Commentary

If Blackhawks can win, why can't other downtrodden teams?

Updated: December 29, 2008, 4:00 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- If you're the 0-for-'08 Detroit Lions, there's hope.

The galactically dysfunctional New York Knicks and Dallas Cowboys? There's hope.

The penny-pinched Pittsburgh Pirates, once-proud U-Dub Huskies, orphaned Oklahoma City Thunder … there's hope. Even a Donald Sterling-owned team or a roster managed by absentee exec Michael Jordan can walk a little taller today.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Toews
Ross Dettman/ESPN.comJonathan Toews is one of the reasons fans are flocking back to the Blackhawks.
That's because the perennially worst franchise in sports has performed reconstructive cosmetic surgery on itself -- and it worked! Any prettier and the Chicago Blackhawks would have their own modeling deal.

You can hardly recognize the Hawks these days. They're winning (nine in a row going into Tuesday night's game against Stanley Cup champion Detroit). They're compelling. They're as cool as a fresh sheet of ice. And if they can do it, then any franchise can.

On New Year's Day the Hawks also play the Red Wings in the coveted NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Yes, the previously hockey irrelevant Hawks. This is like Barack Obama asking Sarah Palin to hold the family Bible for the swearing-in ceremony.

"A lightning bolt for this franchise," said team president John McDonough, who lobbied league commissioner Gary Bettman hard for the Classic. "It's going to be a mega-event. This is our bowl game … I think this has a chance to change the DNA of this franchise."

The Hawks, one of the Original Six, haven't won a Cup since 1961, haven't reached the playoffs since 2002 and haven't been worth watching until, well, now. Not that you could have watched them until now anyway. This is the first season in the 82-year history of the team that all of its games are on local TV.

With all due respect to Knicks knucklehead James Dolan and the Lions' clueless William Clay Ford, no franchise has a richer history of ownership blunders than the Hawks. The late Bill Wirtz and his 41-year reign of ownership terror make Dolan and Ford look like amateurs.

The Wirtz Way: Don't spend money. Don't broadcast home games. Don't help the media. And when in doubt, distance yourself from your legendary players. With Wirtz, the organizational motto was "The Customer Is Always Wrong."

Weird, but it wasn't until after Wirtz's death on Sept. 26, 2007, that his franchise came to life. In the next 188 days the team had a new chairman (Wirtz's son, Rocky), a new president (former Chicago Cubs president McDonough), new team ambassadors (the once exiled Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita returned), and a new television deal.

Later, there was a new radio deal, a new play-by-play man (former Hawks announcer Pat Foley returned), a new spending policy ($56.8 million for defenseman Brian Campbell, $22.4 for goaltender Cristobal Huet), a new senior adviser (Scotty Bowman), a new staff directory (41 changes in the front office), a new Cubs-like Blackhawks Convention, and, just four games into the 2008 season, a new coach (Joel Quenneville for Denis Savard). About the only thing that stayed the same was the Hawks' sweet logo.

It's almost as if there had been a party going on here for 20 years and they never sent out the invitations. We decided to send them out.

--John McDonough

"It's almost as if there had been a party going on here for 20 years and they never sent out the invitations," said McDonough, sitting in his office at the United Center. "We decided to send them out."

Wins, attendance and buzz are up. Of course, it helps to have center Jonathan Toews (nicknamed "Captain Serious") and winger Patrick Kane, the 2007 league rookie of the year, on your roster.

And how can you not root for a team that, after a road win against Toronto in late November, quietly arranged to charter two buses the next day to little Gravenhurst, Ontario, where Hawks general manager Dale Tallon would bury his father? Tallon didn't have a clue until his players and coaches began filing into the funeral home that Nov. 23 night to pay their respects. Weeks later, as details of the trip leaked out, an Ottawa Citizen newspaper headline put it perfectly: "Millionaires Behaving Properly."

"It was a movie," said McDonough, smiling at the memory of Tallon's stunned face. "It was a movie. To me, it was one of those epiphanies where you say, 'This is a very unusual breed of athlete.'"

McDonough isn't afraid to wear his emotions on his suit sleeve. He got misty the day he had to say goodbye to his Cubs front-office staff and then drive directly to the United Center for his news conference as the Hawks' president. As he pulled away from Wrigley, McDonough saw the famed red marquee and said to himself, "My life is going to change forever."

[+] EnlargeJohn McDonough with Fans
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comShortly after he was hired, Blackhawks team president John McDonough met fans and signed autographs outside the team's downtown store.
The Hawks have changed with him. It was McDonough, with his 24 years' worth of Cubs connections (and an assist from MLB commissioner Bud Selig), who delivered Wrigley Field to the NHL when the league had second thoughts about having the Classic at Yankee Stadium. Maybe that's why McDonough got all gooey when he recently saw the artist's renderings of what Wrigley will look like for the Jan. 1 game. And it's no accident that McDonough has a framed menu from the '21' Club, signed by Bettman, on his office wall. The New York restaurant is where McDonough first pitched the idea of the Hawks' hosting the game at Wrigley.

McDonough walks with a limp these days, thanks to recently repaired cartilage damage and microfractures in his right knee. There's a knee brace on his office floor and a pair of crutches leaning against the wall.

"This is hockey," he said. "You've got to play through it."

The Hawks have played through their hockey dark ages and now find themselves on center stage -- or center field -- come New Year's Day. They'll get national and international attention. They'll get the great Red Wings. They'll get Wrigley, the world's largest beer garden.

Most of all, they'll get momentum.

"I probably have more people approach me about the Blackhawks in the last year than any year at all with the Cubs," said McDonough. "I think it's a rebirth of a franchise that people never thought was going to come back."

Hear that sound, Lions? It's called hope.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

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