Chicago sports teams seem to be hanging around .500 these days. The Bulls went into the All-Star break at 25-26; the Bears turned in a 7-9 brick that has sent them on a shopping spree for new coaches; the Sox and Cubs both finished within spitting distance of dead even.
But an unlikely team--a team that just a few years ago was named the worst franchise in all of sports--is the class of its league, and it's causing the city to warm up to a different sport: major league hockey.
"This year things are different," said Matthew Killion, a writer for the Chicago Blackhawks blog Second City Hockey. With the season on hold as many players travel to Vancouver for the Olympics, the Blackhawks are the third-best team in all of hockey, a hair's-breadth behind San Jose and Washington. "It's time to expect them to win."
No one has expected that out of the Blackhawks in a long time. Last season was an unexpected surprise, with the team making a run deep into the playoffs before losing to Detroit in the Western Conference Finals. Before that, it had been an awfully long drought of talent.
The Hawks haven't won a Stanley Cup since the 1960-1961 season, when the NHL only had six teams. Before 2009, the last time they made the playoffs was 2001-'02; the last time they got past the first round was in 1996. Of the last 11 seasons, nine have ended with losing records.
But in the past few years, the team has used wise draft picks and shrewd negotiation to build a strong core of talented players. Jonathan Toews, the third pick overall in the 2006 NHL draft, and Patrick Kane, the first pick in 2007, have provided a major lift to the Hawks' offense, and Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Dave Bolland have all made strong contributions out of the draft pool as well. In addition, Killion tells us, "Former GM Dale Tallon was also able to absolutely fleece some other teams," signing center Patrick Sharp and forward Kris Versteeg for "essentially a bag of pucks and a few dirty jocks."
Changes in the front office have also helped bring the team back to life. With the death of long-time owner Bill Wirtz, and his son Rocky's takeover, the Blackhawks appear much more willing to spend money to help the team succeed. Home games were once blacked out on local TV to appease season ticket holders; they're back on the air. In May 2006, legendary broadcaster Pat Foley was fired; he's back in the booth. Talent left the Chicago ice for richer pastures; now, stars like Toews and Kane are being paid the money they deserve, and they're staying.
With these changes, the United Center has started filling up again, although there's a chicken-and-the-egg question about more fans and winning teams. "I hope Chicago's perception of the team has become more positive because of the change in ownership," said longtime fan and lifelong hockey player Jeff Cagle. But, he speculated, "a lot of the popularity has to do with fair-weather fans."
It's undeniable that winning has brought more people out to the rink. In 2007, the year after ESPN named the Blackhawks the sorriest team in professional sports, the average attendance at Blackhawks games was roughly 12,000, second-worst in the league. In 2009, the first winning year in nearly a decade, attendance spiked to nearly 22,000, an NHL best.
But at the end of the day, fans are fans. After last season's playoff run, Cagle explains the game to his friends who now watch with him, hoping they'll "embrace the sport beyond just watching the Blackhawks win." And Killion says that the arrival of a few "bandwagoners" is "a cost I'm willing to pay if it means the Hawks are actually good again."
All that being said, Chicago's not quite a hockey town yet. Stephen Connolly, a recent Chicagoland resident and Canadian ex-pat, says "the fringe interest in hockey here is disappointing". His home team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, might have an even sadder story than the Hawks--they haven't even played in a Stanley Cup Final since the one they won in 1967. "Of course," Connolly writes, "they never had to worry about empty seats at the rink."
Still, with three-quarters of the season gone, the 41-15-5 Blackhawks are as poised for success as they have been in recent memory, and the city is right there with them. If this is the year that we see "the Cup being paraded down Madison Ave.," Killion says, "there will be a lot of Hawks fans, young and old, going on week-long benders."