For the third time in six years an estimated 2.5 million Chicagoans will convene in the streets of Chicago today to watch their Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks parade through the canyons of buildings. For all Blackhawks fans this practice has become more of an every-other-summer tradition rather than the luxury it really is. And for newer Blackhawks fans these things may even be an entitlement. But for many other Blackhawks fans these parades are something once thought to exist only in dreams. And the nightmarish part is those dreams occurred only a few odd years ago.
Eight years ago the Chicago Blackhawks were in trouble. Ran by an owner who lived by 1950s ideals and dragging themselves across the finish line to a 26-56 season – their seventh missed playoff campaign in eight years – the Blackhawks’ execs woke up on the morning of April 14, 2006 to find insult added to injury. ESPN The Magazine had named them the worst franchise in professional sports. Worse even than even the other home-town losers Chicago Cubs who were then working on their 98th season without a championship.
The article had its points and worse yet those points were valid. “‘Sad?'” wrote George Johnson in the 2006 piece, “‘It’s not sad. It used to be sad. Nobody cares enough to be sad anymore.’ Other NHL franchises are poorly run. But for consistently gruesome seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks are a tough act to follow.” Johnson continued:
“There’s no truth whatsoever to the slanderous rumor that the Hawks have, in fact, suspended operations. It only seems that way. The biggest paper in town, the Tribune, doesn’t send a beat writer on the road anymore. The electronic media has forgotten they exist. The season-ticket base is around 5,000. That’s a rough estimation. Not even Indiana Jones could unearth the actual number. Watching the Hawks organization now is sort of like seeing Mae West, sagging badly and caked with more mascara than Tammy Faye Bakker, oogling all the beefcake late in her life. From a different time, a bygone sensibility. And sort of creepy.”
Brutal. Yet justified. The Blackhawks were the only team in hockey then to not show their home games on TV. Eight years later that seems both impossible, and if truthful (which it was) dumb that the third-largest American market wouldn’t show their home games on TV. Yet their then-owner William Wirtz thought showing the home games on TV would deter Chicagoans from going to the games. The front office continued to make bad roster decision after bad roster decision ultimately culminating in a 309-win, 431-loss, and 80-tie record over a ten year span. Worst of all was the Blackhawks shunned stars of days past. Legends like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, and Tony Esposito – men who gave the Blackhawks the great tradition that was now the only thing the team had left – were not welcome in the United Center.
On a personal note this was all excruciating to watch. My extended family’s business was one of those 5,000 (or less) season ticket holders. The family business had a rotation going where every couple of weeks or so my immediate family was offered two of those season tickets – Row 15, right behind the Blackhawks bench. And because the team was so bad my father figured the hour-long trek to the city, coupled with the then-astronimical $15 parking, and the always-brutal Chicago traffic wasn’t worth watching the Blackhawks get clobbered by whoever happened to be in town that night. So he often passed. But on the times when he didn’t pass and we did in fact go to those games, they became some of my fondest childhood memories. I still remember looking up at that old scoreboard, which wouldn’t be outfitted with LED screens for about another five years, and seeing BLACKHAWKS 1, VISITORS 4. Even more staggering was the fact that the stadium was three quarters empty. From 2003 to 2007 the Blackhawks never ranked in the top half of the NHL’s home attendance list. They finished dead-last in the 2006-07 season averaging just over 12,000 fans per game.
I still remember looking down into the Blackhawks bench and seeing my then-heros of Chelios, Amonte, Daze, Roenick, and Probert carry themselves through another brutal night. I still remember being upset beyond words when I heard that Chris Chelios left the Blackhawks in 1999 to join the rival Detroit Red Wings. I still remember a conversation I had with my cousin Nando in 2002 when his favorite player Tony Amonte signed with the Phoenix Coyotes and how upset he was. All of these memories – before Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, before one cup or two cups or three cups, before Chelsea Dagger, and before parades – are still with me. Watching the Blackhawks for me and the rest of Chicago is like watching a family member born with struggles go on to achieve all of his or her dreams against all odds.
William Wirtz passed on in September of 2007. Shortly thereafter his son Rocky took over the team. The first order of business was welcoming back Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. On December 19, 2007 the Blackhawks announced Hull and Mikita would be returning to the team as ambassadors. “I am overwhelmed to be a part of the Chicago Blackhawks family again,” said Hull in 2007. “I’ve been away from Chicago for some 35 years but Chicago was never out of my heart. The Chicago Blackhawks logo has always meant a lot to me as I know it does to the Chicago fans. I want to be a part of welcoming and encouraging fans to come out and watch this exciting young team.”
The year prior to Hull and Mikita’s return the Blackhawks drafted a center from the University of North Dakota who would go on to be named the youngest team captain – at 20 years, 79 days old – in Blackhawks history. The same year Hull and Mikita returned the Blackhawks drafted a right winger with the first overall pick from the OHL’s London Knights. This Monday those two, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, lifted the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years. Bobby Hull was on to something.
Rocky’s second order of business was of course to put the Blackhawks home games on TV. Midway through the 2007-08 NHL season the Blackhawks aired select home games on TV for the first time in the team’s history. In the 2008-09 season for the first time in nearly 60 years the Blackhawks led the NHL in home attendance. Since the 2008-09 season the Blackhawks have never averaged less than 21,000 per game. It goes without saying putting the Blackhawks on TV wasn’t a detriment to home attendance – it may be the second-biggest reason behind winning why the home attendance numbers are so staggering.
I was recently asked to put one-word labels on each of the Blackhawks’ championships to describe the feelings of Chicagoans. When the Hawks won in 2010 I said, “Finally.” 49 years of frustration, all those years of bad teams, watching my favorite hockey team get picked apart piece by piece year after year and my faith was “finally” rewarded. In 2013 when the Blackhawks defeated the Boston Bruins to hoist their second cup I said, “Miraculous.” They strung together the greatest regular season in team history but nearly lost twice in the playoffs. They came back down 3 games to 1 to beat the Red Wings in Game 7 then came back down 2 games to 1 in the Stanley Cup Final, got down 2-1 with just over a minute to go and they punched in two goals in 17 seconds to win it.
This year the only word that constantly rings in my mind is “Appreciation.” Not only for how good this team has been in the past six years but how far they’ve come. It wasn’t long ago the Blackhawks were the worst professional franchise in sports. Eight years later the Chicago Blackhawks are on top of the hockey world for the third time and perhaps are the best-run organization.