Blackhawks' turnaround a sight to see

The Blackhawks have brought excitement back to the United Center and sold out 250 straight games. Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- John McDonough can remember taking his sons to a Chicago Blackhawks game and wondering if he had the wrong start time because there were so few people in the stands.

Patrick Sharp could once ask for as many comp tickets as he wanted for family and friends.

Longtime season-ticket holder Paul Wiltberger used to be able to put his feet up on the seats in front of him in the 300 level because he was sure no one would be sitting in them.

Before Danny Schwab became a season-ticket holder, he and his younger brother once walked up to the box office five minutes before a Blackhawks game and discovered they could buy seats on the glass for face value.

During that period of Blackhawks history, many others ceased going to the United Center to watch hockey altogether. The Blackhawks weren’t worth their time or money.

There’s a certain segment of the current Blackhawks fan base that has no idea what those bleak times were like for the organization, even though it's not that far in the past. All those fans know is the recent history of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, "Chelsea Dagger", two Stanley Cups, parades and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that; the Blackhawks’ huge spike in popularity can be attributed to those newer fans.

But for long-time Blackhawks fans, the ones who endured nearly a decade of playoff absences, attended games when the empty seats nearly outnumbered the filled ones, witnessed the team fall almost to the bottom of the league in attendance and despised the way former Blackhawks chairman Bill Wirtz ran the organization, there is a greater appreciation for all that has transpired on and off the ice the past eight seasons.

On Sunday, the Blackhawks reached a milestone that could help anyone grasp the significance of the franchise's turnaround. The Blackhawks registered their 250th consecutive regular-season sellout. It’s a streak that dates back to March 2008.

“That’s amazing,” said Sharp, who was traded to the Blackhawks during the 2005-06 season. “Proud to be a part of it. Privileged to play for an organization like this. I was here along with [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook], and some of the days we would have unlimited tickets to give out to friends and family, and there wasn’t a whole lot of people in the stands. There’s not a day where we take what we have for granted. We’re thrilled to come to the rink every day and play in front of our fans.”

Fans’ indifference

David Santee was turned off by the Blackhawks sometime early in the 2000s. The team was consistently missing the playoffs. No players were being brought in to improve the team. Plus, it didn’t seem ownership really cared about the fan base.

Santee, like a lot of Blackhawks’ fans, was fed up with what Wirtz was doing with the franchise. It was bad enough the team was losing, but Wirtz refused to put the team’s home games on television.

“I had been a lifelong fan,” said Santee, who is from Park Ridge, Illinois. “Like a lot of fans, I just became disgusted with getting guys five years after their prime, signing them for cheaper, the whole thing. Everybody was disgusted with the whole no-home-games-on-TV. That was my biggest thing. You became fans of the [Jeremy] Roenicks, all those guys, and then they were gone.”

The Blackhawks lost a lot of fans that way. Fans could ignore certain things when the Blackhawks were winning, but that changed as the team began to falter. They averaged 19,396 fans and made the playoffs in the 1996-97 season. Over the next nine seasons, they went to the playoffs just once, and their attendance was impacted by it.

They averaged fewer than 16,000 fans for six consecutive seasons, beginning in the 2000-01 season. They fell all the way to 29th in the league in attendance in the 2005-06 (13,318 average) and 2006-07 (12,727 average) seasons.

Wiltberger, a season-ticket holder since 1990, remained loyal and continued to re-up his season tickets year after year.

“I’ve seen more bad than good,” said the 52-year-old Wiltberger, who lives in Highland, Indiana. “Hockey is my vice. I don’t drink. I quit doing drugs years ago. That’s my joke: Hockey is my vice. Some people go to the casino. This my trip to the casino. This is it. [The Blackhawks] knew they weren’t going to lose me.”

The Blackhawks never officially lost McDonough, who is now the team president and CEO, but he was surprised by what he found when he decided to take his sons to the United Center for a game in the early 2000s. McDonough grew up a Blackhawks fan and wanted his children to have the experience he remembered.

