Are the Blackhawks the Best Organization in Sports Right Now?

Following their 3rd Stanley Cup victory in six years, the Chicago Blackhawks are basking in the glow that is Chicago in HawksMania. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and the rest of the 2014-15 roster are even bigger than Oprah (yeah I said it) through the eyes of their fans, and I don’t blame them. The Cup itself has such celebrity status, that bars are filled to mass capacity, simply based on speculation that it will be making its way through each establishment.

Speaking of Chicago Celebrities, as I watched the Comcast SportsNet Chicago livestream of the Blackhawks parade and rally yesterday, I saw host Pat Boyle discussing the team with MMA fighter/Former WWE wrestler CM Punk. Punk gets onto the topic of bandwagon fans and recalls a time when the Blackhawks were the worst organization in professional sports. He then follows his thought up by calling the Blackhawks the best organization in sports right now, and there is no rebuttal from the panel. So I wondered…Are they?

Punk wasn’t wrong about how low the Blackhawks organization had been. In 2004, ESPN had the Blackhawks ranked as the worst organization in North American Sports. Former owner Bill Wirtz had blacked out home games, stating that it was “unfair to season ticket-holders to give away the home games on TV for free”, according to Chicago Bulls & White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. During the 2003-04 season, the average attendance at the United Center 13,253…This year, the Blackhawks led the NHL in attendance for the 7th consecutive time with a 21,769 average.

Current owner Rocky Wirtz changed the direction and business model immediately. Team president and CEO John McDonough turned the team into a marketing goldmine. The “ONE GOAL” campaign that was introduced before the 2009-10 season has been imitated not only by teams in the NHL, but in other league’s as well, like the Brooklyn Nets. The organization invited back its legends as ambassadors like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, whom were shunned by the previous ownership. While many of the team’s core was brought in by Dale Tallon, they went outside the franchise for a winning pedigree by appointing Stan Bowman as general manager and making his father, (and legendary coach) Scotty, Senior Advisor.

The last piece of the puzzle came following a slow 1-2-1 start in the 2008 season with Blackhawks Hall of Famer Denis Savard at the helm coaching. The team had higher expectations out of the gate, so they dismissed Savard and promoted newly hired scout Joel Quenneville to head coach. Quenneville had a 438-283 record coaching the Avalalanche and Blues before joining the Blackhawks, making the transition to the bench seamless. What I’ve found to be most impressive about that situation is the relationship between the Blackhawks and Savard immediately after. The organization named Savard an ambassador and he had no problem with it. It’s unbelievably cool to see him graciously pass the baton and still be a part of what has grown into a dynasty. How often do you see a former head coach have that with the team that removed him?

Denis Savard

Three championships in six years with a salary cap is more than qualifying for a dynasty. While he isn’t credited with bringing Kane, Toews, Sharp, Keith, or Seabrook to the organization, Bowman has done a masterful job (yes, masterful) at handling the turnover of the roster following each championship. When forced to choose between matching an offer sheet from the San Jose Sharks for Niklas Hjalmarrson or parting ways and re-signing goalie Antti Niemi. The decision to go with Hjalmarrson has worked out given his exceptional defensive play, 2 more championships, and none won by Niemi’s Sharks. More recently, the additions of center Brad Richards before the season, as well as Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins at the trade deadline, proved even more so that Bowman is capable of arming his squad for a playoff run. All three were key in winning the Cup.

The Blackhawks will be faced with more turnover this summer, given the lowering of the league’s salary cap, but now Chicago has become a destination for veterans who want to win. Players who have made plenty over the course of their careers are more inclined to take pay cuts if the odds of having their names engraved on the Cup are in their favor. Great organizations have that benefit. So who else is in the conversation?

The most comparable organization, based on championships during the same timeline, are the San Francisco Giants. They too have won three titles in the last six years, with World Series wins in 2010, 2012, and 2014. In contrast to the other major sports leagues, MLB has no salary cap. While teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees boast payrolls over $200 million, the Giants operate with salaries totaling in just above $170 million. Not necessarily a huge difference, as they ranked 7th in highest payroll the last time they won a championship, but still $100 million less than their division rival’s $272 million in LA. Their star talent is mostly homegrown with Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and Tim Lincecum being their Toews, Kane, Sharp and Lincecum.

Like Quenneville, Giants manager Bruce Bochy took over with prior success, having won a pennant with the San Diego Padres. He also followed a former player in the organization, Felipe Alou. The Giants have also ranked in MLB’s top 4 for attendance for each of the last 5 years.

The other team that you can consider to be similar would be the San Antonio Spurs. They’ve won 3 championships in the last 10 years, 5 in the last 15 with Gregg Popovich as head coach. The Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots have certainly found a recipe for success having won 11 of the last 12 AFC East titles and 4 Super Bowls. However, it would be difficult to say the Patriots are very popular or well respected at the moment...but that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

At this moment, the Blackhawks seem to have found the formula. More than 2 million fans reportedly showed up for the parade and rally yesterday, wearing hockey sweaters in humid temperatures. They turned Soldier Field into the Red Sea to celebrate their third title, while introducing many of the same names and faces from the first title in 2010. Are they the best organization in sports right now? You tell me.

