A Blackhawks History: Saving a Franchise

Blackhawks Cup WinA historic franchise that has 15 division titles, three Conference Championships and 5 Stanley Cups – two won over the past three seasons – knows how to win. Although for an extended period, it seemed like the Blackhawks
were doomed to never experience NHL royalty again.

Before their Stanley Cup victory in 2010, Chicago suffered the second-longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history.

Forty-seven straight years of losing and one man was the target for blame. His name, according to some, was “Dollar” Bill Wirtz. Wirtz was the former team president and owner for over four decades who seemingly sent the Blackhawks into darkness.

“Dollar” Bill Wirtz achieved his nickname by having a reputation of stubbornness and frugality. Here’s why; He disallowed any Blackhawks home games to be televised unless they were presented on national television. In addition, Wirtz traded guys like Phil Esposito, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios and Denis Savard throughout his tenure.

These names may sound familiar as three of the four players mentioned are currently in NHL’s Hall of Fame; Chelios being the most-recent inductee.

From 1996-2007 the Blackhawks experienced 9 losing seasons, 5 of which they fell victim to 40 or more losses.

In 2004 the Blackhawks were named by ESPN as the worst franchise in all of sports. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

A historic organization that has history going back to 1926 were bestowed with professional competition’s pity award, which ranks as the most disgraceful feat in franchise history. Things needed to change, and fast.

Aside from their quick first-round playoff exit in 2002, the ‘Hawks were consistently out of contention until the 2008-2009 season. Along with the fact Wirtz refused to televise home games, tickets to go see mediocrity were priced at an average of $50, among the highest in all of the NHL. At one point, the Chicago Wolves, currently St. Louis Blues affiliate, took a jab at the ‘Hawks by creating the slogan, “We Play Hockey The Old-Fashioned Way: We Actually Win.”

During that ugly span, the Blackhawks did their best to put decent competition on the ice. Among those on their way out; speaking of star center Eric Daze, defenseman Adrian Aucoin, and others, Chicago looked to build a young, core group of players they felt were ideal to turn this franchise into a competitive winner.

After a lockout ended the 2004-2005 season, players emerged as key contributors in 2005-2006; such as 20-year-old Brent Seabrook, 22-year-old Duncan Keith, 20-year-old Dustin Byfuglien, 21-year-old James Wisniewski, 24-year-old Patrick Sharp, 21-year-old Corey Crawford and veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. Each of the names mentioned developed strong team chemistry with one another, which showed greatly in the long run.

One big name 1st-line-star was acquired via trade during that same season. Martin Havlat was brought in mid-season to help spark the offensively challenged ‘Hawks. Havlat proved to be an exceptional talent for Chicago and an overall team leader who helped change the focus of a team that was used to losing. Havlat actually lead the ‘Hawks in points during the ’08-’09 season, thus helping Chicago make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Another trade followed as the Blackhawks made a controversial decision to move exciting winger Kyle Calder to Philadelphia in exchange for center Michael Handzus. The move initially sent waves of frustration to fans, but in the end, Handzus became a huge part of the ‘Hawks first Stanley Cup run. At the time, the Blackhawks were getting close, but 40 losses and a Stanley Cup were still few and far between.

One of the more influential moves the Blackhawks made during the 2006 season was appointing Denis Savard as interim head coach. He was commended for leading a young Blackhawks team to within three points of a playoff berth during his second season as coach. The Hawks finished just one victory away from the .500 mark in 2007–2008. The 40 wins in 2007–08 marked the first time the club had reached the 40-win mark in six years.

In September of 2007, Wirtz passed away and current Blackhawks president, Rocky Wirtz, took over the reigns.

One of the more memorable moments of Blackhawk lore is when former General Manager Dale Tallon was forced to read a speech in honor of Bill Wirtz at the United Center. Everyone knew what was coming. As soon as the name “Bill” was mentioned in his speech, the Blackhawks crowd let out a harmonious roar of boos. It was then up to Rocky and company to save this dying organization. The video below shows a first-hand experience at the United Center the night the speech was read.

