New owner leads turnaround of Chicago team

CHICAGO Tue May 27, 2008 3:25pm EDT

Detroit Red Wings leftwing Tomas Holmstrom (R) keeps the puck from Chicago Blackhawks center Yanic Perreault (C) and defenseman Duncan Keith during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Detroit, Michigan April 6, 2008. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Detroit Red Wings leftwing Tomas Holmstrom (R) keeps the puck from Chicago Blackhawks center Yanic Perreault (C) and defenseman Duncan Keith during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Detroit, Michigan April 6, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Not long ago, before basketball legend Michael Jordan arrived in Chicago, roars frequently shook the rafters in an arena just west of downtown.

Chicago was hockey mad.

Greats like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita brought a championship to the city in 1961, but the Chicago Blackhawks have not won since. Fans have suffered the longest such drought in the National Hockey League -- even as the Bears football and White Sox baseball teams celebrated titles, and the Jordan-led Bulls captured six championships in the 1990s.

The NHL's lockout three years ago that threatened to bring an entire sport to its financial knees, sent angry fans packing as players sat out the season.

The frustration was perhaps greatest in championship-starved Chicago -- where the rabid Blackhawks' fan base has also suffered ownership that didn't appear to be bothered much by mediocrity.

But now, a new owner with a familiar name wants to make Chicago a winning hockey town again, but that will involve undoing some of the harm done by his late father.

"It was anger, and then it was indifference, and that's the worst thing you can have. That turns to irrelevance," William Rockwell "Rocky" Wirtz said recently of the feelings fans increasingly felt for the team his grandfather bought in 1954.

"Chicago is a hockey town," he told Reuters in an interview from his office at family owned Wirtz Corp. "Bobby Hull was as great a superstar for people who lived in the metro Chicago area as Michael Jordan was."

The Blackhawks' turnaround mirrors the NHL's resurgence since the 2004-2005 season was eliminated when the owners locked out the players in a bid to cut salaries. Since then, the sport has rebounded with three years of record attendance.

Wirtz Corp is one of the largest privately owned companies in Illinois with $1.4 billion in annual revenue and 2,900 employees. In addition to the hockey team, it owns one of the largest U.S. liquor distributors and has interests in insurance, banking and real estate.

'HIGH EXPECTATIONS'

Wirtz, 55, calls the fans' anger for his late father Bill -- derisively nicknamed "Dollar Bill" for his frugality in paying players -- "old baggage."

When Wirtz took over after his father's death from cancer in September, he moved quickly to change the club's culture, including signing a deal to televise several home games -- so the fans "can see us score goals" -- and then expanding that to air every game for the next three years. His father had angered fans by refusing to air most home games in fairness to season-ticket holders.

However, many thought Wirtz's coup was the late November hiring of John McDonough, president of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, to the same position with the Blackhawks.

"We need to take that beautiful arena and we need to bring back the roar and fill that building every night," McDonough, 54, said. "Expectations are sky high."

He moved quickly to repair relations with alienated former Blackhawks stars still beloved by fans, hiring Hall-of-Famers Hull, Mikita and Tony Esposito as ambassadors.

"It was embarrassing for a while there. Things were looking real dismal," said former star goalie Esposito, 65, who was the face of the franchise in the 1970s. He said the club is now being run like it was in its heyday.

McDonough also brought a salesman's touch to the front office, working to build a year-round presence for the team, including the creation of the first Blackhawks fan convention, to be held in July. Wirtz also loved that McDonough was a life-long Blackhawks fan.

"When I grew up in Chicago, hockey was bigger than the Bears; it was bigger than the Bulls; it was bigger than the Cubs or Sox," McDonough said. "I remember when the Blackhawks owned this city and I wanted to try and be part of something that would bring them back again."

That will be tough as fans still point to the loss of Hull in 1972, when he signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Winnipeg. Subsequent departures of such popular players as Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick further embittered fans.

"A lot of people just did not like Bill (Wirtz)," said fan Todd Harootyan, who attends about 10 games a year. "Simply with the leadership change, that spite factor disappeared."

The 35-year-old Chicago resident is excited about young stars like Patrick Kane, but wonders whether the city will ever truly embrace the team like it used to when he sees local TV sports shows give hockey scant coverage.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

Signs are favorable, though. Home attendance at the United Center rose 46 percent and merchandise sales surged 175 percent after McDonough came on board and he hopes to double or triple the season-ticket base.

"In the stock market, they call it a correction," he said.

He promises the team -- which has missed the playoffs every season but one since 1997 -- will sign top-tier free agents and retain its stars. To do that, ticket prices have increased an average 17 percent for next season, angering some fans, but McDonough said the team's tickets were among the league's least expensive.

Wirtz said the Blackhawks still would have posted a loss last season even with every home game sold out. He also did not dispute previous reports the club lost $191 million over the past 10 years, including $31 million in the 2006-2007 season.

Ultimately, the changes won't matter unless the Blackhawks hoist the coveted Stanley Cup.

"Until 18 players are skating around that arena in front of 22,000 people holding up that cup, we haven't done anything," McDonough said.

(Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Patrick Fitzgibbons)

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