“It might have been a two o’clock start,” McDonough said. “My sons, Michael and Ryan, we got here probably around 1:30. I actually thought when we got here that it had advertised the wrong game start and that it was six o’clock. The building was empty. Ultimately, I think there were 5,000 to 6,000 people in the building.

“I wanted my sons to really see what I saw -- the energy, the passion, the enthusiasm that I saw when I younger. And it was a little disappointing because they really didn’t have the feel for it. They couldn’t.”

McDonough was working with the Chicago Cubs at the time, so he wasn’t sure exactly of the internal state of the Blackhawks. He could see from the outside it didn’t look good.

“Having been with the Cubs and not paying real close attention to what was going on, I think the situation I had seen saddened me to see what was going on here, being a Blackhawks fan growing up,” McDonough said. “I didn’t know, [didn’t have] any ideas to how the front office worked. I was just very saddened to see the attendance had dwindled to such a lower number.

“There was indifference, which is worse than anger. There was no interest in the franchise, and that probably was the one thing that struck me, maybe even a few years before I joined the Blackhawks: Why is there such universal indifference for the Hawks?”

Former Blackhawks player and current radio color analyst Troy Murray has witnessed the organization in nearly every state. He played before constant sellouts in the 1980s and saw the more recent ups-and-downs up close while being a Blackhawks analyst over the past 15 years.

“It had been disappointing, as a former player, to come into the United Center and see a half-full building,” Murray said. “Some of the players in that era never saw the good on either side of that, and that’s disappointing. Those players just never got a good understanding of what the fans of Chicago are like.

“It took a while for fans to really get turned off to the point where they didn’t want to come to the games anymore. It just didn’t happen overnight. When you don’t make the playoffs nine out of 10 years and you are that bad, you hope there is a turning point.”

The turning points

Just as the Blackhawks’ demise didn’t happen overnight, neither did their rise.

The Blackhawks acquired Sharp in the 2005-06 season but also placed a pair of rookie defenseman, in Keith and Seabrook, on the ice that season. That team finished 17 games under. 500, and the Blackhawks landed the No. 3 overall pick in a lottery for the 2006 draft. They selected Toews with the pick.

A season later, the Blackhawks were slightly better on the ice and finished with 71 points. The Blackhawks had the fifth-worst record, but the lottery balls bounced in their favor, and they ended up with the No. 1 overall pick, despite an 8.1 percent chance of getting it. They chose Kane.

Much happened in a short time after Kane was drafted June 22, 2007. On Sept. 26, 2007, Bill Wirtz passed away. His son, Rocky Wirtz, took over in October.

A lot of Blackhawks fans didn’t hide their joy in seeing Rocky Wirtz replace his father. Eric and Nancy Johnson were among those who had had enough of the Blackhawks under Bill Wirtz and stopped coming to games. They recognized a difference in Rocky Wirtz right away.

“Old man Wirtz, he really pushed the fans away,” said Nancy, who lives in Naperville, Illinois, and has partial season tickets with her husband. “I’m glad his son took over. It’s a whole new vibe. It’s excellent. ... What a difference, huge difference. It’s about the fans and the experience coming here. This is the best marketing they have ever done. Old man Wirtz, he was just ‘bah, humbug.’ He was the Grinch, for sure. He never warmed up his good, old heart here."

Rocky Wirtz’s vision for the franchise was different than his father’s. He showed early on he wasn’t afraid to change course from his father's policies and quickly put home games back on TV.

Rocky Wirtz also knew he wasn’t going to single-handedly turn the franchise around.

“There was an immediate understanding he couldn’t control the Blackhawks,” Murray said. “If the Blackhawks were going to succeed, he was going to have to hire somebody to run the Blackhawks. And that meant stepping out of the box and finding John McDonough and getting John McDonough to buy into coming here and selling the Blackhawks brand back into the Chicagoland area. You needed that.”

