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Although you never, ever want to see anyone's demise as a blessing, it's hard for a true hockey fan such as myself to not be somewhat encouraged about the chances for a Chicago renaissance for the beloved game now that longtime Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz has passed on. If his survivors do the right thing and sell the franchise to someone who knows how to market the game - like Chicago Wolves owner Don Levin - there could finally be something approaching a fitting presence for puck-heads in one of the pro game's storied American cradles.
Not to speak ill of the dead, but the backwardness of Wirtz and the Hawks organization knew no bounds. As a Minnesotan coming to Chicago in the '90s, I had no idea how bad it really was. Of course I realized that the Blackhawks had seen better days, but when I volunteered to cover their games as a sportswriter for United Press International in 1994, I quickly discovered something: The team, from the front office to the coaches on down to the locker room attendants, was comprised of surly pricks whose idea of press relations was to snarl one-syllable answers to pretty much any kind of question. And if that's how they treated the press, imagine how they felt about their dwindling base of poor, long-suffering fans.
I had wondered why no one at UPI's Chicago bureau, where the perks like covering sports or concerts or other fun events were snapped up quickly, had picked up these Blackhawks press passes - they were just lying around. Then I found out. It was so bad at the United Center that even I, whose determined love of NHL hockey stretched back to the 1967 Minnesota North Stars, couldn't stand the atmosphere at Blackhawks games. It was worse than dead - it was oppressive. How those jerks could ever act like they were doing you a favor by letting you into their crapfests was beyond me. After two games, I only went back once - for a chance to meet and interview Wayne Gretzky before he retired. It was that bad.
In utter contrast, I loved trekking out to Rosemont to watch the Wolves. On the occasions when the Houston Aeros would play at what was then still called The Horizon, I would get hired by the Houston Chronicle to write up a game story and get some quotes. It was my pleasure.
Although definitely minor league in comparison to the NHL (such as the size of the locker rooms, number of concession stands and bathrooms, etc.), Levin was still able to create an in-stadium atmosphere at the Horizon that was cutting-edge in terms of what was then happening in the more progressive NHL markets: fan- and family-friendly promotions, entertainment antics, accessible front office people, helpful press assistants, the list goes on and on. Elsewhere in the world, NHL hockey was reinventing itself as a national-level sport. Everywhere but in Chicago, where the potential was so huge.
I still remember chatting after one Wolves-Aeros game with then-Wolves announcer JP Dellacamera (who's now the most prominent soccer play-by-play guy in the country and also calls the Atlanta Thrashers hockey games) about how, in my opinion, the Wolves organization, though tiny in comparison, totally outclassed the Blackhawks. Plus, you had to love it that Levin's fortune came in part from novelties like incense-stick holders and wacky light bulbs. And rolling papers. Do not forget that.
As a hockey fan, I always thought this situation was a shame, and wondered what the Hawks could do for Chicago if they were owned by someone who had a clue about fan and press relations. Now, hopefully, we may have a chance to find out. As described correctly by Steve Rosenbloom, Wirtz was indeed a hockey man who made the right move by joining with Jerry Reinsdorf to build a modern facility for the two teams - for that, you have to give him credit (although as a hockey venue, the cavernous United Center leaves much to be desired). But on the other hand, his organization was so lacking in understanding of basic human relations that it more than compensated for its accomplishment of the UC by nearly destroying the NHL in Chicago.
A resurgent Blackhawks organization under a new owner would be the best thing to happen to the NHL since the lost lockout season. We've been hearing this for years, but it's true: Chicago is a natural hockey market, and the success of the minor league Wolves proves that. It would take years of hard work for a new owner to repair the ill feelings left behind by decades of Wirtz's obtuseness, but I think it could be done, starting by lowering the average ticket price and striking a local TV deal. Those are no-brainers.
But beyond that, it probably wouldn't take much more than a commitment to the people of Chicago by a new owner that he doesn't think they're pond scum.