The Chicago Blackhawks are Back, and So Are Their Fans

In September 2007, “Dollar Bill” Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, died of cancer at 77.

Some owners of Chicago sports teams have been revered, over the years, and deservedly so:  both George Halas, who pretty much invented the NFL, and Bill Veeck, who was probably the most innovative owner in any sport, spring immediately to mind.

But in this case, I’m sure most Hawks fans were really pretty happy. While most of us didn’t know the man, and while I’m pretty sure he didn’t steal lunch money from orphans or beat little old ladies with their canes, he was still a lousy team owner, and that’s all we care about. That’s all we, as fans, should care about.

The legacy of Bill Wirtz, for those who don’t know it, is this: he wasn’t just a bad owner of a hockey club, he was a really, really bad owner of an Original Six NHL franchise with a rabid, loyal, dedicated fan base.  And he nearly destroyed both the team and its fan base with his cheap, controlling, clueless ways.

I’m sure he was a very smart man — you have to be smart to be as rich as he was — but in the history of sports I doubt there was ever a bigger misunderstanding, by one owner, for so long, of the value of P.R. via TV coverage, and the dedication of your own fan base.

But that is all changed now: with his passing, and the welcome leadership of his son, Rocky Wirtz, the team has rekindled the flame of Hawks fans everywhere, by doing all the little things that say “we love our fans”.  Being 25-12-8 at the All-Star break doesn’t hurt, either.

Blackhawks fans are, quite simply, among the most fanatical, dedicated fans in all of sports.

Ask any fan who ever went to a game at the beloved (and since torn down) Chicago Stadium. There was no package of venue and team in all of sports that was more exciting — because it just wouldn’t have been possible.

Going to a Blackhawks game was like a religious experience. The ice was lighted, but not the stands, so the big Blackhawks logo at center ice shone brightly, vividly contrasted by the darkness of the stands.  Visually, it was very dramatic.

After a big goal — or any goal, really — the noise level was unbelievable. It literally shook the building, and your insides, from both the WAAAAAHHHHHH! of the giant pipe organ and the roar of 19,000 screaming fanatics. It sends chills down my back just thinking about it.

And the National Anthem … the fans would start to roar at the beginning, and get louder as it went along, until the place was shaking. Here is Wayne Messmer singing before the 1991 NHL All-Star Game.

You had to see it, and hear it, and FEEL it … to believe it.

On the ice, they had exciting and charismatic players like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Keith Magnuson, Pit Martin, Denis Savard, Jeremy Roenick, Al Secord, Steve Larmer, Doug Wilson, and many others.  They went deep in the playoffs many times, including to the Cup Finals in ’71 ’73 and ’92, and should have won at least one of those years.  They made it to the conference finals 5 times in the 80s.

It is simply inconceivable that with this set of circumstances, putting the home games on TV would have done anything but grow the fan base, instead of shrink it.

But Wirtz refused to televise home games, under the delusion that season ticket holders would stop buying tickets. He maintained this obstinate pose for decades, in spite of lots of compelling evidence to the contrary. Consider the irony: the Bulls, sharing both a stadium and a sports season with the Blackhawks every single year, sold out something like 1200 games in a row during the Jordan years, even while all the games were on TV.

  • Every Bulls home game: TV
  • Every Blackhawks home game: NOT ON TV
  • Number of Bulls championships during the Jordan era:  SIX
  • Number of Hawks championships since 1961:  ZERO

Hmmmm. Seems like putting the games on TV doesn’t always prevent championships and suppress attendance.

The list of all the ways Wirtz annoyed the fan base is too big to go into here.  Let’s just say he chased good players out of town because he thought spending on franchise players was a cost rather than an investment.  And he was not a good judge of quality front office people; he hired Bob Pulford for the G.M. job whenever the urge struck, it seemed.  Gee, if he wasn’t any good at it last time, ya think maybe he sucks at that job?

And so in recent years, after decades of dealing with him as owner, and seeing a team that was clearly not built to compete in the late 90s and up until last season, the fan base just kind of dissipated.  For about 10 years now, the Blackhawks have mostly stunk — see Bob Pulford, above — and have missed the playoffs every year since the 96-97 season, except for one (01-02). In the NHL, that is quite an accomplishment.

So after Dollar Bill died, his son, Rocky Wirtz, took over the reins, and immediately proceeded to push Pulford out of the way, hire legendary former coach and GM Scotty Bowman as a consultant, and hire marketing wiz John McDonough away from the Cubs to improve that part of the operation.  And that was just the beginning.

They successfully lobbied the NHL to award them this years Winter Classic.  They moved to WGN radio (AM-720), which has a “clear channel” signal, big ratings, and is the legendary home of the Cubs as well.

And this year, they are currently fourth in the Western Conference, and on pace to get home ice in the playoffs.  Expectations have been raised significantly.

This year, every Hawks home game is on TV, and guess what?  They lead the league in attendance.  The fans are back, in a big way.

And even though the United Center is nothing like the old Stadium, the anthem still kicks serious ass.

So for old time fans like me, who remember how great it was back in the day to be a Hawks fan, it is a beautiful thing to see.  I used to watch games on TV with my Dad, and he took me to a few, too.  Hockey was one of his favorite sports, and so it became one of mine. And now I’ve got all 3 of my sons interested in it, too.  And that wouldn’t be happening if the old ownership was still in place.

(also posted in an edited form at TheLoveofSports.com)

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