in 2013 (Icon SMI)

 

Chicago signed Khabibulin to a contemporarily monstrous 4 year, 27 million dollar contract in the summer of 2005, making him the highest paid goaltender in the NHL. Coming off a Stanley Cup win and having a reputation as one of the league’s best goaltenders, Khabibulin was the highest-profile free agent signed by the Blackhawks in as many years as anyone could remember.

Despite his past pedigree, Khabibulin had an appalling first season in Chicago to the tune of 50 games, an 88.6% save percentage, and a goals against average of 3.35. While he was cut some slack due to the still woefully deficient team playing in front of him, those numbers were nonetheless quite horrid.

Of course, it is not Khabibulin’s play on the ice that indicated winds of change for the Blackhawks franchise; his performance in Chicago was actually rather inadequate for every season other than 2008-09.

No. What brought hope to Blackhawks fans was the simple fact that Bill Wirtz had finally shown alacrity in the free agent market. Fans were reasonable – nobody expected Chicago to suddenly be an annually high-spending team. Still, they dreamed for a day when the team residing in the league’s third-largest market would spend like it was in the third-largest market.

Khabibulin was the biggest name to come to Chicago that summer, but the Blackhawks also agreed to terms that offseason with one of 2005 free agency’s better defensemen: Adrian Aucoin.

Adrian Aucoin Blackhawks Wirtz

Adrian Aucoin played two seasons in Chicago, then split the next six between Calgary, Phoenix, and Columbus (Warren Wimmer/Icon SMI)

 

Aucoin – like Khabibulin – is not listed here because of his on-ice contributions. Indeed, he quickly became a lightning rod for criticism in Chicago due to frequent injuries  and (in the eyes of fans) being an ill fit as team captain. Again, it is most prudent to look at the bigger picture. Signed to a 4 year, 16 million dollar contract, Aucoin – once again comparable to Khabibulin – exemplified the apparent newfound willingness of Bill Wirtz to genuinely invest in the Blackhawks.

The Khabibulin and Aucoin signings were preceded by the hiring of Dale Tallon to serve as general manager. Tallon is often berated by today’s Blackhawks fans for being a little too improvident with the organizational checkbook (rightly so, perhaps, but a problem Blackhawks fans are grateful to even have had!) and did not draft well with Chicago aside from two  lottery picks. Notwithstanding the negatives, we will see that Tallon had an emphatically positive role in the franchise’s resurgence.

 

2005-06 and 2006-07 Seasons: Blackhawks Trades, Draft Picks, and Small Steps Forward

In a vacuum, Chicago’s 2005-06 season was no better than the fiasco in 2003-04. But the fact that the team had actually been active in free agency and the noticeable “there’s something new here” aura surrounding the on-ice product – even if it was still terrible – helped make the 2005 campaign less painful than its predecessor.

I mentioned that Dale Tallon would make his mark. The first of his several cogent moves as GM occurred on December 5th, 2005, when he traded Matt Ellison (who played 7 total NHL games after the trade) and a third round pick for a young, struggling player named Patrick Sharp.

Patrick Sharp Blackhawks Wirtz

Sharp has scored more than 210 goals and 440 points as a member of the Blackhawks.

 

Sharp would go on to play a fairly unremarkable 50 games with Chicago in 2005-06. His importance to Chicago’s revival would not be immediately apparent; there were noticeable gaps in his game, and he needed time to fill them.

The season itself was another dud, as the Blackhawks finished 26-43-13 for 65 points. As with previous years, the organization would once again be picking early in the NHL’s annual June draft – third overall, just as in 2004.

Unlike previous years, however, Chicago finally struck gold.

In Jonathan Toews – viewed today as the consensus first overall pick in his draft if it were to be re-done – the Blackhawks found one of their two faces of the franchise. Projected as a safe bet to become a high-echelon #1 center, Toews was Chicago’s most talented prospect in many years.

Toews and the Blackhawks mutually decided that he should remain at the University of North Dakota for another year to continue augmenting his game. Chicago fans would have to wait another year to see their future captain in NHL action, but in the meantime, Dale Tallon was working the trade machine once again.

In July of 2006, a three-team deal between Ottawa, San Jose, and Chicago led to the departure of Mark Bell and the addition of Martin Havlat to the Blackhawks roster. For the second offseason in a row, the team had made a vociferous offseason splash. In doing so, the organization acquired in Havlat the most exciting player in the previous 8 or 9 years to call the United Center home.

Martin Havlat Blackhawks Wirtz

Martin Havlat put up 161 points in 172 games with Chicago (photo property of Flickr user Smeado)

 

The 2006-07 season started off on an auspicious note, with the Blackhawks sitting at a surprising 4-2 after 6 games. The duo of Havlat and newly-acquired Michal Handzus was proving to be equally successful and entertaining, with the Blackhawks having piled up 25 goals as a team in those first 6 games.

The train fell off the rails in the seventh game of the season in Dallas, however, as a high ankle sprain would sideline Havlat for a month and a half. The next night, Handzus tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Chicago fans were given a tiny taste of winning hockey, but injuries ripped it away from them before they could get comfortable. The ’06-07 season was thus lost… and this would rather paradoxically turn out to be a blessing.

Ending the year as the NHL’s fifth-worst team, the Blackhawks had an 8.1% chance to win the draft lottery and obtain the first overall pick.

The rest, as they say, was history.

Some called winning the draft lottery and nabbing Patrick Kane “dumb luck.” Others called it fair recompense for ending up with Cam Barker after Washington’s lottery luck saw them leapfrog Chicago in the draft in 2003. Whatever the label, the Blackhawks had found their other franchise face.

