As I celebrate the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks along with the rest of the city, I am harping on one of my favorite songs from the Beatles’ legendary album Rubber Soul, John Lennon’s “In My Life.” I have often found that the Fab Four have a song for every moment in life, whether it be happy, sad, bittersweet, or anything else.
But on this occasion, I look to the song’s the first line: “There are places I remember, all my life, though some have changed.”
One of the places I remember growing up was the United Center. Home of the Hawks and Bulls, the comfy venue had not seen much winning since the Jordan years wrapped up in the late ’90s.
Being born in 1995, I missed the Bulls’ date with destiny and dynasty, I watched a mostly mediocre Bears team in a town that still reminisces with both joy and jealousy of the 1985 Shufflin’ Crew and the Cubs continue to be losers – though I’m not too upset about that last one.
For a while, the only bright spot was seeing my beloved White Sox grab the golden ring in 2005. Yet in the 10 years since, the team has only one playoff appearance and has made mediocrity absolutely painful to watch.
And then there were the Hawks. Losers both on the ice and with the fans of Chicago. The team spent most of the early to mid-2000s near the bottom of the NHL while ownership alienated nearly every sensible fan. At the behest of owner Bill Wirtz, contemptuously known as “Dollar Bill” by fans for his frugal ways, home games were not broadcast on television. The reasoning was that it was not fair to season ticket base who paid to see the games live – a base that by 2006 had dwindled to about 3,500.[box]Read: Two Million Blackhawks’ fans celebrate another Stanley Cup[/box]
Several sporting websites had ranked the team as one of the worst franchises in sports and Wirtz one of the worst owners in sports. I even remember the minor league Chicago Wolves being nearly as popular as the Hawks at the time.
But the specific place I remember is a Hawks game against the Florida Panthers in December of 2007 that I attended with my father. We were a little late, but no worries – parking was no problem. We did not have tickets prior to the game, but no issue – we walked up the box office and got a couple $30 300-level seats located at the center of the rink.
We walked in as the national anthem was playing – it could be heard loud and clear from concourse. After all, what was there to cheer for?
When we sat down, there was plenty of room to stretch our legs as the seats in front of us and behind us were empty. The attendance was 12,926. The Hawks lost that game 3-1.
Losing and low attendance had become synonymous with Blackhawks hockey that decade up to that point. It was on full display that night.
At that game in December 2007, players with names such as Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook and Sharp on the back their jerseys were in their beginning years, just trying to figure it out. Bill Wirtz passed away that September, with son Rocky eventually taking the reins. Rocky then hired John McDonough, the marketing executive who brought the Cubs to national prominence in the 80s, as Team President. The organization then brought back former greats like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito who long had strained relations with the old guard. The younger Wirtz then put home games back on television, the team began to show signs of improvement, and the fans responded by showing up.
The Hawks did not make the playoffs during the 2007-08 season, but they were close. And it only alluded to things to come.
Now, just seven and a half years after watching a team that once had the longest active Stanley Cup drought, one that played in half-filled stadiums regularly and one where you had to physically be at a home game in order to watch, that same team has won three cups and in the midst of a dynasty.
A decade ago, I would have said you were nuts. But no, a combination of a core that consists of future hall of fame players and a competent front office led to arguably the greatest turnaround in sports. A franchise that hit a low mark a decade ago is now at the highest of highs with seemingly no ceiling.
But every good thing eventually comes to an end. Dynasties do not last forever. Just ask the Bulls. Heck, rumors of fan favorites such as Patrick Sharp leaving are already swirling. But the important thing is to savor these times, and not get cocky. While a new level of competency should keep the organization in a good spot, the talent on the ice may not always keep up.
Let’s be clear: this is the golden age for hockey in Chicago. It’s not to be taken for granted. My joy for the Blackhawks is buttressed by this knowledge that it’s hard to win a major sports championship. For now, I’ll celebrate with the rest of the city and live in the moment.
Chicago is Hawkytown. Just ask the 15,000 fans on the season ticket waitlist. And today, there’s no chance of simply walking up to buy a ticket.