(Wanted to post this old NYT article as kind of a, you know, hopeful thing for Panthers/Oilers/etc. fans out there. And it’s just still weird to think about this being seven years ago. I hadn’t even moved to Chicago yet! Kaner was a few months from being drafted! A month prior, our future Captain was off with future American Shootout Hero T.J. Oshie drinking it up in ND, not knowing how much mileage they were gonna be giving fangirls.)
Frank Pellico is the Chicago Blackhawks’ longtime organist, which means he usually gets to play in front of thousands of empty red seats at the United Center and for a mediocre team that often disappoints the fans who do show up.
“Well, each game is brand new to us,” Pellico said cheerfully last Sunday on a snowy, windswept afternoon in Chicago. “We have to do each game like we’re in first place. Nobody backs down. I don’t see many down people at all.”
Pellico excused himself because he was supposed to start playing 90 minutes before the game, when the arena gates opened. In this instance, Pellico played for 15 minutes before any people found their seats. A Blackhawks game rarely creates a stampede.
Only 11,182 would come to watch the Blackhawks end a 10-game losing streak by beating Calgary. It was the 12th crowd of less than 12,000 in the 27 games that the Blackhawks played this season at the United Center, which seats 20,500 for hockey.
Sam Walter and three of his friends, all in their 20s, decided an hour before the opening face-off to come watch the Blackhawks. They got their choice of $15 seats in a corner of the upper level.
Asked why they came to the game, Walter smiled and said, “The Bears are off, and it’s fun.”
A $15 ticket is barely more than a movie, he said. He paused, then said, almost sounding as if he were reminding himself, “This used to be a hockey town.”
The Blackhawks provide a sharp contrast to the city’s beloved Bears, who will play in the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years today. The Blackhawks, who have not won the Stanley Cup since 1961, stir little passion in a sports-crazy city.
“It’s kind of hard at times to see it like this,” said Jon Eller, who sat beside Walter as he looked around the arena.
The sad part is that Chicago used to be an N.H.L. stronghold. The Blackhawks began play in 1926, and such hockey legends as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito played for the team. Chicago Stadium, their old arena, was an N.H.L. mecca.
The arena, which stood across the street from where the United Center stands today, had a thundering organ and a booming foghorn that practically shook paint off the rafters after the Blackhawks scored. Traditions were established that are now fading away.
One called for fans to cheer the national anthem from start to finish, whipping up a din that drowned out the singer and generated energy. Some fans still try to carry on the tradition, but they are often hushed by others. Little is the way it used to be.
The Blackhawks (19-26-7) have the third-poorest record in the 30-team N.H.L., ahead of only Philadelphia and Los Angeles. And they are drawing the third-fewest fans, behind St. Louis and the Islanders. A playoff berth this season seems unlikely.
After the N.H.L. lockout ended last year, the Blackhawks signed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who had helped Tampa Bay win the Cup in 2004, and defenseman Adrian Aucoin, the former Islander. But each was injured for stretches of last season.
The team then added right wing Martin Havlat and center Michal Handzus in trades before this season, but Handzus has been out since Oct. 21 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And Aucoin is injured again.
“It always seems like they take one step forward and two steps backward,” said Charlie Pawlowski, a season-ticket holder since 1982.
The Blackhawks have made the playoffs only once in the last 10 years, and that visit lasted only five games. Their Stanley Cup drought is the longest of the N.H.L.’s Original Six, which also includes Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto and the Rangers.
Over all, the Blackhawks seem to have virtually no imprint on a city that loves sports. Because the team’s 77-year-old owner, William Wirtz, has long believed that televised games adversely affect ticket sales, only 5 of 41 home games will be aired this season.
“If they showed them on TV more, maybe people would show up at the games to watch,” Walter said. “He just doesn’t get it.”
The Blackhawks buy time from a radio station to air their games. Season-ticket sales have remained constant, the team said, but average attendance is down to 12,855 — a 6 percent drop from this point last year.
The Blackhawks seem to have no cachet outside the arena. Last week, the front of the Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Niles, Ill., a northern suburb, was filled with Bears merchandise — caps, sweatshirts, T-shirts, jerseys, footballs and party favors.
Dick’s also had racks of Ben Wallace Bulls jerseys. But there were only two Khabibulin jerseys for sale, both in children’s sizes. The only adult Blackhawks jerseys were the No. 55 worn by Éric Dazé, who has played one game in three years because of injuries.
“We’re definitely low on the totem pole in Chicago,” said Aucoin, who has been sidelined this year with a groin injury, “but one of the reasons I came here was because I knew there are still tons and tons of Blackhawks fans waiting for us to win.”
As they wait, they continue to direct most of their frustration at Wirtz, a barrel-chested man often called Dollar Bill, and usually not in a nice way.
His son, Peter, the team’s 44-year-old vice president, wrote in an e-mail message: “Personally, it hurts me very much to see or read things that vilify my father. He is a man who has dedicated his life to the sport of hockey.”
The Wirtz family has owned the team since 1954, and Bill Wirtz has been the team president since 1966. His employees say they enjoy working for him, but a legion of fans considers Wirtz to be tight-fisted and old-fashioned.
Wirtz was unavailable for comment, but Peter Wirtz wrote that the franchise was committed to winning and had not given up on the season. Moreover, he said, the Blackhawks are trying to widen their exposure.
Although five televised home games sound modest, they are the most ever, and ratings are up. The Blackhawks have a discount-ticket plan for students. When the Blackhawks played well before Christmas, more fans came to watch.
“There was a lot of energy at our games,” Peter Wirtz wrote, “and the atmosphere in the building was tremendous. That is why I believe that Chicago is still a great hockey town.”
The recent 10-game losing streak was the second for the Blackhawks in as many years; before last year, the team did not lose 10 games in a row since 1951. This streak clearly tested the emotions of their latest coach, Denis Savard, a former Blackhawks legend.
After the Blackhawks won last Sunday, Savard said: “This is a great city, a great hockey town. I love this organization. I love this city. I love my players.”
Savard, 45, retired after the 1996-97 season and became an assistant coach early the next season under Craig Hartsburg. Savard proceeded to work under Hartsburg and six head coaches that followed.
Then it was Savard’s turn. He replaced Trent Yawney on Nov. 29 and the Blackhawks won their next three games. They even had a winning record as late as Dec. 26. But injuries followed, along with defeats.
“It gets tough mentally sometimes, because the guys want to win,” said Martin Lapointe, a 33-year-old right wing who won two Stanley Cups with Detroit and signed as a free agent in Chicago last August.
The fans want to win, too, at least those paying attention.