"The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying."
—WALLACE STEVENS, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
This is an article from the Oct. 27, 2008 issue
From the perimeter of a red carpet
The team isn't yet poetry in motion; Chicago opened 1-2-1 before replacing coach Denis Savard with Joel Quenneville last Thursday. Yet a confluence of events since the death of longtime team chairman Bill Wirtz in September 2007 has led to the resuscitation of an 82-year-old franchise that has languished near the bottom of the standings, and well below most fans' radars, for a decade: the emergence of now-sophomore forwards Patrick Kane (72 points last season) and Jonathan Toews (24 goals); home games televised in greater Chicago for the first time on a regular basis; the hiring of Cubs president John McDonough to run the organization; the appointment of former stars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, members of Chicago's last Stanley Cup champion, in 1961, who had been estranged from Wirtz's Hawks, as official team ambassadors; the signing of free-agent defenseman Brian Campbell (left) to an eight-year, $57 million deal, the richest in franchise history; the addition of Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman as senior adviser, and the opportunity to host the next Winter Classic, on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field.
The Blackhawks, who've made the playoffs once since 1998, have gone from doormat to red-carpet material, at least on opening night. Before they faced the Predators on Oct. 13, the players emerged from limousines and walked a carpeted stretch of Madison Street to the United Center, slapping hands with many of the surrounding 500 fans to the accompaniment of a bouncy 1968 jingle, Here Come the Hawks. Rocky Wirtz, who succeeded his father as team chairman and initiated many of the changes, addressed the crowd. Fans chanted, "Rock-y, Rock-y."
From Section 101, Row 15, Seat 14
In the sold-out United Center, Jim Szymusiak (below), a season-ticket holder since 1994, looked out from his seat above the blue line. He saw enthusiasm from players, "who used to just show up," and fans, who used to not show up. "People are asking me, 'Can you help a brother out?'" said Szymusiak, 53, who has four seats. "Before, I was making calls, like, 'Hey, wanna go? Don't worry, we don't have to stay for the whole game. We'll go and grab a bite to eat.'" In the past year Chicago's season-ticket base has swelled from 3,400 to 13,700; fewer than 1,000 of the 20,500 seats are available for any game this season.
From in front of a TV
Bill Wirtz forbade the airing of home games locally because he believed televising them would hurt attendance—a misguided attitude direct from the 1960s. Rocky arranged to have 11 home games aired locally last season; this year it's all 41, including a win over the Coyotes that's being enjoyed by fans (above). McDonough also rehired play-by-play man Pat Foley, the popular voice of the team who was fired in 2006. Coaches like Phoenix's Wayne Gretzky and Columbus's Ken Hitchcock have hailed his return. So have the Hawks faithful.
From the president's office
McDonough is a tall, patrician man of 55 who has taken, in his words, "a bulldozer on steroids" approach to the Blackhawks since being lured from the Cubs last November. He counts 27 changes that he has made to the business operation—including hiring a receptionist. He has doubled the front-office staff, ramped up the promotion budget and in July unveiled a three-day Blackhawks Convention at which fans rubbed elbows with players and coaches.
From the bottom line
That season-ticket base has quadrupled, there's been a 45% increase in revenue from corporate sponsors and a rise in income from radio and television. Rocky Wirtz's wallet might not bulge because of hockey—the family fortune comes largely from a liquor distributorship and real estate—but the Blackhawks, nuzzling close to the salary cap of $56.7 million, won't have to empty it as they did at the start of last season when, according to the Sports Business Journal, Rocky was forced to make a cash infusion of $34 million just to meet payroll.
From Mikita's perch in a United Center suite
As Kane (right) works a five-on-three power play against Nashville—holding the puck, waiting for sticks to clear the passing lane, then wham, angling a pass to Martin Havlat for a goal—Mikita sees something of himself in the 2007--08 Rookie of the Year. Mikita started his Hall of Fame career as an undersized center who could stickhandle in a phone booth and rip your heart out of your chest, while the less combustible Kane is a dandy undersized winger with speed that Mikita could only have dreamed of. "But," Mikita decides approvingly, "he plays the game with his head more than his feet."
From the coach's office
Quenneville, who was behind the Colorado Avalanche bench for the past three seasons, sees opportunity. He also sees a team with a natural winger, Patrick Sharp, playing center on the second line; a team with energy if not a surfeit of skill beyond its best four forwards; and a team with muddled goaltending, given that Nikolai Khabibulin, whom the Blackhawks have been trying to unload, has outplayed free-agent signee Cristobal Huet. Quenneville (above), the NHL's Coach of the Year with the St. Louis Blues in 1999--2000, also sees a crystalline mandate: Win.
From Sharp's perspective
The 26-year-old, who last season often played the wing on the line with Toews (now the Blackhawks' captain, at 20) and Kane, advises caution when regarding the NHL's second-youngest team. "Everyone's telling us how good we are and how great it is now to play in Chicago," says Sharp (above). "And it is. But it's a little different when you have pressure on you, individual pressure to repeat what you did"—he scored a career-high 36 goals last season—"and team pressure to make the playoffs."
From the Cubby Bear, a bar kitty-corner to Wrigley Field
During baseball season—even during another fruitless October—the beer tastes wonderful. But on Jan. 1, when the Blackhawks host the Red Wings at Wrigley (below), the drink will be Irish coffee. Demand for the Winter Classic is acute; tickets go on sale next month. On this day, as is often the case at Wrigley, the emphasis will be on the spectacle, not the score.
From NHL headquarters in New York
"A large part of the [Winter Classic's] ending up there had to do with the Blackhawks' revival," deputy commissioner Bill Daly says. "Three or four years ago I'm not sure [Chicago was] the type of environment we would have wanted." The league proclaims no favorites among its 30 franchises, but the success of an Original Six team in the NHL's third-largest U.S. market, and one of America's most avid sports cities, could goose national TV ratings this season.
From the Red Wings' rear-view mirror
The Blackhawks were closer than they appeared last season, winning their first four matches against archrival Detroit, the perennial Central Division champions. "[Their situation] reminds me of the mid-'80s, when Stevie Yzerman showed up [in Detroit]," says Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland. "You think of Toews and Kane, what they've done to that franchise.... I look for Chicago to have a tremendous year and [bring] a tremendous amount of excitement."
From Scotty Bowman's seat at the Blackhawks' suburban practice rink
The club afforded the 75-year-old Bowman (below) the chance to join his son Stan, Chicago's assistant G.M., who has been battling Hodgkin's disease. But would the elder Bowman have left Detroit if the Blackhawks were no-hopers? "My father," says a smiling Stan, who is named for the Stanley Cup, "is very competitive." Scotty, clear-eyed and owlishly wise, is making up his mind about his new team. The verdict: "If you don't have experience and you play an attacking style, young players want to make good plays," he says. "Sometimes that causes turnovers. You have to find a happy balance." Assuming those young players develop, Scotty adds, "they're two to three years away [from being a Cup contender]."
From the banks of the Chicago River
The sluggish green river is moving. The Blackhawks must be flying.