On a national scale, any Kentucky Derby is advertised as “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” although locally, frustrated hockey fans used the appellation for Alexander Karpovtsev’s occasional forays from blue line to blue line.
Now this term might as well be attached to W. Rockwell Wirtz, who took over the Blackhawks in October, 2007. He could have been excused for requesting patience and understanding while he evaluated a struggling franchise. Instead, Rocky embarked on a hurry-up drill that would be the envy of Secretariat, Joe Montana or any executive entrusted with fixing a family heirloom in dire need of repairs.
During the winter of 2004, ESPN magazine ranked organizations in North America’s four major leagues, and the Blackhawks finished last. Upon learning that, one member of the squad wisecracked, “We’re No. 120? That might be a little high.” The publication’s brief critique contained unflattering phrases and words such as “insane business model” and “chaos,” just to cite a couple reasons why the Blackhawks underwhelmed even the Arizona Cardinals, who were No. 119 if you’re scoring at home.
Not long after, the Tribune, Chicago’s largest daily, opted to save space by dropping all National Hockey League game summaries, except for the Blackhawks’, from its scoreboard page. A newspaper’s mission is no to generate public interest, but reflect it, and the sports editor at the time was merely doing his job. “I think we did it for two seasons,” recalled Dan McGrath. “We got only a few calls to complain. Very few.”
One of Rocky’s first moves was to contact John McDonough, who, for all his years in the front office with the Cubs, turned out to be a kindred soul. He stressed the importance of lifting the blackout of home games on TV and reaching out to disenfranchised former players, of whom there were many. To quote from ESPN magazine again, “(Bobby) Hull and (Stan) Mikita are so embittered…they want nothing to do with the franchise.”
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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McDonough, upon being installed as president, likened the situation to assuming the reins of an expansion team. He should have been so lucky. Expansion teams are famously and routinely blessed by captive audiences, anxious new fans in a new city. Apathy and anger are non-factors. McDonough’s task was to resurrect hockey’s days of glory in Chicago, or at the very least, days of relevance. He was wise enough to remember when the Blackhawks arguably were the No. 1 team in town, and the hottest ticket.
When every game night at the Stadium was a happening, the Blackhawks were it. The Bulls did not arrive until 1966, after multiple failures of the NBA to gain traction in Chicago. Three years later, the Bears went 1-13 with Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. The Cubs routinely sealed off the upper deck on weekdays. In 1961, when the Blackhawks won their last Stanley Cup, the Cubs drew 673,057 for an entire season. Take 16,666—the conventional attendance figure for capacity at the Stadium—multiply that by 35 regular season games, plus six playoffs and you get 683,306. I rest my case, without need to cite huge TV ratings for Blackhawks’ road telecasts on Channel 9.
Soon after being shown his desk, McDonough reached out to Hull, who left the Blackhawks for the Winnipeg Jets of the rival World Hockey Association in 1972 in what Rocky’s dad, Bill, valiantly admitted later was the worst mistake in franchise history. In a conversation McDonough characterized as “one way…I practiced my listening skills,” Hull explained why he felt unwelcome by the franchise he helped make famous and rich. McDonough stressed the new mantra: “We’re out of the grudge business.” Hull did not immediately commit. What if he passed on the peace offer? “I wouldn’t have taken no for an answer,” said McDonough. Period.
In the not so distant past, the Blackhawks refrained from marketing the product, a belief common within the NHL. If you were interested in obtaining hockey tickets, their radio ad provided the main switchboard number at the Stadium along with instructions to “Call Mildred.” Now, in concert with Jay Blunk, senior vice president of business operations—who had joined McDonough in growing Cub fever and revenue—the Blackhawks possess a sales and promotion force that contributed mightily to Forbes magazine’s designation in 2009 as “the greatest sports-business turnaround ever.”
The average age of the Blackhawks’ front office is 31—a mathematical improbability considering the hiring of present company. (If you are young and enthusiastic and fresh out of college, you are not appointed team historian.) Many of McDonough’s employees never have seen an empty seat at the United Center, and also might buy the myth that the Stadium was always full—two points of interest he stresses, lest staff members imagine the good times will roll forever. He knows better, so must they.
But if and when the team does not win conference titles, the culture and attitude among non-uniformed personnel is not likely to change. That embraces the essence of culture change.
When the Blackhawks open the Stanley Cup final against the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday night at the United Center, Hull and Mikita will be there, as will Tony Esposito and Denis Savard, Hall of Fame ambassadors all. They will be cheered at every turn, as will the players on the ice, because the Blackhawks, beyond being successful in skates, have become likeable again.
Bill Wirtz always said owners are not meant to be embraced, but listen to the crowd when his son’s mug is shown on the jumbotron. If you had presented this script about the fast-forward renaissance of an Original Six franchise for a movie, you would have been rejected. Can’t happen. Not believable.
But Rocky Wirtz thought otherwise. Remember his first initial: W.