McDonough was willing to listen, and he found Rocky Wirtz to be a smart businessman and passionate about the Blackhawks.

“I do think our fans sensed something different was brewing when Rocky took over,” McDonough said. “There was a new way. There was a new day. There was a new approach to doing business. Our organization needed a new profile. Our organization needed some bounce.

“When Rocky hired me, we spent probably five or six hours together one afternoon, and our philosophies lined up. We had a lot of things we saw the same way, and then there was an incredible sense of urgency on both of our parts. This wasn’t going to be a two-year, let me assess what’s here and I’ll get back to you. We had to get after this right away, so I think that was the approach we took. At the same time, putting a real premium on hiring the right people, drafting, developing and, in some instances, making really tough decisions.”

Those tough decisions included firing general manager Dale Tallon and head coach Denis Savard and replacing them with Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville.

The Blackhawks also placed an emphasis on listening to their fans. They have employees survey fans every home game to figure out what’s important to the fan base. That is how they have made decisions as small as changing the game start times or eliminating “The Stripper” song from their intermission Shoot-the-Puck contest.

“Rocky Wirtz gets it; John McDonough gets it,” said Santee, who has a nine-game Blackhawks ticket plan. “It’s easy to follow a team when you know the people on top are looking out for what’s best for the fans and the organization.”

The fans return

Fans didn’t flock to the United Center immediately when Kane and Toews arrived in the NHL. The paid attendance for the first regular-season game in which they both played was 10,122 on Oct. 10, 2007.

The attendance increased as the season wore on and the Blackhawks and their young stars showed some life. They ended the season with three consecutive sellouts. The first of those three came March 30, 2008, and marked the beginning of their sellout streak.

Plenty of Blackhawks fans began to feel the organization was on the brink of something special.

Sam Fels was living in Los Angeles when Kane and Toews broke into the league. He had been a lifelong Blackhawks fan, and one day he decided he should return to Chicago to publish a fan publication. Fels had been a follower of "The Blue Line," a satirical Blackhawks publication, and felt there was a void left after it stopped printing in the late 1990s.

“It just sort of hit me,” Fels said. “It wasn’t hard to predict where everything was going. Bill Wirtz dies. They hire McDonough. It’s not just Kane and Toews, but Duncan Keith developed into one of the premier defensemen in the league, Seabrook.

"It was all a perfect storm. All the teams in the city fell flat. The Bears have played in two playoff games since Kane and Toews. The Cubs and White Sox haven’t won a playoff series. The Bulls had the one run to the conference finals, and that’s when the Blackhawks had their step back.”

Fels began his publication, "The Committed Indian," at the start of the 2008-09 season and has been selling them outside the United Center ever since. He’s been astounded by the growth of the Blackhawks fan base in that time.

“It’s so hard to believe,” said Fels, who has also been a season-ticket holder since the 2008-09 season. “Even when the Blackhawks were good in the early 90s and mid-90s and were selling out the old stadium to the new stadium, the only people who knew about it were the 20,000 inside there.

“You couldn’t fathom every fan walking down the street wearing Blackhawks gear. If you’re going to the grocery store now, I don’t think you can walk three blocks in this town without seeing a jacket or hat. It’s so hard to believe that’s what it’s become.”

Danny Schwab purchased his season tickets right before the 2008-09 season as well. He was afraid if he didn’t do so then, he would be left in the cold.

“To me, it seemed like the last chance to get any tickets to the Kane and Toews era,” said Schwab, who lives in Schererville, Indiana. “I really thought the Hawks were going to turn it, and I wanted to be a part of it. It’s been exciting. My only regret is not buying four seats.”

The Blackhawks sold out all 40 home games at the United Center in the 2008-09 season, followed it up with another sellout season in 2009-10 and have continued that through Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Wild.

Toews experienced very little of what the United Center was like when it wasn’t full, but he said he does realize how far the franchise has come from when he was drafted.

