The sharp, personable Tallon, who was director of player personnel from 1998 to 2002, was the team's TV and radio analyst for 17 years. The former defenseman did half the games on television and the other half on radio because only the Hawks' road games are on local TV. In any discussion of Wirtz in Chicago, the owner's refusal to televise home games comes up within 30 seconds. The policy is rooted in the philosophy that TV hurts attendance more than it enhances the brand. Eschewing the possibility of airing what are essentially three-hour commercials for his team, Wirtz reiterated that "for us, season [ticket holders] are first, second and third." Considering that Chicago is down to 6,000, Wirtz could thank each one personally on Fan Depreciation Day.
Wirtz's Blackhawks once made the playoffs for 28 straight years, but since the late 1990s they have had an unerring ability to trade (or allow to leave via free agency) precisely the kind of gutty players of whom Chicago fans are so enamored—Roenick, Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour, Tony Amonte and now Sullivan. When Wirtz did spend, the money was wasted on the declining Doug Gilmour (in 1998) and the unreliable Theo Fleury (2002). While the Blackhawks lurched from plan to plan, solid players such as Bryan McCabe, J.P. Dumont and Ethan Moreau were lost. As Thibault said, "We've been a dog chasing its tail."
There have been promising signs from the current group of young Blackhawks, such as rookie center Tuomo Ruutu and left wings Mark Bell and Kyle Calder, but the sign that really grabbed the city was off an expressway. A billboard promoting the Chicago Wolves, a minor league team that has won two IHL championships and one AHL title since 1998, read, WE PLAY HOCKEY THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY. WE WIN. With the Blackhawks forced to play Craig Anderson and Michael Leighton in net while Thibault recovers from hip surgery, the Wolves (who average 7,080 fans per game) have the best goalie in town, Atlanta Thrashers draft choice Kari Lehtonen.
Still Sutter, whose contract expires at the end of this season, soldiers on. The Blackhawks made the playoffs in his first year and were positioned to do so again last season before an incident involving Fleury and some teammates in a Columbus, Ohio, strip joint in January 2003 marked the start of a slide that saw them lose 21 of 35 games, taking the team out of contention. ( Fleury got into a scuffle with the club's bouncers; he and two teammates were fined.) This year's squad, which has played 13 rookies, is thinner but more enthusiastic than last year's. After Chicago's 6-3 loss to San Jose last Thursday, the Sharks were apoplectic that Ruutu had gone unpenalized for drilling defenseman Tom Preissing from behind 40 seconds into the game and that Blackhawks enforcer Ryan VandenBussche had charged Todd Harvey as the final horn sounded. San Jose coach Ron Wilson called the latter move "VandenBussche league," which Sutter took as a compliment. After a spirited practice last Friday, Sutter said the trouble is that Chicago doesn't give opposing teams reason to complain more often. "Like I always say, when you come to the bench and somebody isn't hacking and whacking you, asking where your wife was the night before, then you've gone about your job with quite a bit of complacency," Sutter said.
In the postlockout, salary-capped world that may be on the horizon, the Blackhawks will seek character players, the kind of big-effort, no-excuses guys of the 1980s and early 1990s who made Chicago hockey an event. For better or Wirtz.