Commentary

No reservations

After years of fan alienation, the Hawks are on the championship track.

Updated: May 28, 2010, 10:10 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

The official, John McDonough-approved marketing theme for the Chicago Blackhawks is "One Goal," an unambiguous declaration that there was only one objective to strive for, one acceptable way to end the season.

But perhaps a more appropriate slogan for this team, with apologies to Anthony Bourdain, would be "No Reservations." Because the precocious Blackhawks, led by a 22-year-old captain and a 21-year-old scoring whiz, don't wait for anyone.

They didn't need to wait to get to the pinnacle of the National Hockey League, just four wins from immortality. And they don't wait to get into any of the city's finer restaurants and clubs, where they are treated like celebrities.

"No reservations needed," said 24-year-old forward Kris Versteeg with a smile. "We actually call on behalf of our PR guy a lot of times. It's pretty funny. He still doesn't know. Everyone around town knows his name, and he doesn't know them. We say, 'Hey, it's Tony Ommen from the Chicago Blackhawks. We have a couple players who want to come in today. Can you please take care of them?' You go right in and you're treated like no other."

The secret's out, Kris, but it doesn't matter. Whether it's a reservation at Joe's Stone Crab or a spot in the Stanley Cup finals, the Blackhawks take what they want when they want, and they do it with a smile. It's what winners do.

The Hawks are heavy favorites over Philadelphia in the organization's first Stanley Cup appearance since losing to Pittsburgh in 1992. And the city is brimming with anticipation and excitement over the team's prospects.

In the past two years, Chicago has fallen helmet over skates for this team. Twenty-two thousand and change -- nearly all attired in official $150 jerseys -- fill the stands every game, roaring with the national anthem, laughing at the Kiss Cam, dancing to "Chelsea Dagger" after goals. It's a festive atmosphere. And the party doesn't end there.

The amount of Hawks apparel spotted on a given day, from a suburban Starbucks to a city block, is mind-blowing, and almost all of it is new. A friend of mine noted that you can tell if someone is a bandwagon fan if their Jonathan Toews jersey comes with a "C" on the front. And you'll see thousands of Toews jerseys at every game, most with the captain's initial.

It's not just the hardcore fans who are swathed in swag. Everywhere you look in my neighborhood, there's a moppet gamboling down the street with a red Hawks hat.

Players talk of being stopped on the street to pose for pictures. Their culinary choices are reported in the local gossip columns. Having a Blackhawk at your establishment means it's hip.

When McDonough, a sports marketing icon with the Cubs, took over as president in November 2007, he noted that the only marketing the team did was filling its Hawk Quarters store with merchandise.

Home games weren't televised, and no one watched the road games. Attendance at home games, with no TV to market them, was spotty. The AHL Chicago Wolves openly mocked the Hawks in their advertising and occasionally outdrew the team on shared home dates.

"They said there were 10,000 people at those games," Bobby Hull said. "Yeah, if there were five or six."

[+] Enlarge John McDonough
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJohn McDonough's marketing acumen brought the Winter Classic to Chicago, bringing the Hawks back into the national spotlight.

Now it's as if the city markets the team itself, one Toews jersey at a time. The Hawks will never be the team of every Chicagoan, like the Bears, or as sentimentally important as the Cubs, but neither team, nor the Bulls or White Sox, is as popular right now as the Chicago Blackhawks -- mostly because the Hawks are winners, and on the cusp of something amazing.

"To be honest, it seems like we're the new trendy team to watch," said forward Adam Burish, who first played for the team briefly during the 2006-07 season. "You go to the Blackhawks game as a cool thing, like in the '90s how the Bulls were, and the Cubs. Now the Blackhawks are a cool thing to watch. And we're winning.

"The organization has done a great job, John and Jay [Blunk] and everyone, but you can't sell tickets if you don't win."

But they are winning, and Versteeg said the Hawks are experiencing a rebirth in popularity in Canada as well.

"There's a ton of interest back home," said Versteeg, who hails from Lethbridge, Alberta. "I think a lot of the Original Six teams are popular back home. You see a lot of old men with Blackhawks tattoos. I have a couple of buddies whose dads have Blackhawks tattoos and Boston Bruins tattoos. It's kind of weird, but now they get to come out of the woodwork again. I think this is great for fans around the world."