“It’s unbelievable,” Toews said. “It just seems like it went from one end of the spectrum to the other in a short amount of time. It’s pretty crazy. I just remember coming here right after my draft and everybody saying how great Chicago is and how much potential it has to be a great hockey city. All of those things have come true. It’s pretty amazing to see. I’m obviously honored to play for those fans every day.”

Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa has been around long enough to see it as well.

“We are lucky,” Hossa said. “We got the people who care about hockey so much in Chicago. That’s great. That’s a lot of fun to play when we’re at home in a full arena. It is really unique. Since I came here, I remember nothing else but sellouts. It’s amazing it’s continued like that. It’s just fun to play here.”

Underdog mentality

If history has taught the Blackhawks anything, it’s they’re not guaranteed success in the future.

The Blackhawks were averaging 20,000-plus fans in the 1994-95 season and were near the bottom of the league in attendance fewer than 10 years later.

“I think the one thing I would say: We’re not entitled to any of this,” McDonough said. “The mindset around here is very humble. We’re not entitled to one more fan coming into this arena, we’re not entitled to one more viewer, one more listener, one more win. We’re not entitled to any of that.

“We’re not going to get caught napping. We’re not caught up in any of this. I think we recognize that it is a very cyclical business. Things can change on the dime if you’re not on it each and every day.”

The Blackhawks do have two pieces that likely guarantee them a decent product and fan interest for nearly a decade. By signing Kane and Toews to extensions this past summer, the Blackhawks have put themselves in good position through the 2022-23 season. They realize how fortunate they are to have two players to market their franchise around, on and off the ice.

“It’s incalculable because they’re pillars of our franchise,” McDonough said. “We identified that early on, and everything else is a work in progress. Not only their performance on the ice, but what they mean to this franchise, their professionalism, their charisma, their ability to resonate so strongly with our fan base, leadership. So that’s a real important symbol.”

The Blackhawks are also mindful of where their ticket prices are and how much they can increase them before they out-price themselves. They had the third-lowest average ticket price at $34.88 in the 2007-08 season, according to Team Marketing Report’s NHL Fan Cost Index. Their average ticket is now up to fifth in the league, at $78.80.

Fans are mostly fine with the prices -- for now.

“I can’t argue with the slight increases, given the popularity, and they’re totally sold out moving forward,” Schwab said. “They haven’t necessarily gouged their season-ticket holders.”

The Blackhawks would prefer not to do that, either.

“There’s a lot of variables we take into account,” McDonough said. “When Rocky and I started, I think we were 28th or 29th in the league. We’re now definitely in the top 10. But commensurately to our product, we think it’s fair. We think it’s equable.

“We want to make sure that not only this generation but many generations to come have the ability to witness our games in person because this is something we think is a very, very unique sport. It’s really merger of sports and entertainment experience. That is certainly something we monitor very closely and matters to us a great deal.”

The Blackhawks are at 298 consecutive sellouts, which includes 48 playoff games. The Chicago Bulls have the longest sellout streak in Chicago. They sold out 610 consecutive games from 1987-2000.

While other teams would love to be where the Blackhawks are now, the Blackhawks try to hold on to their underdog mentality.

“I just don’t want to hear any different that we’re not underdogs,” McDonough said. “In Chicago, the Bears are everything. The Bulls have six championships. The Cubs and Sox have been around forever. There’s incredible interest in the Cubs. The White Sox are always very formidable, and they won the World Series in 2005. The Blackhawks had been off the radar for about 25 years. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

“I constantly remind everyone here that we have to make sure the engine is roaring all the time. There’s no day off here. I kind of like an organization that is comfortably uncomfortable. I’ve said that before. I want to make sure the innovation and creativity are strong every day. The conversations that hockey and business have together, the really good fertile conversations I have with Stan, that Stan has with Joel and every dialogue that we have here, every day is about how we’re going to improve this.

"I do think we have that underdog mentality. I think we always will. Why wouldn’t we?”