June 13, 2010

How two years of goodness undid five decades of harm

Blog, I know very few of our readers are hockey fans, but I think we can still make this post relatable to those who are not.  I just want to tell the interesting story of one sports franchise and its fans, because it's a story in which good triumphs over bad in a very special way...not an unfitting theme for a romance author like myself.  So I hope you all will read on.

It's doubtful you know the back story of the Chicago Blackhawks, so I'll give it to you in a nutshell.  They won their last Stanley Cup Championship in 1961 (six days after my husband, a life-long fan, was born).  Those were the glory days when Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, names all Canadians and even a lot of Americans know, wore the Indian Head sweater.  As one of the Original Six NHL teams, The Blackhawks had much to be proud of, and during that time they were truly great.

Unfortunately, the owner of the team, Bill Wirtz, would make many critical mistakes in the 46 years to follow.  In 2002 ESPN would name him the third greediest owner in sports.  He alienated Hull and Mikita, and other beloved players like Tony Esposito and Denis Savard, in the process tarnishing the heritage of the team.  And he refused to televise home games, so that Chicagoans might see their team play on home ice.

When I met Davie in 1992 and was exposed to Blackhawk hockey, I could not help but become an instant fan.  It helped that the team had once again become good, with stars like Ed Belfour, Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick (the NBC analyst who cried after the Cup win last Wednesday night).  The team was a joy to watch.  Unfortunately, management once again made poor decisions:  J.R. was traded to Phoenix, Ed Belfour was not resigned, and Chris Chelios, a Chicago local who was both captain and the face of the Hawks, was traded to arch-rival Detroit.  Pat Foley, "the voice of the Blackhawks" on radio for 25 years, was fired.  The team was in a severe decline, to the point that in 2004 ESPN called it the worst franchise in sports.

But by then, Davie and I had bailed as Hawks fans.  And we weren't the only ones.  Frustrated by the poor management and its disinterest in the fans, people who loved this team couldn't bear to watch anymore what Bill Wirtz and company were doing to it.  Almost to a (wo)man, every Blackhawk fan had the same thought:  there was no hope for the team as long as Wirtz owned it.

On September 26, 2007, Bill Wirtz died, and the reins of the Chicago Blackhawks passed to his son, Rocky.  Within a month, negotiations were underway to televise home games.  Davie and I watched with interest, amazed to see changes happening so soon.  Rocky also reached out to make Hull and Mikita "ambassadors" for the team, and worked to restore the pride of the fans.  Denis Savard came back as head coach.  Pat Foley returned as the Hawks' TV play-by-play announcer.  Management changes long desired by Hawks fans were made quickly, and smarter personnel decisions started to affect the quality of the team's play.

The Hawks had missed the playoffs (which in hockey means being in the bottom half of the standings) for six straight years, but in the following season they were good enough to make it to the Western Conference Finals (third of four rounds).  That was just last year, Blog.  It only took them one more year to become Stanley Cup Champions.

The media has made a pretty big deal of the fact that that Hawks were suffering the longest championship draught in the NHL at 49 years.  But what non-fans don't know is the depth of misery Blackhawk fans had endured.  Older and younger fans alike had watched favorite players dispatched, and the team they loved sink into such neglect that even winning seasons seemed hopeless.  A Stanley Cup?  How could we ever hope to see that trophy in Chicago again?

Who could have dreamed that two and a half years would be enough time to transform this team from despair to the NHL champions?  Back in 2007 when the stands were full of empty seats, no one could watch the famous "cheering anthem" on TV, and the story on the ice was pathetic, who would have imagined the team we watched this year?  I've watched a lot of hockey, Blog, and even the Red Wings didn't skate and pass like this Hawks team.  Who are these guys and how can it be that they're wearing Hawks jerseys?

So now you may understand better why we are so overwhelmed by this.  We spent all day Thursday listening to radio coverage, half the day Friday enjoying the parade and rally and then celebrating with our family, and yesterday making a pilgrimage from Milwaukee over the Illinois border to snag some Cup swag.  We'll be partying about it all summer as the Cup enjoys its day with each member of the organization, one by one, until next fall when we watch the 2010 Stanley Cup banner join its (very) elder brothers in the rafters of the United Center.

In fact, Blog, we'll probably party about it all next year.

I close with this awesome final 45-second spot from the "History Will Be Made" campaign the NHL used this year.  It pretty much says it all....


  1. YAY!

    I am not a new hockey fan, but fairly new to the Blackhawks-land. I started following the 'Hawks because of Patrick Sharp. He was on my fantasy team and was playing very well. (lots of shorthanded goals) Then I learned about his and Adam Burrish's "Pick on a Teammate" video series on the website. Then I found Brent Seabrook (who I remembered as "the kid who admitted to liking 7th Heaven during the draft in 2003) and pretty much the rest is history.

    I remember the "good" Blackhawks teams of the '90s that were systematically disbanded (thanks for Chelli!). I love the city of Chicago, have several friends there (all Hawks fans for life, of course) so it was really only a matter of time until I admitted that I liked the Blackhawks too.

    So, while it was sort of an underground thing for a while, I fully admitted my Blackhawks fandom on new Year's Eve-- when I attended a New Jersey (a favorite) and Chicago game in Chicago. I cheered for the Blackhawks over the Devils. And I bought my first piece of Blackhawks paraphernalia- a Patrick Sharp t-shirt. (I want a jersey but the funds aren't there.. yet)

    I can't help it. The Blackhawks are a fun team to watch. They have lots of young talent and win exciting games. And now they won the Stanley Cup. It's awesome. I'm sure it's even better for the long-timers, like Davie, but I'm enjoying it nonetheless. :) (now if only my #1 team could ever win anything... )

    Sorry my comments tend to get so rambly. Go Blackhawks!

  2. This is a wonderful story ... showing how neglect and disrespect wreaks havoc. And how someone who treats a team with attention and love can bring it back to life and into full bloom!! What a great love story!! :-) Thanks for sharing!


  3. Sam, I LOVED your story, and thank you for taking the time to write it! Michelle, that's it in a nutshell. It's a great story for non-hockey fans and even non-sports fans...like any story of repair and renewal turning something around miraculously. Just revives a person's spirit!