No bad mojo

It seems as if the stars aligned for the Blackhawks in the past few years. After all, how often does a team follow such a straight pattern of improvement? From barely missing the playoffs, after a miserable decade, to going straight to the conference finals to the Stanley Cup in successive seasons?

[+] EnlargeRocky Wirtz
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRocky Wirtz has shown a commitment to his players and fans.

Even karmic forces couldn't disrupt this team. Longtime fans howled when they fired team legend Denis Savard four games into this past season. Then veteran coach Joel Quenneville came in, the improvement was obvious and the slight was understood.

Last summer the team unceremoniously booted general manager Dale Tallon, another favorite, ostensibly for screwing up the team's restricted free-agent offers (not to mention overpaying for a couple of free agents). Then Patrick Kane, the budding star, was arrested in his hometown on an assault charge, and free agent Marian Hossa, the pricey prize of the summer, needed immediate surgery and was shut down for months.

Maybe the bad karma, if that's really an actual thing (a million Cubs fans nod their heads sadly in unison) was superseded by how generously the team, under the leadership of Rocky Wirtz, has welcomed back its legends: Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and even Savard, who moved into a ceremonial role soon after his firing.

Whatever the reason, all obstacles were hurdled, all slights forgiven, though it's a shame Tallon isn't still with the team, having accepted the GM job with Florida during the playoffs. Even a post-Olympics skid, which knocked the Hawks to the second seed in the West, turned out to be a blip, as did first-round troubles with Nashville. When the Hawks dominated Vancouver on the road, I was convinced this wasn't a repeat of the 2008 Cubs.

There's a feeling of fait accompli in the city, which is dangerous if the team feels the same way. But after a Western Conference finals sweep, only a deep-dish cynic could doubt the heart of this team.

The Something Tap owned by One-Armed Eddie

Bobby Hull remembers what hockey meant to this city.

"What do I remember about 1961," he said in a phone conversation when I asked about the last time the Hawks won the Stanley Cup, "what I remember most is we were living in the greatest city in the world, playing to entertain the greatest sports fans in the world. We had a love affair with the fans every night, playing in that stadium in front of people who appreciated us."

I'm hung up on that phrase: "love affair." It's such a romantic way to describe the symbiotic relationship between fans and a team.

[+] EnlargeBobby Hill
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesOnce the face of the franchise, Bobby Hull has been welcomed back to the Hawks family by the new regime.

Things were simpler back then, of course, and in some ways, uglier. The Hawks played on one-year deals, working in the offseason in sales or on their farms back home, and rented homes for their families or shared a place as bachelors. A players only bought a home, Hull said, when he was a veteran. Otherwise the team might think he was content and trade him on a whim.

The Hawks didn't hang out at the Pump Room with Bill Wirtz, that's for sure. Hull said most of the team enjoyed dive bars in and around Chicago, from Clark Street to Harlem Avenue in Berwyn.

"We always looked for a place to go where we could have lunch and a couple pops and wouldn't get swamped or bothered," Hull said. "These were hole-in-the-walls with no neon lights outside.

"There was a place on Kostner and Augusta, the Something Tap," he said. "It was owned by Joanne and Eddie: a guy with one arm and his wife. They were wonderful people."

The Golden Jet was just in his fourth year when the Hawks won their last Stanley Cup in Detroit.

"It was a long time ago," he said. "I hardly remember it. I remember more about the semifinals, when we beat the Montreal Canadiens and broke their streak of championships. We stepped on their toes. Glenn Hall stood on his head and we won two shutouts in a row to win it. When we won a long overtime game [in Game 3], that's when I knew we would win the Stanley Cup. It didn't matter who was waiting."

Hull said the team, then known as the Black Hawks, was in awe of the actual Stanley Cup. In some ways that hasn't changed, with most players cowed in its presence … until they win it, that is.

"When we won they wheeled it on a table and presented it to our captain," Hull said. "Then the Cup was taken away and we went to our dressing room. They brought the Cup in and we took pictures with it. But we were snowed in Detroit and we didn't get back to Chicago until the next. Two or three days later we got together again when the party was thrown. The Stanley Cup was there, and that time some guys drank a little champagne out of it. I didn't, but a lot of people did."

