This fall, a guy from Chicago sold us on hope and change we could believe in — and he’s delivered in spades.
The man I’m referring to is of course none other than Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz, who has overseen the Hawks’ transformation from the most moribund franchise in all of sports to the hottest ticket in Chicago, if not the entire NHL.
Those fans who wish their teams were still in the playoffs may accuse Hawks fans of being a bunch of Johnny Come Lately bandwagon jumpers. But that’s where they are wrong. Blackhawks fans have always been there for a franchise that was one of the Original Six in the NHL. Problem is they were shoved off the bandwagon. Hockey fans still lived in Chicago, they just spent their money watching the minor-league Wolves at Rosemont Horizon.
At this point, it’s perfectly well-documented how poorly the team was run under Bill Wirtz, who died prior to last season. Wirtz was the Old Man Potter of the NHL, and was one of the most reviled figures in Chicago history. Not Chicago sports history. Chicago history. The fans booed during the scoreboard video tribute to Wirtz during last year’s home opener.
Who boos a dead guy?
Well, when you run a team like it’s the Charlestown Chiefs so you can save a buck, that’s what happens. Same when you sever ties with every great player who has ever worn your sweater. And especially when you refuse to show any of your home games on TV because you’re worried it will affect the gate.
It wasn’t that Wirtz didn’t want to win — it’s just that he was still operating the team like it was 1961, the last time the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.
And so with the death of Dollar Bill came the first sign of excitement in years for the club — the almost immediate announcement that several home games would be shown on TV. This was front-page news. In 2007.
This year, the ante has been upped considerably. Boosted by a bedrock of young talent that goes far beyond superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Hawks are in the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1995. The fact that it took just two years to go from also-ran laughingstock to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals may be one that is unprecedented in the annals of sport.
Yes, there are plenty of teams who have gone from worst to first in a year, but this is a franchise that has gone from candlelight to nuclear-powered. The fight song is entitled “Here Come the Hawks,” but in the blink of an eye, this team has already arrived.
Even more impressive is the fact that the word “Wirtz” is no longer tossed around as the type of thing that would get your mouth washed out with soap. Back in high school, I worked at a golf course that was across the road from the Wirtz family farm — I guess in Texas they’d call it a ranch — and would often wonder if it would be possible for me to get away with leaving a flaming bag of shit on the front porch. (After all, that’s pretty much what the fanbase was treated like).
If I was in the same place today, I’d instead plant a banner in the ground reading “THANK YOU, ROCKY.” And fans of every sad-sack franchise from the LA Clippers and Detroit Lions should take note of it. Just one man can make a difference. And what a difference it is.