CHICAGO – The team that has been raised from the dead is on its way to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs – and to the Victoria Cup in Zurich in September. Long-time Chicago Blackhawk fan and IIHF Council member Tony Rossi explains the sensational transformation to IIHF.com.
How things have changed in 20 months. In 2007, the Chicago Blackhawks were a club on their way to nowhere. They were out of the playoffs for an eternity and the season-ticket base had slipped below 3,500. The words “forgotten franchise” were used often.
Last Monday, Chicago defeated Vancouver 7-5 in Game 6 of the second playoff round and are set to meet the winner of Anaheim - Detroit in the Stanley Cup semi-finals.
The team is once-again exciting and the club is vibrant. The Game 6 crowd of 22,687 was not only a single-game franchise record, it pushed the Hawks’ season attendance past an unheard-of 1 million.
ComcastSportsNet reports that its coverage of the series clincher delivered the highest Blackhawks audience ever – approximately 273,000.
Few people have had such a long-standing relationship with this classic NHL club as IIHF Council member and Chicago resident Tony Rossi, who is also the vice-president of USA Hockey.
Since there is a clear international connection – the Chicago Blackhawks are playing the ZSC Lions for the 2009 Victoria Cup next fall –Mr. Rossi gave his take on the sensational Hawks’ saga.
Two years ago the United Center was half empty and the Blackhawks were approaching a decade of missing the playoffs. Now, they are drawing the most fans of any hockey team in the world and are maybe the most exciting team in the NHL. How can this turnaround be explained?
It began shortly after the death of Bill Wirtz, the previous owner. Most people expected that the team would be run by his son, Peter who had been working with his father running the Blackhawks. However the family decided that the team would be run by the older son, Rocky.
Rocky had been running the families’ other businesses. Over the years Bill had not kept up with the times and was running the team the same way as he had been 30 years ago. For example, he refused to televise the home games and he constantly lost players due to his refusal to be competitive on player contracts.
When Rocky took over he immediately made a number of front office changes and hired people who could get the job done. Marketing efforts were stepped up, a TV contract was signed. Young players were developed and they had two great drafts in two years. A lot of great young players came together with great marketing efforts.
Looking purely at the team, what makes them tick?
They are young and full of enthusiasm and at the same time they have a couple of older players who are making a great contribution like forward Martin Havlat and the goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin.
European fans are keen to know what you have to say about the European Hawks, Khabibulin, Havlat, Pahlsson, Hjalmarsson – who stands out?
In my mind Havlat really makes them go. He has just played great. Khabibulin has had a great second half of the season. In October of last year he was actually put on waivers and no team claimed him so he is still a Hawk and a great Hawk. Pahlsson was acquired late in the season and has played very well. Hjalmarsson came up from the farm team and just stayed. He is young, but a good skater and very smart, he just does not make mistakes and always is in the right place at the right time.
Are you surprised they have won two playoff rounds?
Yes, I thought they would get by Calgary since they had won all four games with them during the season, but I was surprised they won the second round against Vancouver. You can see their confidence growing each game.
You knew this question was coming – can they go all the way?
This team is so young I don’t think they realize that they should not be able to win the Cup. Anything is possible as long as they continue to believe in themselves.
Tell us little about your relationship with the club, when did you see your first Blackhawk game and who were the great players of that era?
I went to my first game in the mid 1950’s and was able to see the young players like Bobby Hull, Stan Makita and, of course, the great Bill Hay.
What is your most memorable Blackhawk moment?
The best moment was winning the Cup in 1961.
Who is the best player that you have ever seen in a Chicago uniform?
Bobby Hull was the most spectacular.
Although the club was founded in 1926, they have only won three Stanley Cups. But Chicago is still one of the most popular clubs in the NHL with many fans in Canada and Europe. What is your explanation for that?
I am not sure. Maybe it is due to the fact of being one of the original six or maybe it is as simple as the great Indian head logo.
How do the Blackhawks rank among the other Chicago sports teams (Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Bears) in terms of the people’s affection? Is there a profile of a typical Blackhawk fan?
Chicago is a Bears (American Football) town, plain and simple. Everybody else is second. Hawk fans are a small group but really loyal.
How did you react when you saw the news that the Blackhawks have been selected to represent the NHL at the Victoria Cup the coming September?
I was really happy to hear that they were selected. It just shows how popular they have become.
Last year, the Rangers needed a goal with 20 seconds left to defeat the European champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the inaugural Victoria Cup. We know it’s early, but how do you think they will do against the Champions Hockey League winner ZSC Lions of Zurich?
They will do fine it will be a great game. The home team will have a very vocal crowd and I am sure it will be a good, close game.
Although there is no such strong tradition of sports fan travelling in the USA as there is in Europe, do you think that some Hawks fans will make the trip to Europe to see the two games in Zurich and the season opener in Helsinki vs. Florida?
I do not think there will be much of a fan base traveling that far. You have to remember that the Chicago fan does not know a lot about the quality of European hockey and as I said before, this is a Bears town and September and October it will be football time.
If you could choose the most appropriate person to do the ceremonial puck drop at the Victoria Cup, whom would you choose?
The Blackhawks have been raised from the dead by one person and that is Rocky Wirtz. Without him there would still be six or seven thousand people watching the team play in a building that holds over 22,000. He should drop the puck.