Canucks and Beyond

Sweet Home, Chicago

04/11/2008 at 9:14pm EDT

I realize plenty has been said this season about the resurgence of the team (and the brand name) that is the Chicago Blackhawks, but I really can’t get enough of it. Not that I have any personal allegiance to that club, but who hasn’t sympathy for the trials and tribulations of those fans?

It’s a great story for the NHL in general, but most particularly for those faithful Chicago fans whose patience has been severely tested over so many years; their original six franchise mired in the backwards-thinking policies and business practices of an old guard that couldn’t grasp the relevance of how modern sports marketing had evolved beyond the 1960s.

From Jim Leitner at TH Online:

Bill Wirtz argued that putting home games on television would give fans a reason to stay home instead of clicking the turnstiles at the United Center. But, shortly after he passed away this fall and his son became the club’s chairman, the Blackhawks agreed to a deal to place a handful of games on Comcast SportsNet.

Those “three-hour commercials,” as analyst Ed Olczyk called them, actually brought more fans out to the United Center. And, instead of playing in front of a half-full house, the Blackhawks fed off the energy of several crowds in excess of 20,000.

Chicago averaged 16,814 fans this season, an increase of 32 percent over a year ago.

While it’s a bit disconcerting to recognize that it really was the death of a man that brought about so many positive changes, there’s also probably no way to argue that Bill Wirtz’s death wasn’t also critical to those changes happening.

Nor that they weren’t at least a decade or two overdue.

The entire league saw an increase in attendance over the last 3 years, but much of that can be drawn from the recovery after 2004-2005 lockout. But not so in Chicago’s case.

Here’s a graphic documenting recent years of attendance in Chicago (and my thanks to ESPN for their database of stats):


After the lockout, the Blackhawks saw only the tiniest percentage increase in attendance, then a drop last season. But this year, a substantial spike in those numbers, and it’s tempting to believe this is only the beginning. For the first time in their history, every game—home and away—is guaranteed to be on local Chicago television next season.

Rocky Wirtz inherited decades of bad planning and hubris from his father—and yet in less than seven short months, he’s made enough critical changes to completely alter the future of this woebegone franchise.

With young stars on the ice, a much needed house-cleaning in head office, and an upcoming season which will feature every single game as a “three-hour commercial,” it’s a good time to be a Blackhawks fan.

(And geez, as a Canucks fan, it’s easy to be very jealous of all the optimism that must exist in Illinois these days.) :)

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