CHICAGO -- Sometimes a major league sports franchise fashions a plan for success on and off the playing surface and it actually works. Witness the Chicago Blackhawks, who will play in the Stanley Cup Final in search of their first Stanley Cup since 1961, completing a renaissance that started four years ago.
With the roars of more than 22,000 fans at the United Center after the Blackhawks' triumph in the Western Conference Final on Sunday still ringing in our ears, it's easy to forget how far this franchise has come in short time. While everyone is quick to celebrate the Blackhawks as the heart of Chicago, no one can deny good sections were readily available at the box office for hockey games in this beautiful city just four years ago.
"When I first got here, getting tickets to a game was never a problem," said Chicago right wing Patrick Sharp, who was traded by the Flyers to the Blackhawks during the 2005-06 season. "Now we have plenty of nights where being a player only has so many privileges. These tickets are hard to come by, which isn't an inconvenience as much as it is very cool. It means all of us, from the staff to the players, have accomplished something special."
Now the Blackhawks are creating new chapters of history they will need to learn from.
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Under the stewardship of chairman Rocky Wirtz and team president John McDonough, Chicago's hockey team became the NHL's biggest success story about two years before they qualified for the Stanley Cup Final. The season ticket base grew from 3,000 to a capped 14,000 in four years -- not just because the hockey team started to win, but because the franchise also showed it cared.
"First and foremost, you need a team that plays hard and wins," Blackhawks Senior VP of Business Operations Jay Blunk told FanHouse. "But as the hockey side implemented its plan to build a contender, Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough had the team and the staff working side-by-side -- we do not have walls here between departments -- to be at our best and make Chicago proud of their Blackhawks again."
They succeeded, unequivocally. Wirtz and McDonough put home game broadcasts on television for the first time in 40 years, which normally would not qualify as a light-bulb moment in the annals of sports marketing, but defined the new era in Blackhawks management after the passing of longtime owner Bill Wirtz.
The Blackhawks threw their arms around local legends Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, re-connecting the fanbase to the franchise's Original Six status. Hull, a forgotten man for almost four decades, never thought he'd live to see the day.
"I really thought I'd be long buried when they started saying my name around the Blackhawks again," Hull told FanHouse. "Now, I never miss a game."
Sure enough, there were Hull, Mikita and Esposito at the United Center last week. Mikita celebrated his team's Game 3 victory on Friday from a United Center suite, the day after celebrating his 70th birthday. Esposito, standing up for the goaltender's fraternity, can look you in the eye and say he believed in Antti Niemi all along. He actually did, in March pointing out Niemi's superlative goals-against average to this writer and saying, "How would you like him to do any better?"
Another game-changer for the Blackhawks was the team's hosting of the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field against the Detroit Red Wings. Although the team was not yet championship timber -- losing to Detroit five months later in the Western Conference Final -- the Winter Classic served as a calling card that the Blackhawks were back in business as one of the league's signature franchises. "A huge step forward for us on every level," said Blunk.
Of course, the Blackhawks' revival does not happen if progress is not made on the ice. Four years ago, few saw Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook emerging as Team Canada's top defense pair at the Olympics, let alone for the Blackhawks. Before becoming a playoff hero this spring, four years ago Dustin Byfuglien was a Chicago eighth-round pick who could have easily been plucked by another team for the right price.
Most of all, you could still have your pick of seat locations at the United Center if the lottery (and the scouts) do not bring back Jonathan Toews third overall in the draft in 2006, Patrick Kane first overall in 2007. Insuring the franchise's health for quite a while, Keith, Toews and Kane were given contract extensions in December -- Kane and Toews for five years, Keith for 13.
All that said, conversations with Blunk, other Blackhawks executives and some of Chicago's biggest hockey fans netted a fascinating revelation. In the eyes of many, the Blackhawks' decision to out-bid the rest of the NHL for the services of free agent defenseman Brian Campbell in the summer of 2008 was the franchise's most significant, we're-for-real statement.
So what if Campbell, a very good player, is now behind Keith and Seabrook on the depth chart? The beauty was in the gesture. In a perfect confluence on and off the playing surface, the Chicago Blackhawks -- the league's champions as a business -- play for the title beginning Saturday.