Friday, February 12, 2016

Hawks' rebirth was overdue

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Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi gives a stick to a fan at practice. Fans, and excitement, are back in the Windy City.
Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi gives a stick to a fan at practice. Fans, and excitement, are back in the Windy City. PAUL BEATY / Associated Press

CHICAGO - On a recent sun-drenched afternoon in Chicago, advertising salesman Bill Leahy emerged from a store on trendy Michigan Avenue with some Blackhawks hats to give to his friends.

That might seem an innocuous purchase. But it is symbolic of a remarkable renaissance of what had been a moribund franchise.

Leahy's purchase represented how the Blackhawks in the last three years have reemerged into the Chicago sports landscape after a series of self-inflicted wounds that had turned the Original Six team with a proud legacy into a laughingstock.

While not able to capture a Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks in the 1980s and early 1990s were mostly good teams that played to full houses. But management decisions to jettison popular and productive players such as Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour, and Chris Chelios, coupled with poor drafting, began to take its toll in the second half of the 1990s. The team made the playoffs only once from 1997-98 to last season.

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The fans that had once packed the old Chicago Stadium and its successor, the United Center, expressed their disgust with indifference and empty seats.

"I remember what it was like," said defenseman Brent Seabrook, who arrived in Chicago in 2005. "It was tough to come to the rink. It was cool playing in the NHL. But it was tough."

The organization began to take a new direction both on and off the ice in 2007.

General manager Dale Tallon had already brought Seabrook, fellow defenseman Duncan Keith, and center Jonathan Toews, three of the stars of today's team, into the fold. Then, in June of that year, with only an 8.1 percent chance, the Blackhawks won the draft lottery, knocking the Flyers out of the top spot. Tallon considered James van Riemsdyk but ultimately went with Patrick Kane. He went on to be the NHL rookie of the year in 2007-08, and, along with Toews, he leads the Chicago offense.

Chicago picked up 17 points that year, and last year made a run to the Western Conference finals.

Kane, 22, is pleased with the club's accomplishment.

"It's fun that this has happened this quick," he said. "It's not over yet, but I think you can look at what we have done, and it is pretty exciting."

The year 2007 saw a huge change in the front office when the longtime team owner, William Wirtz, died. Fans criticized him for many things, particularly for his refusal to televise home games - he said that would be unfair to season-ticket holders.

Wirtz's son, Rocky, took over and immediately made changes throughout the organization, including the hiring of Chicago Cubs president John McDonough to serve in that role for the Blackhawks.

Wirtz and McDonough began a series of changes, including ending the home television ban, improving relations with team legends, and bringing back popular broadcaster Pat Foley.

While the excitement in Chicago would likely be far greater for a Bears trip to the Super Bowl, the public has responded by establishing records in terms of TV ratings, and the United Center has had capacity crowds for 99 consecutive games. Even the iconic Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza is adorned with a Blackhawks helmet as the club tries to win its first Stanley Cup since 1961.

The team's ascendancy has not come without some speed bumps.

Amid reports of tension with McDonough, Tallon was removed as general manager last summer following a paperwork foul-up involving restricted free agents.

Denis Savard, one of the most popular players in team history, was fired as coach only four games into the 2008-09 campaign.

Kane was arrested in his hometown of Buffalo after he and his cousin were involved in a fracas with a cabdriver, and some embarrassing pictures of players partying in Vancouver surfaced online this past season.

Finally, Stan Bowman, son of hockey legend Scotty Bowman (now himself a Chicago senior adviser), who became the team's GM following Tallon's ouster, will have some difficult personnel decisions to make this off-season as the Blackhawks have major salary cap issues.

But those distractions have been minor when juxtaposed with the club's revival in such a short period of time.

Leahy, who had been a season-ticket holder until 1996, will be in attendance for the Stanley Cup Finals.

"I like the way they play," he said. "They're young and fast. They're fun to watch."

And now they're winners.

 

For The Inquirer
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