CHICAGO – Patrick Sharp arrived from Philadelphia about one-third of the way through the 2005-06 season. His new employer was the Chicago Blackhawks, but what he didn’t know was, it came with a job in sales.
“We used to get these business cards, a stack of them, at the start of every season,” Sharp was recalling after Game 5, a solid Blackhawks win played in front of yet another bulging house of 22,274 at the United Center.
“They had your name and there was a website on the back with two free tickets. We’d just go around town giving them out to people — and I still don’t think we filled up the building. It’s amazing to see how far things have come.”
One win away from their second Stanley Cup in four seasons, the Blackhawks have gone from irrelevant to omnipotent in this market.
“You could see your friends in the stands,” Sharp said of his first few months here. “They had their own section.
“We could walk around town and it was almost like the Wolves American League team had more credibility than we did as Blackhawks. To see the change, to know where we are right now, is incredible to be part of.”
When Bill Wirtz Sr. died in 2007, the Blackhawks were the last remaining team in major North American sports to have never televised a home game.
The Hawks had 3,400 season tickets in a sports mad metro area of 9.5 million people.
“Our product wasn’t very good,” beloved former ‘Hawk Denis Savard said. “Our team wasn’t very good. That’s the bottom line, The guys running the show now, (president/CEO) John McDonough and (executive VP) Jay Blunk, they’ve been given carte blanche to bring this franchise back to where it should be.”
The team had to get better, sure. But so did the experience.
The Chicago sports fans had known nothing but skin flints and cheap skates as owners for so long, it could spot a team that wasn’t trying a mile away.
(Dollar) Bill Wirtz Sr. had all but ruined an Original Six hockey franchise. The Wrigleys long ago set the template on the hapless Cubs, who still haven’t won a World Series since 1908.
George Halas wrung profits out of a Bears club that won just a single playoff game between ’46 and ’84. The White Sox have sprinkled just three World Series titles and a legendary scandal over more than a century. The Bulls have been around since 1946, winning six NBA titles — all in the same decade.
Then, when success somehow navigates through all those roadblocks and knocks at the door, Steve Bartman answers.
“There’s a lot of anxiety there,” Bob Verdi, the legendary Chicago sports columnist-turned Blackhawks historian once told me. “The fans love the teams, but they’re not sure the teams love them back, you know?”
So the Blackhawks, under heir Rocky Wirtz, started by loving their former stars back. They erected statues out front of the rink for Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita then made them official Blackhawks ambassadors along with Tony Esposito and Savard.
They run a summer “Convention,” a staple for Cubs fans that’s attended by all sorts of Blackhawks alumni, and come wintertime, they sell out the biggest building in the NHL every night. As such, Chicago has led the NHL in total attendance for the past five years running.
“They treat us so well,” Savard said. “I’m the youngest of the ambassadors, and they make us feel like we’re a real part of this. And I know they spend a lot of money to be the best in everything we do.”
The dynasties of the ’70s and ’80s will never be relived under this salary cap system. Today, the Blackhawks find themselves one win from a second Stanley Cup in four springs. This could be as close to a dynasty as we’ll see.
It’s a feeling that Sharp can scarcely articulate, so unlikely did this seem when he unpacked his first suitcase here seven seasons ago.
“Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and I have been here since the 2004 lockout,” he said. “We felt like we had good players. We got beat up on for a couple years and then we drafted Kaner and Jonathan (Toews), new (management), you name it. All these things came together at the right time and it just worked.
“We’re not looking too far ahead. We’ve still got a huge win (to get), but it’s a great city to be a part of.”