So, can you tell Bill Wirtz is no longer among the living? I sure can.
Truthfully, I'm surprised the karma police haven't paid me a visit given how often I've spoken ill of the deceased Blackhawks owner.
Back in September, the Blackhawks came up in conversation in our newsroom, and I pointed out that most of the team's fans (including myself) had been waiting for Wirtz to die for years.
The Blackhawks had been bad for a decade. They were never going to be taken seriously again with him in charge, and there was no chance he would ever sell the team. That left fans no choice but to bide their time, waiting for Wirtz pass away.
Incredibly, the day after I explained this to my co-workers, Wirtz lost his battle with cancer. That led to a few good wisecracks around the office, as if my rant against Wirtz had somehow caused his death.
Still, if you put most Blackhawks fans on truth serum and assured them they didn't have to be politically correct, they would admit that Wirtz's death made them feel like the munchkins did when Dorothy's house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East.
There's no question in my mind the franchise has turned around in the eight months since. Take my own personal experience, for example:
I attended four Blackhawk games at United Center this season, the first of which came on Nov. 7 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a Wednesday night. I arrived 30 minutes before puck drop, parked my car practically in the shadow of the arena, walked up to the ticket booth and purchased a seat in the second row of the balcony. The second row! Thirty minutes before faceoff!
As I walked the upper concourse at the UC, the vendors spoke specifically to me: "Sir, can I interest you in some Blackhawk souvenirs?" "Sir, would you be interested in
applying for this credit card? You get a free T-Shirt!"
These vendors weren't just bellowing out to the crowd. They were talking to me and me only -- because I was the only one there -- 20 minutes before the game started. That night, I had a whole row of seats to myself. There were about 12 people seated in my section total. Sad, really.
The Blackhawks beat Columbus 5-2. I was entertained. I got my money's worth.
Fast forward to March 9, the last game I attended this season. Once again, I had a seat in the balcony -- purchased a week in advance instead of on game day -- this time in the eighth row. There wasn't a seat to be had in my whole section. The lines in the bathroom and at the concession stand were endless. People were packed elbow to elbow on the concourse 20 minutes before the game.
What a difference. People care about the Hawks again.
The team lost 6-5 in overtime to the Edmonton Oilers that day, but the thing that stood out was the change in environment at the UC that happened between Nov. 7 and March 9.
Why the quick turnaround?
Well, for starters, the Blackhawks had a surprisingly good season. They damn near made the playoffs, which nobody expected. They were in the hunt all the way until this final week of the campaign.
But there's something else at work there too: Namely, Rocky Wirtz -- Bill's son -- gets it. Slowly but surely, home games have started to be televised. The Old Man never did that, insisting that he was protecting his "season reservation holders," which were
dwindling in number lousy year after lousy year after lousy year.
This week, the younger Wirtz announced that all 82 games next season will be televised, including 20 on WGN.
On occasion, I've heard my uncles talk about how they used to watch Bobby Hull play on WGN when they were kids. But in my 31 years on Earth, the notion of the
Blackhawks on TV has been a foreign concept. It's finally changing. Thank goodness.
When people see this exciting young team play (and win), they're going to want to come to United Center. Rocky Wirtz understands that.
Blackhawk legends like Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito -- long alienated from the organization by Bill Wirtz -- were honored in ceremonies before recent games. They are now serving as community ambassadors for the team. I think the older fans who remember watching those greats play appreciate those guys getting their due respect.
Finally, the Blackhawks are making positive press for themselves.
Last year at this time, the Blackhawks were literally giving away tickets, anything to put fans in seats. They won't have to worry about that anymore.
It sounds crass to say it, but it's true: The turning point for the organization was Bill Wirtz's passing. So many of these good things would not be happening if he were still here.
Within a couple years, we might have a Stanley Cup contender in Chicago. Thank you, Rocky Wirtz, for helping to bring a long dormant sports franchise back to life.