There are eight people in Section 207 of the United Center when the puck drops on this springlike Sunday afternoon, precisely seven fewer patrons than there are words in the title of the book Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks Fans. The author, a civil rights lawyer named Mark Weinberg, used to peddle his 155-page polemic for $13 outside the arena but stopped in late November when the ill Chicago winds blew and the demand for his work turned as cold.
Weinberg had saturated the market of Wirtz-bashers—at least the ones who still bothered to attend—and the crowds were as sparse as Bobby Hull's hair, pretoupee. On this day the 20,500-seat arena is less than three quarters full, and the fans cheer at the end of the national anthem not from the depths of their soul, as they once did in the old Chicago Stadium, when stars like Hull and Stan Mikita skated for the team and Blackhawks games were the best experience in sports, but from some vestigial memory. They grow animated when their team rallies to beat the St. Louis Blues 3-2 in overtime, but their roar after Stephane Robidas's game-winning goal lacks fire; it's more like a thank you for a satisfactory afternoon out in the company of Ice Crew girls and $4.75 nachos.
It hasn't been a good week for hockey in Chicago, City of Big Shoulders and Small Contracts. For one of the NHL's original six franchises, a team that will miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, that was tied for last in the Western Conference through Sunday, that ranked 26th in the NHL in attendance (13,539 per game) despite playing in the league's second-largest arena, that endured a club-record 19-game road losing streak earlier this season, that plays two rookie goalies who largely have been self-coached this season because goal-tending consultant Vladislav Tretiak has been busy with his political career in Russian, that is now being run by a loyal but recycled general manager who took the job despite a shaky grasp of leaguewide talent, this might be, as injured veteran goalie Jocelyn Thibault put it, "rock bottom."
The only banner that should hang from the rafters this year is a white flag. Last week Chicago saved $2 million by trading its two best players for a rugged young defenseman who projects to be no better than a No. 4 blueliner, a junior center with third-line potential and three second-round draft choices. The Blackhawks' most popular player and leading scorer, right wing Steve Sullivan, was sent to Nashville on Feb. 16 after declining to take a pay cut. Sullivan had five goals and five assists in his first three games in Nashville, prompting Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey to write, "I never dreamed I would see the day a Chicago Blackhawk could help his career by becoming a Nashville Predator."
Three days later Chicago shipped captain Alex Zhamnov to Philadelphia. Zhamnov, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, already had spurned a Blackhawks' offer for $1 million less than his current $4.5 million salary. The center knew he would be moved before the March 9 trading deadline; the only surprise came when the Tribune relegated the story to its third sports page. "The problem wasn't trading the captain. The problem was there was no reaction to trading the captain," says Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports consulting firm. "The silence was deafening."
Among those who still care, the anger is directed at the 74-year-old Wirtz, who has transmogrified from hockey colossus into cartoon villain, a man more enamored of a dollar than the Stanley Cup—last won in Chicago in 1961, the NHL's longest drought. Wirtz's family has owned the team for 50 years. His is the face of Chicago hockey, one that is now puffy and shopworn. He is slightly paralyzed in his right leg following two strokes, and his speech can be thick. His tenure is so long that his five children were harassed at school when Bobby Hull bolted the Blackhawks for the World Hockey Association in 1972, just as his grandchildren are now teased about the team's current woes. For an owner who, with the Bulls' Jerry Reinsdorf, built the United Center in 1994 without any public money, there is no hint of public gratitude.
"I laugh when I hear that 'Dollar Bill' crap, about how cheap the organization is," says coach Brian Sutter. "When I came in 2001 the payroll was in the top 10, and I told Mr. Wirtz and Pully [ G.M. Bob Pulford] that this was one of the most overpaid, underachieving teams I'd seen." Vice president Peter Wirtz, one of Bill's two sons, says the team will lose $15 million to $18 million this season, similar to losses of the previous two years. The Blackhawks are poster boys for the recent NHL-commissioned report by former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt that claimed that teams had lost a combined $273 million last season. "I think the Levitt report proved [Bill] Wirtz right," said Ganis, the sports consultant. "He was a sane man in an insane world. Not without a price. His principles cost him his reputation and some money. There's probably not much solace in being right."
Three hours before the Blues game, Wirtz sits in a United Center conference room, wearing a blue blazer with a Blackhawks crest. He is an attentive host, telling stories as much as answering questions. He always has had almost as much self-deprecating charm as money. During a deposition in the late 1990s, when Weinberg was suing the Hawks for denying him press credentials, a secretary asked Wirtz if he wanted coffee. " Starbucks for me," Weinberg recalls him saying, "and Folgers for everybody else." But after the deposition Wirtz said, "Mark, I've got my limousine downstairs. Can I drop you anywhere?" Said Weinberg, "I was like, 'Gee, no, thank you, sir' "
Wirtz's new buzzword for the Blackhawks is flexibility. After three G.M.'s, six coaches and even more ideologies since 1998, Chicago has committed just $5 million in salaries for next season, theoretically allowing the Blackhawks to cherry-pick free agents and players other teams will have to unload. This strategy presupposes a salary cap, which will not be achieved without a lockout, if at all. The Blackhawks, in other words, are liable to improve more if they don't play than if they do. With a lottery pick and another seven draft choices in the first four rounds, Chicago, if it drafts well—a big assumption considering its last impact pick was Jeremy Roenick in 1988—could be poised for a turnaround as dramatic as that of the Detroit "Dead Things" of the 1980s. Of course, before becoming the NHL's gold standard, the Red Wings changed owners. Chicago shouldn't hold its breath.
The Blackhawks' owner asserted himself in October after firing general manager Mike Smith. ( Chicago has refused to pay Smith the remaining one-plus years on his contract, claiming Smith violated the terms of his deal; the matter is before the NHL.) Wirtz named Pulford, the senior vice president, as general manager—Pulford has been the G.M. four times, having bounced around the front office since 1977—but also named Dale Tallon as Pulford's assistant and said Tallon would, after a period of apprenticeship, be the next G.M. When Pulford later said his new assistant might not necessarily be his successor, Wirtz issued a press release asserting that Tallon certainly would be. For a few bizarre days, it seemed as though the Blackhawks were playing in the Divided Center.