 

The 2007 Blackhawks Offseason: Prospects Camp

Patrick Kane was hyped up immensely following the draft, and fans were chattering excitedly over every one of his notable moments at the team’s July prospect camp.

 

Jonathan Toews was not left off the hype train.

The 2007 offseason was all about prospects camp. Toews and Kane were expected to make the Blackhawks roster, and there was a distinct but unfamiliar optimism in the air. Many felt that optimism regarding the team’s direction was false hope and would inevitably lead to disappointment, but they could not help themselves. For the first time in many years, Chicago hockey appeared primed to be exciting again.

There were still problems, of course. I myself remember grumbling about how I would not get to see half of Kane and Toews’ games due to Bill Wirtz’s home game policy. In this sense, the enthusiasm that the remaining Blackhawks fans felt due to the team’s incoming young talent inexorably produced frustration.

The prospects camp passed by. Chicago was projected by most to be a fringe playoff team in 2007-08, more likely to be on the outside of the West’s top-8 than inside. The summer transpired fairly unremarkably, and fans were hungry for the season to start. Then…

 

Blackhawks’ Owner Bill Wirtz Dies At Age 77

Wirtz quietly succumbed to cancer on September 26th, 2007, passing ownership of the team onto his son Peter. For reasons unknown, Peter immediately handed the reigns over to his brother, William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz. It is difficult to predict where Peter might have taken the franchise, but Rocky has been the equivalent of a godsend for the Blackhawks organization.

 

2007-08 Season: Blackhawks Take Large Step Forward

Toews and Kane – the centerpieces of the team’s ’07-08 season – did not disappoint.

Toews began his career by registering at least a point in each of his first 10 games, the second-longest such streak in NHL history.

 

Patrick Kane, meanwhile, did not start off quite as hot as Toews, but his offensive skills impressed mightily; Kane’s vision and puck handling were clearly second to none. The latter was on display in Chicago’s home opener against their hated rivals from Detroit. Pay special attention to what Ken Daniels says 30 seconds in.

“You’re watching the future of the Chicago Blackhawks right there.”

Kane would win the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) for his performance in 2007-08.

Opposing team’s broadcasters constantly showered the young Blackhawks with praise, including Colorado’s play-by-play man, Mike Haynes. Infamous for calling goals against the Avalanche in a muted, depressed monotone, he couldn’t contain himself here:

Peter McNab, the Avalanche’s color commentator (0:29, above): “This is the kind of talent, Mike, that can bring a franchise back from dead.”

The Blackhawks would go on to miss the ’07-08 playoffs by a few points.

The fans hardly minded.

 

Blackhawks Management Policy Changes

Early in the 2007 season, Rocky Wirtz hired well-known marketing savant John McDonough to serve as the team’s president.

Then, of course, there was this. At the last minute, Wirtz was able to get a handful of ’07-08 Blackhawks home games on television.

The message was clear. Beginning the following season (2008-09), all home games would be televised. Already, Rocky was proving to Blackhawks fans that he was not the same man as his father.

As for 2007-08, attendance spiked midseason. There was a burgeoning interest among Chicagoans in the flashy, lively young team with the new owner and team president.

Hockey in Chicago was on the rise.

 

Great Leap Forward: Blackhawks Revival Comes Full Circle

Dale Tallon made several more key moves, bringing in Brian Campbell in the 2008 offseason and Marian Hossa a year later.

We all remember the events from this point forward. They are, I’d contend, best communicated via video.

2008-09 saw the team break its lengthy playoff drought in style, finishing 4th in the Western Conference and providing a slew of memorable postseason moments.

In 2009-10, meanwhile, the Blackhawks took things a step further.

The franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961 induced a summer-long party in Chicago, the once-dying Blackhawks now the pride of the city. A team that previously had difficulty filling half the stadium now played in front of crowds that made setting attendance records a matter of blasé routine.

In the 2013 season, Chicago played half of the lockout-shortened season without losing a game in regulation. In the spring and summer, the Blackhawks once again took their fans on the ultimate playoff ride.

Brent Seabrook’s overtime goal ended an emotional Game 7 and completed a series comeback against Detroit.

Patrick Kane sent the Blackhawks to the Cup Final with another playoff hat trick.

And, of course… 17 seconds.

In the last four seasons, we have been privy to the best extended stretch of Blackhawks hockey in the franchise’s 88 year history. The frustration of the past has been comprehensively replaced by the grandeur of the present.

A franchise once hated, now adored.

A once-floundering organization, now flourishing. Once forgotten, now celebrated.

Matters once seemed so hopeless. Disastrous ownership put a disastrous product on the ice year after year in front of a waning fanbase whose hope gradually transformed into thorough indifference.

But things have changed. Fans now pack the UC each and every game, having renewed the love affair between a team and its city that lay dormant for so long.

There is a plaque on the north side of the United Center that reads “Remember the Roar,” referencing the demolished Chicago Stadium.

Recently, I’ve come to realize that the plaque’s message doesn’t make sense.

We don’t need to remember the roar.

We’re living it.

Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu

Sean Sarcu

Sean Sarcu

Sean covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers and Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @seansarcu.
Sean Sarcu

3 Comments

  1. Michael Steele says:

    Extremely well written and it brought me right back on the roller coaster that is the Chicago Blackhawks. Thanks for this outstanding article

  2. I remember Peter McNab’s comment when he made it. He was spot-on.

  3. Nice article, but…holy crap, go easy on the thesaurus. We get it, you’re erudite.

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