With new Hawks president Rocky Wirtz at the helm, he believed that in order to make money, you must spend money. This in complete contrast with his father’s policy, as he slowly started turning the franchise around.

Wirtz wasted no time improving the once decorated home town team. Rocky knew he needed to restore a certain buzz to an organization that desperately needed a jolt, so he hired former Cubs executive John McDonough to help change the culture surrounding the franchise. The biggest task Wirtz and McDonough wanted to accomplish was to regain a strong following toward Blackhawks hockey. And did they ever.

Immediately, Rocky started negotiating with Comcast SportsNet in an effort to televise Blackhawks games. A select number of home games were played in the 2007-2008 season and by 2008-2009, every Blackhawks home game had been aired. Also, McDonough made efforts to connect the Blackhawks with other Chicago sports teams, such as the White Sox. Quickly animated zamboni races between players became the norm in-between innings at Sox games. Fans were starting to jump on the bandwagon, but there still needed to be a product on the ice everyone can enjoy.

Thanks to Bill Wirtz and poor play in recent seasons, the Blackhawks were able to receive high draft picks in consecutive years.

In came Jonathan Toews during the 2006 draft, in came Patrick Kane during the 2007 draft, and in came Chealsea Dagger. Soon after, the Blackhawks started winning. The ‘Hawks experienced their first winning season in over a decade during the ’07-’08 campaign.

Perhaps their biggest steps toward winning a championship began in the 2008-2009 season as they made a plethora of moves during that offseason. Forward Andrew Ladd, defenseman Brian Campbell and goalie Cristobal Huet were all brought in to help push this ‘Hawks team into playoff contention.

There was also a change at the head coaching position as the Blackhawks relieved Denis Savard of his duties and brought in Joel Quenneville, a guy who already has a history of winning. That year, the Blackhawks finished 46-24-12 and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They made it to the conference championship, but eventually would lose to the Detroit Redwings in five games.

Whoa, suddenly there’s a winning hockey team in Chicago not named the Wolves!

Perhaps Rocky Wirtz’s biggest hire was appointing Stan Bowman as general manager in 2010 after a monumental mistake made by then GM Dale Tallon for not tendering contracts of Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker, which eventually landed them above the salary cap.

Quickly, Bowman established a winning attitude among his players and signed several key pieces that helped the Hawks achieve great success. On July 1, 2009, Marian Hossa signed a twelve-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks worth $62.8 million. Hossa became Chicago hockey’s most successful offseason acquisition.

Then, in 2010, the drought was over. After 47 years the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup thanks to a Patrick Kane overtime goal in Game 6 against the Flyers. Who could forget the memorable moment when no one knew that the ‘Hawks won the cup besides Kane for that split second?

Three years later the Blackhawks set an NHL record by recording one point in 17 straight games to start a season. Their streak of consecutive games without a loss was snapped after going 21-0-3 to start the year. They went on to win their second Stanley Cup in an NHL lockout shortened season, lead by Kane who was second in playoff points with 19. By far this was the most exciting Stanley Cup finish in history. There was a point in Game 6 where fans dreaded the thought game 7, but 17 seconds later all that changed.

This season, it’s a similar story from a much more prevalent past compared to the doom and gloom of what can be called “The Dark Period” of Blackhawks hockey. They’re currently atop the Western Conference standings and own two of the most exciting players in the entire NHL, speaking of Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Everyone can remember where they were when the final horn sounded for each of the two Stanley Cup victories. The two videos shown above brings a person back to those unforgettable moments. The videos also represent the culmination of an entire franchise that’s been rebuilt. An organization that was once labeled as the worst in all sports now sits atop the hockey world.

Chicago, it’s time to celebrate once again as the Blackhawks are currently the face of the NHL. From being deemed the worst franchise in all of sports, they became the face of an entire hockey country. It’s all thanks to Rocky Wirtz, and a little help from his players.

I guess you could say he started from the bottom, and now he’s here.