In 2004, the Chicago Blackhawks were as low as you can go. In February of that year, ESPN named them the worst franchise in professional sports. They finished the 2003-2004 season with a 20-43-11 record, dead last in the Central Division. Later that year, the NHL cancelled its entire 2004-2005 in a bitter labor dispute between its owners and its players.
The mighty Blackhawks, as billed in their longtime theme song, had fallen to an all-time low under then-owner Bill Wirtz, derisively nicknamed “Dollar Bill” for his perceived penny-pinching. One of hockey’s “Original Six,” a term for the group of six teams that made up the NHL for its first 25 seasons, was suddenly shunned by even its most loyal fans. Fed up with losing and a series of decidedly un-fan friendly policies instituted by Wirtz, including a TV blackout of the team’s home games and an ill-timed raise in ticket prices, many of the team’s fans began supporting the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Chicago Wolves, a team, which, for a time, took a jab at the Hawks with the slogan, “We Play Hockey the Old-Fashioned Way: We Actually Win.”
In many ways the Blackhawks of the mid 2000s were the Cubs of the early 2010s. They were both teams that sunk so low as franchises that one had to wonder if there was any chance of recovery.
Only a decade later and the Blackhawks are once again mighty, playing to raucous, sold-out crowds and battling for their third championship in six seasons.
Now it looks like it’s the Cubs that are on the verge of a miraculous turnaround and possibly a golden age the likes of which they haven’t seen since the early 1900s.
The Northside baseball team’s reversal of fortune has in many ways followed the model for sustained success of its Chicago hockey counterpart.
For the Blackhawks, the rebirth grew from their failure. With the third overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the team selected Jonathan Toews, who would develop into the team’s captain and one of the league’s biggest stars. The following year the team selected Patrick Kane, the first overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. The foundation for success was set.
In 2007, the Blackhawks also had a new owner. Rocky Wirtz succeeded his father, Bill, who died after a brief battle with cancer. The younger Wirtz breathed new life into the franchise, hiring John McDonough, formerly the president of the Chicago Cubs, as the franchise’s new president, and bringing back Blackhawk greats Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita as “hockey ambassadors.”
Bolstered by their two young stars, the Blackhawks finished the 2007–08 season 40-34, their first winning season in six years. The Blackhawks were back. But they had only just begun.
The following season the Blackhawks advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals, losing to the rival Detroit Red Wings 4-1. They fully arrived in the 2009-2010 season, winning the Stanley Cup by defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2, giving the organization its first NHL championship since 1961.
Three seasons later the Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup again. Now they are trying to make it three times in six years. Not bad for a franchise that a decade ago was considered the worst in professional sports.
For the Cubs the rebuild began in earnest after the 2011 season, two years after the Ricketts family took over as owners from the Tribune Company. It was then that owner Tom Ricketts lured away Boston Red Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein by hiring him to lead the club as team president. Epstein, one of the architects of two World Series titles in Boston, brought along Jed Hoyer to fill the role of GM.
Seeing an aging franchise, the tandem of Epstein and Hoyer embarked on a youth movement the goal of which was to stockpile a decaying farm system with a pool of young talented players the team would be able to draw from for years to come. Through a series of trades they acquired Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, C.J. Edwards, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm. Through the draft they added Albert Amora, Kris Bryant, Pierce Johnson and Kyle Schwarber. Through the international market they signed Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler.
Rizzo, Russell, Bryant, Soler, Ramirez and Grimm are already key parts of the new-look Cubs, giving the team the kind of hope it hasn’t seen in a number of years. In many ways, Rizzo and Bryant can be seen as the Toews and Kane of the Hawks, the foundations for long-term success. With players like Edwards, Almora, Johnson and Schwarber waiting in the wings, the hope is that the early successes of 2015 will continue for years to come.
These young Cubs have a vested interest in rooting for their city’s hockey franchise because they are built on a similar model for sustained excellence. So let’s all hope that they’re cheering along with us: Go Hawks!