From 1997-2007, the Chicago Blackhawks were about as exciting as Disney on Ice. In some areas of Chicagoland, you were more likely to see a fan wearing a Chicago Wolves sweater than a Blackhawks sweater. But after a few major front office moves aligned the paths of several savvy sportsmen, the Blackhawks orchestrated the greatest resurgence of a professional sports franchise in history.
Don't assume this last statement to be your usual case of sports blogger-hyperbole. The team's remarkable revival has caught the attention of more than your Indian-Head-hoodied Hawks fan. Cite for example, a recent article in Forbes magazine calling it The Greatest Sports-Business Turnaround Ever.
The numbers certainly quantify the statement. Research provided to the Chicago Tribune indicated the amount of Chicagoans identifying themselves as Blackhawks fans has doubled since 2007. Therefore, it's likely you are, as I am, a new-breed B-Hawks fan (high five). On our behalf, I offer this tip of the headdress to the leaders of Blackhawks Nation.
General Manager Dale Tallon has been in the organization since the 1998-99 season (not including his 16 years as Blackhawks color analyst), and deserves the credit for compiling this excellent group of young talent. Tallon's keen hockey sense allowed the acquiescence of trades for key contributors such as Patrick Sharp, Martin Havlat and Kris Versteeg. His foresight and extensive experience in player personnel made it possible to realize the talent of draftees Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien. His tenacity in the free agent market delivered Brian Campbell and two stellar goalies; Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet.
Of course, Tallon wouldn't have been able to amass that talent if it hadn’t been for Chairman Rocky Wirtz loosening the belt. After his father, William W. Wirtz (who served as Blackhawks president for 41 years) passed in October 2007, Rocky was faced with the burdensome challenge of restoring the once-proud Original Six franchise. With an eye of the tiger, Wirtz made the dynamic decisions necessary to return the club to relevance, sparking a Rocky Balboa-like ascension from mediocrity.
His greatest move was the hiring of John McDonough as President in November 2007. McDonough is a sports marketing genius who achieved extraordinary success during 24 years with the Chicago Cubs. I mean really, could any other franchise make losing as lovable as the Cubs have? No. But that's a blog for a different day.
The results have been nothing short of spectacular. Most importantly, McDonough was able to strike a television deal to broadcast all 82 games. He arranged a red-carpet rollout on opening night. He brought in Blackhawks legends Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito to serve as Blackhawks ambassadors. He set the city on fire by landing the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. The outdoor contest provided magnificent national exposure. The game drew the most viewers of a regular-season NHL game since 1975.
McDonough's system of sensationalism reinvigorated the Madhouse on Madison. Once again the arena is abuzz during the national anthem. Fervent fans frolic after every goal to The Fratelli’s feverishly catchy "Chelsea Dagger". Those who would've never paid a buck for a game's admission now crane their necks to watch "Shoot the Puck" at intermission.
And we, the newest Blackhawks devotees, are eating it up. More than 1 million fans churned the turnstiles at the United Center this season, leading the NHL in attendance. The season ticket base skyrocketed from 3,400 in 2007-08 to a current 14,000 – with 4,000 on the waiting list. Merchandise revenue has gone through the roof with an increase of 317 percent in the past year (Forbes). Oh, and about those Chicago Wolves sweaters? Well, they might make a hot ticket item at your summer garage sale.
The rest of the management team and the entire Blackhawks staff undoubtedly deserve credit as well, but this blog is already long enough. So I encourage fans - old and new – to take the time to acknowledge the various roles they play. You’ll have a greater appreciation for the team's success by recognizing the outstanding efforts of the organization off the ice.