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Blackhawk Down: Chicago's Forgotten Franchise

Long before Jordan's Bulls, Walter Payton's Bears and, another franchise ruled the Windy City. The Chicago Blackhawks once had a stronghold on the city and were the fans' pride and joy for the majority of the 20th century.
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Long before Jordan's Bulls, Walter Payton's Bears and Chris Farley's Superfans, another franchise ruled the Windy City. The Chicago Blackhawks once had a stronghold on the city and were the fans' pride and joy for the majority of the 20th century.

Equipped with forwards Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, defenseman Pierre Pilote and goaltender Glenn Hall, the young and up-and-coming Hawks were making lots of noise in the late 1950s. After a few years of learning the ropes and meshing together, they reached the Stanley Cup Finals three times in the '60s, including a championship in 1961 after defeating the Detroit Red Wings. The Hawks were young, disciplined and there seemed to be nothing that could stop them from blossoming into perennial championship contenders.

Then came William Wadsworth Wirtz.

As chief executive officer and controlling shareholder of the family-owned Wirtz Corporation, Bill Wirtz had a reputation for stubbornness and making sure things always went his way, regardless of how ugly a situation would turn out. The lifelong businessman wanted to run the Hawks like he ran his business deals, which unfortunately didn't always sit with loyal Chicagoans as Wirtz usually had money on the mind instead of keeping the fans happy.

Now realize that in the late 1960s, the Blackhawks were the team in Chicago. The cats pajamas. After all, the Bears were still struggling to find their niche after Papa Bear Halas retired, the White Sox and Cubs were experiencing high doses of mediocrity and the Bulls were just getting their feet wet in the NBA. Chicago was a hockey town and everyone lived and died with the Blackhawks. Fans would flock to Chicago Stadium to watch Hull and Mikita. After long days at work, men would get together at the local watering holes to have a few boilermakers and watch Tony Esposito tend goal. Kids would race home and finish their homework just in time for the opening faceoff. Chicago Blackhawks hockey was a way of life.

So when Wirtz's first order of business was to take the Hawks off of local television, you can imagine the chaos and uproar it caused throughout the city. No, that wasn't a typo. Bill Wirtz actually refused to show the games on the tube. What?! And you'll just laugh at his reasoning -- he felt that broadcasting regular home games was unfair to season-ticket holders and that if fans really wanted to see their so-called favorite team, they would come to Chicago Stadium and see them in person.

Wirtz was vilified by the fans because what used to be a tradition and a staple for the typical Chicago sports fan was no longer possible. Unless the Hawks were on national television (in those days, only playoff games were nationally televised), fans could not see them at all. It was completely blacked out. The fuzzy, snowy signal would override what used to be hard-nosed Chicago-style hockey. Fans wrote hatemail to Wirtz, promised to stop going to the Stadium and even sent death threats, but nothing shook the businessman with the plan. The Hawks remained unavailable on the tube and the fans' boycott had begun.

Still, many flocked to Chicago Stadium to watch the games as Blackhawk hockey games were still a very popular event. In fact, the Stadium earned the nickname "The Madhouse on Madison" due to the excessive amounts of noise that bounced around the walls thanks to the triple-tiered, boxy layout of the building and the infamous 3,663-pipe Barton organ that belted out tunes throughout the game. The Hawks continued to play winning hockey and the core remained intact throughout the early 1970s, but then "Dollar Bill" struck again.

In 1972, after years of dissatisfaction with the organization (mostly with Wirtz), longtime superstar Bobby Hull jumped ship on the Hawks and migrated over to the World Hockey Assocation for a million-dollar contract with the Winnipeg Jets. Chicago had lost its favorite son on the ice and the fan base took another blow below the belt. Even though the Hawks continued to make the playoffs every year throughout the rest of the decade, Blackhawks' fans were diminishing left and right. The passion had ceased and Chicagoans had shifted attention to the other sports teams in the area.

The Hawks continued to make the playoffs every year up until 1994, however, the deep runs toward the Stanley Cup Finals were no longer existent. What used to be a storied hockey franchise rich with tradition and lifelong player transcended into a business ran by a man with no loyalties. Wirtz could care less about making players feel welcome. He cared about one thing -- money -- and nothing else was important. He was blamed for letting Dominic Hasek and Ed Belfour walk, trading Denis Savard, Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick, but most importantly for killing generations of Chicago hockey fans.

When I would hear my uncle Mike (better known as Cheech), who has been a diehard Hawks fan since birth, talk about the glory days of Hull and Mikita and Esposito and Keith Magnuson, I could sense the happiness in his voice. He'd talk about going to the games with my father and grandfather 40 years ago and about how much the Hawks ruled the city. I would frequently ask Cheech what went wrong. Why couldn't I watch them on television? Why were kids my age rooting for other NHL teams? Obviously, he didn't want to talk about it.

"It's all a bunch of bs," Cheech would proclaim.

And he's right. I was born in 1989, right before Michael Jordan and Co. took the city by storm with six NBA championships in eight seasons. And to be painfully honest, through most of my childhood, I didn't even know the Blackhawks existed. I didn't even know they played their games at the same venue as the Bulls. And how would I have known? How was I supposed to know that Bill Wirtz had been depriving me of hockey all along? How was I supposed to become a fan of a team that I could not watch on television? Granted, I could go to a few games here and there, but everyone knows it's a necessity to be able to watch your favorite team on TV. So I wrote hockey off, plain and simple, just like the rest of my generation.

Nonetheless, Bill Wirtz passed away on September 26, 2007 after 41 years in the Blackhawks' captain seat. Under his watch, ESPN named the Hawks the worst franchise in professional sports in 2004. Wirtz earned a wide variety of nicknames throughout the years, many which I can't even list here and was ranked as the third greediest owner in all of sports by ESPN. During the Blackhawks home opener in October 2007, the fans in attendance displayed their true feelings as boos rang throughout the United Center during Wirtz's tribute and eventual moment of "silence."

The calendar now reads 2008 and the Blackhawks have been making slow strides toward greener pastures. Bill's son Rocky has done tremendous things for the once-storied franchise including several changes in team policy. He actually believes in spending money to better the franchise, which is causing the fans to re-consider their previous hatred for the team. And oh yes, the Hawks were actually on cable television for the first time in almost 30 years last season and a deal is in the works to have every game televised for the upcoming campaign.

Rocky Wirtz is slowly but surely repairing the forgotten franchise that his father ran into the ground. He's brought back Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita as ambassadors, retired Keith Magnuson's and Pierre Pilote's No. 3 in an attempt to bring back some appreciation from the elder fans. He's put together a nice young core including Patrick Kane and newly appointed captain Jonathan Toews. And in an attempt to take things one step further in Chicago, Rocky has scheduled a New Years Day extravaganza at Wrigley Field as the Blackhawks will host the hated rival Detroit Red Wings, an event that will undoubtedly revitalize interest throughout the entire city.

Hockey in Chicago has made a complete 180 in the 10 months since Bill Wirtz has passed. The team has a very bright future what with a great young core, an enthusiastic front office led by Rocky Wirtz and new president John McDonough, and the motivation of excited, wanna-be fans like yours truly that are interested in becoming an integral piece of the franchise's new movement. Maybe I'll finally be able to call myself a Hawks fan in the coming years as they turn the page on a bitter past and prepare for a promising future.

After all, they were Chicago's pride and joy not too long ago.

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