Jonathan Toews

You can let me know on Twitter @Mike_PiFF03

Welcome to the Party, Blackhawks Bandwagon

Tonight the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning face off in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Tampa Bay Lightning are looking to survive and force a Game 7, in hopes of winning their first Cup since 2004. The Blackhawks have an opportunity to win their 3rd championship in six years and their 6th in franchise history. It could also be the first time since 1938 that they clinch on their home ice.

Since Joel Quenneville took over in 2008, the Blackhawks are 9-0 in Game 6 with a chance to clinch a playoff series. The city of Chicago is bracing itself for the potential celebratory eruption and the brink of a hockey dynasty. It’s a party and a pretty damn fun one at that! Now the invite should be open to all who are interested as well.

For years, a segment of Blackhawks have worn the badge of honor for being longtime fans. They were the ones who vividly remember the soul crushing sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1992 Final series and remained fans since. There were kids like me who actually got made fun of in grade school for being fans of an organization that was a consistent loser for a decade (only one season with a record over .500 from 1996-2007). There are those of us who hopped on the Metra after class to pickup “student discount” tickets at the gate, when the United Center never sold out. Sitting in the lower bowl was maybe a third of the face value price it is now, and you could easily find Patrick Kane’s family members…because they’d let you know who they are.

The first Blackhawks Stanley Cup in the Quenneville/Jonathan Toews & Kane era felt almost exclusively for those fans. They had to root for teams that were led by Doug Gilmour (Captain in 1999-2000), Tony Amonte (2000-02), Alex Zhamnov (2002-04), Adrian Aucoin and Martin LaPointe (2005-07) with a combined 210-265 record and a lockout from 2004-2005. They had to bare witness to an all-timer in Chris Chelios joining the bitter rival in Detroit, winning Stanley Cups as a Red Wing. Those fans were graced with epic rants from Hall of Fame broadcaster Pat Foley, including a famous one about Alexander Karpovtsev. They also couldn’t watch home games on television for an unfortunate period of time, as instituted by former owner Bill Wirtz. It wasn’t easy being a fan during that stretch.

I remember a game that ESPN 1000 WMVP’s “Waddle & Silvy” Show used to play where an intern would go to the old Blackhawks Store and you had to guess how many customers were present. The number was rarely in the double-digits. Then the changing of the guard happened with Bill’s son Rocky Wirtz taking over ownership and former Chicago Cubs executive John McDonaugh being named team President and CEO. McDonaugh knew how to market a team in Chicago and Rocky knew how to let him do his thing. The season ticketholder base increased from 3,400 to over 14,000 and the organization led the NHL in attendance for seven consecutive seasons. Those results can be attributed to winning as well as a business department doing its job very well.

Ever since that first Stanley Cup, the city and surrounding suburbs have been draped in Blackhawks red and white. You’ll find people wearing their heavy hockey sweater jerseys in 90 degree weather. I’ll never forget attending the Blackhawks convention in the summer of 2011 with my friend and longtime fan Brad Wenzel, and any Q&A featuring Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp or Duncan Keith felt like a Backstreet Boys concert with screaming fans. Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune also has a cool, well-researched piece on the demographic growth of Blackhawks fans and how African-American fans have the highest rate among NHL fans at 1.4 times the overall rate.

Growth of any kind for any team and any sport is a good thing. Now that the Blackhawks are looking at the prospects of a 3rd Cup and a possible 3rd parade ending at Grant Park, the door should be wide open to all walks of life new to the party. The team benefits from the revenue, the league benefits from the ratings, and the hardcore fan benefits from a better product thanks to the former two.

Chicago is no stranger to the bandwagon/front-runner element. It was a Bulls town while Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were reeling off two 3-peats of Championships in the 90’s, and that quickly changed when now-Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg was a member of the roster. The Northside of town was electric as the Cubs were this close to going to the World Series in 2003. Actor John Cusack famously flipped allegiances as the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Now the Blackhawks are the hot item and deservedly so.

Rather than play the part of someone who says “I liked this band before everyone else did”, old-time hockey fans should be excited that their team is bringing people together across the state. They aren’t solving serious problems in Chicago, but the Blackhawks are an excellent distraction to share. It’s easy to get annoyed when a new fan sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about, so politely educate them on your sport instead.

There is a flip-side to the coin though. If you are a new fan when the team is winning, don’t go hiding when things go the other way. Given the salary cap issues going into next season, there will be a number of changes to this Blackhawks roster, similar to those made after the 2009-10 Stanley Cup. However, if general manager Stan Bowman has proven anything, he can get a team back to the Stanley Cup Final…with Toews and Kane on the ice.

So HAVE FUN Blackhawks fans, old and new! Cheer on your team together and please don’t flip my car if they win tonight.