How Chicago Became a Hockey Town Again

For years, Bill Wirtz protected a declining fan base from itself by keeping the Hawks off TV—and keeping the NHL off TV in the process. Opening up the franchise for the bandwagon created a new generation of fans.

Blackhawks Stanley Cup

Photo: Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

Dave Bolland kisses the Stanley Cup, June 24, 2013

When the Blackhawks won in 2010, I didn’t care enough to watch the Finals on television. I was curious enough to check in occasionally on the Internet, so I knew what had happened when a burst of cheers came from the bar down the street. Last night, I actually watched. I still don’t really understand hockey, but some things are sufficiently universal, like coming from behind with two goals in 17 seconds, the first a high-wire empty net goal, to win the Stanley Cup. The rest could have been more interesting if I knew what I was watching, like figuring out how the Hawks went from being outshot 6-12 in a period where they barely seemed to have the puck to outshooting the Bruins 16-7.

I blame the abysmal human-demolition-derby with the racist name I was exposed to as something called “hockey” in the South. And to a lesser extent I blame Bill Wirtz.

Wirtz’s battles against televising Hawks games are the stuff of legend, but you might not realize quite how far they go back. In 1971, it became a subject of City Council debate.

The City Council unanimously passed a resolution yesterday urging the management of the Black Hawks [they were known as the Black Hawks until 1986, when the team realized that, oops, they were founded as the Blackhawks] to televise all subsequent home games during the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs.

Citing that the Black Hawks owe a certain responsibility to the people and city of Chicago, Ald. Casimir J. Staszcuk [13th] introduced the resolution.

In its “whereas” clauses, the resolution pointed out that many hockey fans are either unable to obtain or afford tickets to the Stadium or closed circuit theater telecasts of home matches.

By televising home games, the resolution stated, the Black Hawks would not incur any substantial financial loss and would return loyalty which the city has shown to the Black Hawk organization and other professional sports teams in Chicago.

Several National Hockey League teams televise some home games, regular season and playoffs. But William Wirtz, president of the Black Hawks, has maintained that it would be unfair to Stadium patrons if, after tickets had been sold, the games were telecast locally. (Tribune, 5/6/71)

Wirtz didn’t entirely object to televising the games: in May of 1971—the Hawks reached the Stanley Cup final that year with Tony and Phil Esposito, Bobby and Dennis Hull, and Stan Mikita, the year before Bobby Hull left for the World Hockey Association—the playoff games were aired at four theaters, in Berwyn, Park Ridge, Beverly, and the Loop, at $6 a ticket (up from $3.50 in 1966), the equivalent of $35 today.

Bill Wirtz, despite his degree in economics from Brown and his success as a businessman, stuck to this line for years, repeated almost verbatim over the generations: “our season ticket-holders pay for exclusivity,” “we are loyal to our season-ticket holders,” the same line as his father, protecting his most devout fans from themselves in the fear that they’d leave the Madhouse on Madison for the living room.

(Well, that is, unless they were willing to pay for exclusivity through the money-losing SportsVision pay-per-view system, or Hawkvision during its brief existence.)

Yet Wirtz could not figure out why no one else cared about his team, as he complained to the Tribune in 1989:

With the Hawks racing to the best record in the National Hockey League at 14-6-1, Wirtz believes it`s pertinent to ask why he can`t read and watch his team covered in the same manner the media blankets his professional wintertime rivals-the Bears and Bulls.

Some team officials have been irked that shortly after games, in the sports roundups on WBBM, the Hawks` result that night is routinely listed among the other scores rattled off by the announcer. There are often no extra details given about the Hawks, no brief quotes tagged on from any of the players to make the result come alive.

“I can`t think of another town in the NHL where this kind of thing would happen,“ Wirtz said. “It`s insulting to our team.“

Wirtz specifically referred to The Tribune and Sun-Times declining to assign a columnist yet to report about a game, after his club has won 11 of its last 13.

But Wirtz wasn’t just keeping the Hawks to himself; he helped keep the NHL on ice for years. Wirtz was chairman of the NHL’s board of governors for 18 years, at a time when it had considerable power over the league and its commissioner. He stepped down in 1992, replaced by Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings; Gary Bettman then took over as commissioner. And the first thing he had to do was get a TV deal through Wirtz:

New NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his new broadcasting chief, former Chicagoan Skip Prince, are trying to transform the league from a regional attraction into a national force. And the best way to do it, they figure, is through television.

At present, the league has a five-year agreement, but no signed formal contract, with ESPN for national cable rights through the Stanley Cup playoffs. As part of the original agreement, which began this season, ESPN’s telecasts would not be blacked out in any markets for the final two playoff rounds.

But old-line owners, such as the Blackhawks’ Bill Wirtz, want to keep things the way they are and are not only disputing the ambiguity of the ESPN agreement, but also want a blackout as a permanent part of a formal deal.

Prince, a Chicago lawyer—and a transplant from Virginia—said that Wirtz had tried “to create a nurtured season-ticket base that is so pampered and so exclusive it will come even when the team isn’t winning… you have to try hard to be a hockey fan in Chicago.”

Wirtz left no room for the casual fan to join the bandwagon in Chicago, and the NHL’s hash of a media strategy during the years Wirtz ran the board of governors reinforced its identity as a cultishly regional sport. And a lot of people, myself included, grew up with no idea what hockey was. Under Bettman’s reign, the league has thrived.

His grasp on the league weakened, Wirtz continued his provincial ways with the Hawks. Only after his passing, and the ascension of his son Rocky to the throne, did the franchise change. They broadcast all the games, hired a receptionist for the first time, and saw the season-ticket base, Bill Wirtz’s sacred possession, triple in three years. Now Hawks fans flood Wrigleyville to celebrate a team that was forgotten just a few years ago. (Tell me again about how the Cubs are going leave that sports-besotted neighborhood for Rosemont.) Opening up the bandwagon, in the end, saved the base.

 

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