by Mike Chen on 05/13/09 at 03:42 PM ET
On XM Home Ice this morning, a Blackhawks fan called in to talk about how he wanted to face the Red Wings in the conference final. As an aside to that, he went on about thanking Rocky Wirtz and company for reviving the team.
This got me to thinking: what if Bill Wirtz was still running this team? Since his death hasn’t really changed the on-ice product (GM Dale Tallon has acquired all of Chicago’s key pieces through drafting, trades, and signings), so it’s really about off-ice perception. The one area where that might be different is with Brian Campbell; while Tallon knew Campbell was a talented puck-moving defenseman, he basically acknowledged overpaying him as a means to keep market momentum going.
So let’s say that theoretically, the Hawks reproduce this on-ice success but have done it under the black cloud of Bill Wirtz. That means no local TV of home games, no bringing back legendary players, no Blackhawks Convention, and probably no Winter Classic. Last season, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews probably would raised an eyebrow for the Chicago sports public but nothing more—after all, the non-playoff Hawks probably would have been viewed as the same old, same old.
Then this season, you wouldn’t have the raucous crowds, the continuous sellouts at the United Center. The playoffs probably would have been greeted warmly but far from the all-encompassing spirit that you currently find running through Chicagoland. I’m guessing that the Hawks probably would have only really made waves when they put Vancouver on the brink.
And afterwards? Assuming the Hawks didn’t capture the Stanley Cup, I’m betting that the average Chicago sports fan would have enjoyed the ride, shrugged his shoulders, and moved on to baseball season. A percentage of those bandwagon jumpers would have stayed on board, and the team would have an upward rise in popularity, but the overall return to prominence would have continued to be hindered by the backwards way that Bill Wirtz connected the team to the public.
The lesson here? Of course on-ice success is critical to making a franchise successful, but off-ice connections with the fans—be it TV access, public appearances, or new media opportunities—are absolutely critical to turning a bandwagon jumper into a true fan.
Somewhere, Bill Wirtz is looking down on all of this and I can’t help wondering if he’s smiling at the team’s success or frowning at the way the team is being operated now.
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