- Chris Sprow, ESPN Insider
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Two seasons ago a friend emailed during the day wondering if I wanted to attend a late-season Blackhawks game. The team was easily last in the division, and late in the season, I wondered why now? For one, I could use a press credential and get in free anyway -- who would pay to to see the 'Hawks in March? -- and even then, the press box would be 80% empty. And high up in the United Center rafters, just 50 feet from the organ that served as a the heart arrhythmia of an otherwise dead scene was no place to watch a listless blowout. "No," my friend said, we'll just go and sit by the glass and catch a fight or two."
He emailed a Ticketmaster link, and if you typed in a simple code, you had good lower bowl seats for nothing. Literally. All you paid was the one or two dollar transaction fee. Late season lower bowl seats to an original six franchise given away for free. A weak scheme to jack up the gate receipts.
Two years ago, ESPN ranked this the worst franchise in hockey, which was saying something at the time -- like being named worst goulash at an all-prison kitchen taste test. "Other NHL franchises are poorly run. But for consistently gruesome seasons," George Johnson wrote, "the Chicago Blackhawks are a tough act to follow."
Now, they're just a tough act to imitate.
Start here: When John McDonough came over from the Cubs to serve under new chairman Rocky Wirtz, who followed his late father into the hockey business, the whole place got a facelift. And it started with not playing a blind man's game of "Mirror Mirror on the Wall".
McDonough told us the brutal truth. "We had to admit it. We weren't legitimate. Before you can really do anything with the team, you have to build an elite front office. I wanted people who have the philosophy of 'Never enough.' By that I mean there has to be the idea that there's never enough winning you can do. There's never enough you can do for your fans. There's never enough times you can get to the playoffs or win a Stanley Cup. There's never enough you can do to market your team. To do that, we had to embrace change."
Well, things changed. As in, last night's 7-5 series clincher over Vancouver served as a coronation from worst to…well, at least among the elite. But when you've been eating crappy leftovers for years, to even open a serious playoff menu seems like a fascinating experience.
And the funny thing is, if the Hawks end up facing the Red Wings in the conference finals, it'll actually be a team they've been able to skate with (though others have thought similarly before seeing a motivated playoff version of Detroit). The Hawks trailed the Wings by just 8 points in the Central at season's end, and played them to a 2-2-2 mark in the regular season.
McDonough said back in the fall, "We have a long way to go still, and our mantra has to be that when any other team takes one step, we better take ten."
"Long way to go" is the standard give-us-a-while cliché. And even the ambitious McDonough would admit he wasn't talking about six months down the road. This team isn't right on schedule. They didn't have the calendar for success written yet.
Our advice: don't start.
Another lovely end to a season in Lebanon.
The Queen's horse has been sneakin' the sauce.
The next Anna Kournikova plays golf. It's a figure of speech we all know by now.
Basketball in Australia is taking off, now if they could just get a team in one of the three biggest cities.
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