[+] EnlargeChicago Blackhawks Fans
Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe exciting young Blackhawks have become the toast of the city.

Filled with negative feelings toward Bill Wirtz and the organization (a common theme that would repeat itself until Wirtz passed away), Hull fled Chicago and the NHL for the World Hockey Association in 1972 and was estranged from the organization for decades. When Rocky Wirtz and McDonough came calling to see if he was interested in being an ambassador, Hull assuaged their fears when he told them he no longer held any animosity toward them or the organization. He just wanted to be a positive part of the team's future. He wanted to be a Blackhawk.

"I never thought I'd be a part of the NHL again," Hull said. "They rejuvenated my life."

Business cards

Like a lot of young kids out of college, Adam Burish was given business cards at his first job in the big city. And like a lot of 20-somethings, he had no one to give them to.

"My first year here, they gave us business cards with our names on it, and on the back you could get two free tickets," Burish said during his umpteenth media session Wednesday afternoon. "They'd give us 500 of these, a thousand tickets a guy. You're trying to throw them around town and I don't think people want them anyway. It was like we were going to start selling cookies."

After years of atrophy, thanks to Bill Wirtz's mismanagement and a sense of ennui that permeated the organization, the Blackhawks were a civic joke and a leaguewide afterthought. Empty seats dotted the stadium, and their season-ticket base was almost nonexistent. Now there's a waiting list of approximately 7,000 names. Players have been besieged with ticket requests.

When McDonough took over, the Hawks didn't just try to sell tickets. In the summer, they pitched the idea of the team like door-to-door salesmen, blanketing the city one cell phone store at a time. Even Burish, as social an athlete as you can meet, was tired of the offseason grind.

"We still do joke around about it," Burish said. "We were running around town every day. There were times I would go home and lay down and turn my phone off, and they'd say, 'We were trying to call you yesterday.' I'd say, 'I was at this store, this store and this store for six hours before I got home,' and I was done for the night. I had to sleep."

But it worked. The city got used to the Blackhawks again. Now fans feel connected to the team, and the team feels connected to the fans. It's a love affair again.

"It was different, adjusting from a half-empty United Center to the full house rocking like it is now," said Patrick Sharp, one of the longest-tenured Hawks, having been traded here in December 2005 from the Flyers. "It means a lot. It only makes us play that much harder for all these people in Chicago that want this championship as much as we do."

We went down the same road last season, as the Hawks won two playoff series and became relevant. We marveled at the sea change for an organization that had bottomed out in the past decade.

"Nothing in life changes as fast as this has changed," Burish said. "It was almost overnight here. All of a sudden this thing has exploded, and it's so much fun to be a part of. It's awesome."

Sharp said he realized the team's newfound popularity was real at a Cubs game after the Red Wings eliminated Chicago last spring.

"At the end of last year's playoffs, we were at a Cubs game, six or seven of us, and the feeling we got from fans at Wrigley, just a lot of people coming up and shaking our hands and thanking us for a great season," Sharp said. "This was days after we lost a playoff series. That's when I realized hockey means a lot to people in Chicago."

Toward the end of Wednesday's media session, after most of the cameras had left the Hawks' locker room, Burish was doing his Burish thing: telling embarrassing stories about teammates, giving the best quotes in the room. He was talking about Dave "The Rat" Bolland's nouveau riche proclivity for driving super-luxury loaners from his car dealer, Bentleys and Aston Martins.

Who knows whether he was telling the truth, but it made me laugh, and I asked the easy question: Would a car dealer have cared about placating a Blackhawk four years ago?

"You couldn't get a table in a restaurant in 2006," said Burish, who played nine games for the Blackhawks in the 2006-07 season. "They wouldn't let us in. You'd probably have to pay to get the table and then pay double for the check. It's night and day now."

The Blackhawks can get any table they want now. But all they really want is to drink from the biggest Cup of all. There's no way to reserve that honor, but the Hawks have their name down. We'll be the ones doing the waiting.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/espnchijon.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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