An iconic franchise with a passionate fan base falls on very hard times, has a change in ownership and front office leadership and tries to lure back fans, gets some luck in the draft and then build around a couple of stars. The result? A string of championships.
It’s the blueprint that every Cubs fan hopes the team is following. But it’s one that the Blackhawks have already accomplished.
Wasn’t that long ago that “Dollar Bill” Wirtz wouldn’t show Hawks home games on TV, wouldn’t pay for talent and traded away budding stars. An Original Six NHL team became a laughingstock, making the playoffs once in 10 years between 1997-98 and 2007-08 and getting further and further away from winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961. In fact, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports in 2004.
Then things started to change. General manager Dale Tallon drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and was even allowed to dangle some big money to free agents. But it seemed that no real stars wanted to play for the Hawks, who had developed a well-founded reputation for not doing what it took to win.
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) June 4, 2015
But Bill Wirtz died. You hate to say that the team started to live again after the owner died, but there’s a lot of truth to it this time. Wirtz’s son Rocky took over and started to right the wrongs of his father. He put home games on TV, he brought back exiled stars Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita as ambassadors, and he oversaw some bold moves in the front office and behind the bench. In the span of a few years, the stigma of the Bill Wirtz era was long gone. Casualties of the housecleaning were Tallon and coach Denis Savard. There was an uproar at the time but also a burgeoning trust in the new administration. Instead of saying “Damn Hawks, screwing things up again,” fans said “I feel bad for those guys, but let’s give it some time. Rocky and Co. have been doing some good things.”
The rest of the NHL must have noticed. All-Stars Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell accepted fat contracts from the Hawks, who were now featured on national TV playing in the NHL’s marquee Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Playoff appearances followed, along with another big star in Marian Hossa. The Hawks rewarded their own homegrown stars with long-term contracts. Ask Tony Amonte if that happened back in the day.
And the rest, as they say is history – two Stanley Cups and a perennial NHL threat in the playoffs. Man oh man, it feels good to write that.
Oh yeah, but how does this Hawks history apply to the Cubs? The parallels up to a point are pretty clear.
The Ricketts family bought the team from the Tribune Company and promised a less corporate, more fan friendly approach and smart approach to finally doing something that hadn’t happened in over 100 years, winning the World Series. Man, it feels crappy to write that.
The Ricketts’ started boldly, luring young genius Theo Epstein from the Red Sox in 2011 after he ended the Red Sox’s World Series drought. The new Cubs prez of baseball laid out a five-year plan that featured building the base of the team through the draft, international signings and shrew trades for young talent, making improvements to Wrigley Field to make the team more appealing to free agents, maximize earnings and improve the fan experience, and then spending on proven stars once a strong nucleus of talent had been developed.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) June 3, 2015
So how’s Theo doing? Right on target.
How can you not think of Toews and Kane when looking at Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo? They look like cornerstones, guys that might actually be able to lead the Cubs to pinnacle. But the Hawks aren’t a two-man show. They’re in the Cup finals because of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and others. Well, the Cubs are also trying to build a deep young nucleus. Couldn’t those secondary stars come from the likes of Addison Russell, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez?
And was Epstein true to his word on acquiring established veterans to complement the youngsters? I’d say Jon Lester more than answers that question. Theo didn’t just dip his toes into the free-agent waters, he dove in headfirst.
As the Blackhawks try to win their third Stanley Cup in six years, the Cubs’ plan is finally coming together. The team is extremely young, so this won’t be a meteoric rise. But a playoff appearance this season is not out of the question. And then what?
Could we be watching the first steps of a Cubs march to dynasty status, just like we saw with the Hawks in 2007-08? It sure feels that way.
You can reach me at Patrick@CubsFanTherapy.com.