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PATRICK SHARP WAS TRADED FROM THE FLYERS TO THE BLACKHAWKS IN DECEMBER 2005, a deal that, given the 2010 Stanley Cup parade through downtown Chicago, is tinged with a certain irony. This, of course, is the blessing of hindsight. On that distant winter day the Sharp trade—the center basically cost the Hawks a bag of pucks and a dozen coupons for Subway—was barely more than lines of agate in most North American newspapers, a minor upgrade for a cellar-dwelling team that needed an overhaul. ¶ Sharp's first game in the distinctive Blackhawks jersey was against the Rangers, a nominally attractive Original Six matchup. Not that Chicagoland seemed to notice. Empty seats cut wide swaths throughout the cavernous and roarless United Center that night.
"I had come from a first-place team in Philly, and now this," recalls Sharp of the fans' indifference. "Years ago I would have never expected [our franchise] to turn around so quickly. The Cup means a lot to everybody but especially to guys like [defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook] and myself, who have been here through some pretty tough years.... I challenge anyone to find a better place to play in the league right now than Chicago."
From moribund to incandescent, from patsy to powerhouse, this heritage franchise has roared all the way back.
In truth a Hawks renaissance always had been low-hanging fruit. After so many seasons of irrelevance and incompetence, the Blackhawks sifted through the rubble of past mistakes and, in just a few short years, rebuilt on the ice and off, finally etching their names into a 35-pound trophy while engraving their brand into the hearts of formerly disaffected fans. Says fourth-liner Adam Burish, "Nothing in life turns around as quickly as this franchise did."
So what was the primordial moment when the franchise started on the long road back to relevance? You can argue it was in 2002 when Chicago drafted Keith, the Norris Trophy—caliber defenseman, a prescient choice that predates the picks of captain Jonathan Toews in '06 and Patrick Kane in '07, and the hiring of coach Joel Quenneville in the fall of '08. But for many embittered Hawks fans, the cycle of life began in September 2007, with the death of chairman Bill Wirtz.
Wirtz was an NHL colossus, one of its great power brokers and a man with a heart that was often in the right place even if his mind was back in the 1960s. You could land at O'Hare, mention the Blackhawks to a stranger, and within 90 seconds, as guaranteed as death and taxes, you would hear a complaint about the Hawks' absence from local TV. Wirtz simply refused to air any of their home games, believing the telecasts would hurt attendance. Former general manager Dale Tallon, the architect of this Cup team, regularly used to moan that Wirtz's recalcitrance was costing the Hawks a 2½-hour infomercial every night. Wirtz would not be moved. He was as intractable as the Blackhawks were invisible.
But with the surprising ascension of Wirtz's son Rocky to chairman—most in the hockey world assumed one of Bill's younger sons, Peter, who had been a Blackhawks vice president, would succeed his father—the Hawks were slingshotted into modernity. Not only did Rocky put all games on TV beginning with the 2008-09 season, but he also altogether broke free of his father's hidebound ways.
The Blackhawks skipped the 20th century and went directly to the 21st in November 2007 when they hired the man most responsible for turning Wrigley Field into a baseball theme park, John McDonough. The ex-Cubs president is a tall, patrician fellow, who, using an approach he called "a bulldozer on steroids," pounded on the reset button. In his first 11 months on the job he made 27 changes to the business office; doubled the front-office staff; hired a receptionist—no, the Hawks hadn't bothered to have one previously—started a midsummer Blackhawks convention; rehired popular play-by-play man Pat Foley; and, in a crucial nod to the team's heritage, repatriated estranged Chicago stars such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
The season-ticket base was 3,400 in 2007. Now it is more than 14,000 with a waiting list of 8,000 more.
"I think Rocky Wirtz lay awake at night thinking, I can't wait to get the reins of that hockey club, because it's going to change when I get it," Hull told SI. "And he did everything right. The engine was Rocky. The engineer was McDonough, and the two boilermakers were [marketing director] Peter Hassen and [vice president] Jay Blunk. They made the train run, and it's running very smoothly."