Blackhawks offer Leafs fans hope
For decades, the team of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita packed in spectators, though the Stanley Cup remained elusive after 1961. But then the frustrated fans stopped coming. Now, the Chicago Blackhawks are on an upswing, with new crowds and young hotshots
Jan 20, 2008 04:30 AM
Sports Business Columnist
On a steely cold December morning, Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook stumbled out of bed at 4:45 and quickly made his way to a TV station in downtown Chicago for a peculiar assignment: sharing a recipe for penne and chicken with pink vodka sauce and winning new hockey converts.
The 22-year-old Seabrook has since appeared on the ABC affiliate station for a segment about New Year's Eve fashions, while several of his teammates in recent weeks have been guests of a rival channel to tout holiday gift ideas.
"It's pretty early, but that's morning TV," says Seabrook, in his third season with the Blackhawks. "I got a chance to sleep later in the day. Hey, it's just nice being recognized around the city these days."
That the networks would covet appearances by Seabrook and other Blackhawks players speaks to the team's startling reversal of fortunes. Suddenly in Chicago, where, in recent years, news about the Blackhawks was relegated to the last page of the sports section when it was covered at all, the Blackhawks are surging both on and off the ice.
"Some players go to nightclubs now and it's written up in the society pages," says Kevin Boyer, an executive with All Terrain Productions, an advertising agency hired by the Blackhawks this season to increase the visibility of the team's players.
Trading hockey sticks for saucepans seems to be working. In five of its past seven games, Chicago has drawn more than 20,000 fans. And to date this season, the Blackhawks are averaging 15,350 spectators a game up an eye-popping 25 per cent from last year's full-season average of 12,272, second worst in the 30-team NHL.
With a record of 21 wins in 46 games, the Blackhawks prospects are bright, though they may not make the playoffs this season. Chicago's hopes for a berth in the post-season were dealt a setback after a recent losing streak.
Yet in a development that should give hope to dispirited Maple Leafs fans watching their team freefall its way to the bottom of the NHL's standings, Chicago has a pair of 19-year-old stars who some scouts say are the best teenagers playing the sport.
Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were acquired in the NHL's amateur draft Kane was the first pick last summer, and Toews was selected 3rd overall in 2006 because of the Blackhawks' abysmal record in recent seasons.
As much as Toews, Kane, and the club's other young stars are rekindling interest in the team, the Blackhawks have been every bit as compelling off the ice, thanks to the death of the team's owner, Bill Wirtz.
On Sept. 26, the 77-year-old Wirtz died of cancer. A former amateur boxer who often bragged of brawling with Rocky Marciano, he had been the team's president since 1966.
That was five years after the Blackhawks last won the Stanley Cup, led by Bobby Hull, a burly Canadian who, Sports Illustrated noted in a 1965 profile, had a wicked slap shot and biceps bigger than boxers Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson.
The Blackhawks wouldn't win another Cup, but they packed fans into the raucous Chicago Stadium for several more decades. (The stadium could be so loud that one writer covering a basketball playoff game purportedly couldn't transmit his story because the sound waves generated by the crowd interfered with his computer's phone signal.)
Over the years, however, Wirtz morphed into a local pariah.
Nicknamed "Dollar Bill" by his many critics, he allowed homegrown star players like Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios to bolt for bigger contracts with other teams. Determined not to overpay players, Wirtz even let Hull leave the team for the rival World Hockey Association in 1972 for a multi-million-dollar contract.
"The Wirtzs are perfectly right," the Star's Milt Dunnell wrote in 1972. "Bobby Hull is not worth $2 million for the next five years nor $3 million for the next 10. No hockey player is. One of these years, the public suddenly will realize there is something wrong with its table of values."
But of course, Wirtz's steadfast belief and Dunnell's prediction have not been borne out.
Wirtz also steadfastly refused to show home games on TV because he thought it diminished the value of season tickets.
By the early 1990s, attendance began to flag, fans abandoned the team, and newspapers and TV and radio stations stopped covering Blackhawks games. One Chicago lawyer spent two years working on a self-published book called Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks' Fans.
In one of his last interviews, Wirtz told the Star his Blackhawks had lost $191 million (U.S.) in the previous 10 seasons $31 million in 2006-07 alone.
The figures were startling for a team that would routinely jam upwards of 20,000 fans a game into the old Chicago Stadium, where fans screamed so loud in support of the Blackhawks that coaches on the bench would have to yell into their players ears to be heard.
Local scorn for Wirtz crystallized in the moments before the Blackhawks' first game of the season, on Oct. 6, when general manager Dale Tallon eulogized his former boss.
