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Struggling Chicago Blackhawks losing games, fans

NHL.com @NHL

CHICAGO (AP) -All around the cavernous United Center is a sea of red seats, thousands of them empty as the Chicago Blackhawks skate through their pregame warmups on a chilly March night.

Across the street, on what's now a parking lot, the Chicago Stadium once rocked for hockey, a venerable and deafening venue where Bobby Hull used to shoot pucks at dizzying speeds and the sport was one of the city's most popular.

Now the crowd noise is subdued - no chance of drowning out the singing of the national anthem, a ritual at Blackhawks games through the years. For a game with the Colorado Avalanche, the announced attendance is 10,522 in the 20,500-seat arena. There's plenty of leg room, and flagging a vendor is no problem.

"Obviously, we would much rather play in front of 20,000 people rather than 10,000 or 11,000, but that's the way it is now. You have to work with what you've got," said veteran wing Martin Lapointe.

The retired numbers of Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall and Denis Savard - now the team's coach - hang high above the ice. There are other banners, too, touting the many successful seasons for this proud franchise.

One stands out: The Stanley Cup in 1961, the last time the Blackhawks won the championship.

Chicago, which has lost stars including Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios in recent years, will miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons.

The club signed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million contract before last season - a club record - and rewarded scorer Martin Havlat with a three-year, $18 million contract.

But neither deal elevated the Blackhawks to contender status. Nor have they re-established their popularity in a city where the White Sox won the World Series two years ago and the Bears were in the Super Bowl this past season.

Many fans blame owner William Wirtz for allowing too many good players to leave over the years, and for his refusal to televise most home games. Some even have started an anti-Wirtz Web site.

Wirtz, whose family bought the team in 1954 and whose financial empire includes liquor and real estate businesses, told reporters during a news conference to announce Havlat's acquisition last summer that the Blackhawks lost $19 million the first season after the 2004-05 lockout. He projected the team would probably lose another $20 million this season.

"Off for a year, I think $19 (million loss) is good," Wirtz said at the time.

Through a team spokesman, Wirtz declined to respond to e-mail questions from The Associated Press about the Blackhawks' future. Senior vice president Bob Pulford, who's been with the team for 30 years, including stints as coach and general manager, also declined comment.

Under Pulford's leadership, the Blackhawks once made 20 straight playoff appearances and won eight division titles. But since moving to the United Center 12 years ago, Chicago has made just four playoff appearances - only two since 1997. The Blackhawks haven't played in the Stanley Cup finals in 15 years.

General manager Dale Tallon likes the mix of young and old he's been able to develop in little more than two years on the job. He's also changed coaches twice and now has the team under the leadership of Savard, a Hall of Famer and one of the most popular players in team history.

"You know, who knows?" Tallon said of a turnaround. "But I'm very hopeful it's very soon. We're very excited about the way this is going on, and we're trying to get better every day."

Through the middle of March, Chicago had 61 points. Only Phoenix and Los Angeles had fewer in the Western Conference. Tallon said he expects the Blackhawks to have a shot at the playoffs next year, but he knows the reality of his situation.

"If we don't win, then sayonara," he said.

Kurt Kalapach, a 39-year-old season-ticket holder from nearby Hammond, Ind., sits high in the upper level, where he can stand up without blocking anyone's view and stretch his legs.

"I like it up here. I can see all my friends, at least the ones who are left," he said. "It's unfortunate, but that's what happens when you miss the playoffs as long as they have. You have to win for people to come out. ... You can change coaches as many times as you want, but leadership stems from the top."

He wonders why Wirtz won't televise home games, though a handful have been shown from the United Center this season.

"How do you sell a product if no one can see it?" Kalapach asked.

According to the NHL, four of the league's original six members - the Montreal Canadiens (21,273 fans per game), Toronto Maple Leafs (at least 19,400), Detroit Red Wings (20,066) and New York Rangers (18,200) - have announced sellouts for each home game this season. The Boston Bruins are averaging 14,423 and the Blackhawks 12,772.

Vacant seats are obvious to the players.

"I would be lying if I (didn't) say I don't like when it's empty," said Tuomo Ruutu, the team's first-round pick in 2001. "When it's crowded and it's loud of course everybody likes it. I think it just brings emotion naturally. But we have to play better. We have to earn them back."

Chicago's power play has been near the bottom of the league the last two years. Khabibulin, hampered by injuries last season as Havlat has been this year, recently recorded his first shutout in his 99th game with the Blackhawks. He had 35 when he came to Chicago at the beginning of last season.

"Coming from a place where we had sellouts, it's hard," said Khabibulin, who helped Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup in 2004. "We know that we have to play better for fans to come back, especially when we're playing at home. We need to have consistent effort and win some games. I hope the fans will come back and the house will be loud."

Savard pledged earlier this season that he won't let himself get down because of the run of poor hockey in yet another miserable season for one of the NHL's original franchises.

"A great jersey, a great franchise and I'm going to keep pushing guys in the right direction," he vowed. "Do the best I can. I'm not giving up. That's for sure."

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