A cellphone camera captured Tallon's speech, and while the video was grainy, the sentiment was unmistakable. As Tallon bulled his way through prepared notes, fans booed and heckled, and the jeering only seemed to get worse when Tallon asked for a moment of silence. (The video is available on YouTube.)
But what fans couldn't have realized at the time was that the Blackhawks' organization was about to be blown up.
Bill Wirtz's father, Arthur Wirtz, bought the Blackhawks in 1954 after making millions in real estate around the U.S. He also established a succession plan that still exists today, calling for the family's eldest living male to run the team.
When Bill Wirtz died, that left the Blackhawks in the hands of his son Rocky, now 55, a virtual unknown in hockey circles who had run the family's liquor distribution business, instead of Rocky's brother Peter, 48, a Blackhawks vice-president who has since resigned to work on the family's catering company.
"I had been to maybe one owners' meeting in 20 years," Rocky Wirtz says. "I think the average person probably did think that the team would be run by my brother Peter. But in the family we knew what the succession plan was. We just didn't talk about it."
While he's something of a mystery to other NHL owners, Rocky Wirtz maintains that he's steeped in the sport.
"When I was 10 I'd go to games with dad on the weekend and Wednesday nights. The deal was that if I went to the game, I had to go to school the next day. Well, we'd go to the game and then out to dinner somewhere. Dad and (his partner) Jim Norris would try to solve every problem in the world and I'd nap in the booth or whatever and we'd wind up getting home at 4 a.m. I'd have to get up at 6:30 to get ready for school and I'd fall asleep in class. The teachers told my parents they thought I had a learning disability. My mom had to bite her lip."
Among Wirtz's first moves was recruiting John McDonough, president of baseball's Chicago Cubs.
"I thought anyone who could make a 92-year-old baseball stadium (Wrigley Field) a destination for people from around the world must be a great marketer," Wirtz says.
Over what would turn into a four-hour lunch, McDonough told Wirtz that if he were hired, he would advise his sales staff to act as if the Blackhawks would finish the 82-game NHL season without a single win. "I don't want anyone coming back to me saying they would have done a better job marketing if the team was winning more," he says.
Widely admired in baseball as one of the sport's top marketers, McDonough says he was impressed by Wirtz's directness.
"We didn't know a lot about each other," McDonough says. "We both admitted we had Googled one another. I remember Rocky saying, 'John, I know I will lose some leverage here by telling you this, but you're the only guy I'm going to talk to about this job.' I really respected that."
With McDonough on board, step two was getting Blackhawks games back on local TV.
"It had become a real monkey on our back," Wirtz says. "Every conversation about the Blackhawks would be about how home games weren't on TV."
When Wirtz and McDonough first approached local sports channel ComcastSportsnet Chicago, the network was nonplussed. The NHL season already had started, and Comcast executive Jim Corno figured it would be impossible to find advertisers.
"The Blackhawks had not been front-page news in years, and the season had already started and budgets had been spent," Corno says.
Still, Wirtz himself recruited two advertisers liquor companies Diageo and Crown Imports and sales staff coaxed another, a consortium of local Chrysler dealers, to become the main sponsor of Blackhawks' broadcasts.
Midway through the season, Comcast is attracting between 45,000 and 60,000 for Blackhawks games, up from less than 30,000 a year ago for the few road games that were on TV, Corno says.
Step three was salving the wound the team had created with Hull and other stars, such as Stan Mikita.
For years, the Blackhawks had a suite next to the press box for team alumni.
"The problem was, nobody wanted to come to the games," Wirtz says.
The Blackhawks' new owner "new owner, same name" reached out to Hull and Mikita, who both now act as ambassadors for their former team.
To be sure, Wirtz admits there have been missteps during his first few months on the job.
At one point, he directed the team to eliminate organ music from Blackhawks games in favour of more modern rock, hip-hop and rap tunes a key to building awareness with young consumers.
"We had Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan write a Blackhawks fight song and Al Jorgensen from Ministry do something," Wirtz says. "But it was too much. We got some mail."
A fixture at the old Chicago Stadium, the organ is back, although in moderation.
And with the Blackhawks performing better on the ice one YouTube posting of an "insane" goal scored by Toews earlier this season against Colorado has been viewed more than 340,000 times it's getting easier for the likes of Boyer, the unorthodox marketer.
Dance clubs and restaurants are scrambling to get players like Seabrook in the door, Boyer says. And in two years, when Kane and Toews are old enough to drink, they'll probably be in demand, too.
"There's a buzz for this team now," says Boyer, "that Chicago hasn't seen in decades."
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