There are eight people in Section 207 of the United Center when
the puck drops on this springlike Sunday afternoon, precisely
seven fewer patrons than there are words in the title of the book
Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption
and the Betrayal of Blackhawks Fans. The author, a civil rights
lawyer named Mark Weinberg, used to peddle his 155-page polemic
for $13 outside the arena but stopped in late November when the
ill Chicago winds blew and the demand for his work turned as
Weinberg had saturated the market of Wirtz-bashers--at least the
ones who still bothered to attend--and the crowds were as sparse
as Bobby Hull's hair, pretoupee. On this day the 20,500-seat
arena is less than three quarters full, and the fans cheer at the
end of the national anthem not from the depths of their soul, as
they once did in the old Chicago Stadium, when stars like Hull
and Stan Mikita skated for the team and Blackhawks games were the
best experience in sports, but from some vestigial memory. They
grow animated when their team rallies to beat the St. Louis Blues
3-2 in overtime, but their roar after Stephane Robidas's
game-winning goal lacks fire; it's more like a thank you for a
satisfactory afternoon out in the company of Ice Crew girls and
It hasn't been a good week for hockey in Chicago, City of Big
Shoulders and Small Contracts. For one of the NHL's original six
franchises, a team that will miss the playoffs for the sixth time
in seven seasons, that was tied for last in the Western
Conference through Sunday, that ranked 26th in the NHL in
attendance (13,539 per game) despite playing in the league's
second-largest arena, that endured a club-record 19-game road
losing streak earlier this season, that plays two rookie goalies
who largely have been self-coached this season because
goaltending consultant Vladislav Tretiak has been busy with his
political career in Russian, that is now being run by a loyal but
recycled general manager who took the job despite a shaky grasp
of leaguewide talent, this might be, as injured veteran goalie
Jocelyn Thibault put it, "rock bottom."
The only banner that should hang from the rafters this year is a
white flag. Last week Chicago saved $2 million by trading its
two best players for a rugged young defenseman who projects to be
no better than a No. 4 blueliner, a junior center with third-line
potential and three second-round draft choices. The Blackhawks'
most popular player and leading scorer, right wing Steve
Sullivan, was sent to Nashville on Feb. 16 after declining to
take a pay cut. Sullivan had five goals and five assists in his
first three games in Nashville, prompting Chicago Tribune
columnist Mike Downey to write, "I never dreamed I would see the
day a Chicago Blackhawk could help his career by becoming a
Three days later Chicago shipped captain Alex Zhamnov to
Philadelphia. Zhamnov, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted
free agent on July 1, already had spurned a Blackhawks' offer for
$1 million less than his current $4.5 million salary. The center
knew he would be moved before the March 9 trading deadline; the
only surprise came when the Tribune relegated the story to its
third sports page. "The problem wasn't trading the captain. The
problem was there was no reaction to trading the captain," says
Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports
consulting firm. "The silence was deafening."
Among those who still care, the anger is directed at the
74-year-old Wirtz, who has transmogrified from hockey colossus
into cartoon villain, a man more enamored of a dollar than the
Stanley Cup--last won in Chicago in 1961, the NHL's longest
drought. Wirtz's family has owned the team for 50 years. His is
the face of Chicago hockey, one that is now puffy and shopworn.
He is slightly paralyzed in his right leg following two strokes,
and his speech can be thick. His tenure is so long that his five
children were harassed at school when Bobby Hull bolted the
Blackhawks for the World Hockey Association in 1972, just as his
grandchildren are now teased about the team's current woes. For
an owner who, with the Bulls' Jerry Reinsdorf, built the United
Center in 1994 without any public money, there is no hint of
"I laugh when I hear that 'Dollar Bill' crap, about how cheap the
organization is," says coach Brian Sutter. "When I came in 2001
the payroll was in the top 10, and I told Mr. Wirtz and Pully
[G.M. Bob Pulford] that this was one of the most overpaid,
underachieving teams I'd seen." Vice president Peter Wirtz, one
of Bill's two sons, says the team will lose $15 million to $18
million this season, similar to losses of the previous two years.
The Blackhawks are poster boys for the recent NHL-commissioned
report by former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt that claimed that
teams had lost a combined $273 million last season. "I think the
Levitt report proved [Bill] Wirtz right," said Ganis, the sports
consultant. "He was a sane man in an insane world. Not without a
price. His principles cost him his reputation and some money.
There's probably not much solace in being right."
Three hours before the Blues game, Wirtz sits in a United Center
conference room, wearing a blue blazer with a Blackhawks crest.
He is an attentive host, telling stories as much as answering
questions. He always has had almost as much self-deprecating
charm as money. During a deposition in the late 1990s, when
Weinberg was suing the Hawks for denying him press credentials, a
secretary asked Wirtz if he wanted coffee. "Starbucks for me,"
Weinberg recalls him saying, "and Folgers for everybody else."
But after the deposition Wirtz said, "Mark, I've got my limousine
downstairs. Can I drop you anywhere?" Said Weinberg, "I was like,
'Gee, no, thank you, sir.'"
Wirtz's new buzzword for the Blackhawks is flexibility. After
three G.M.'s, six coaches and even more ideologies since 1998,
Chicago has committed just $5 million in salaries for next
season, theoretically allowing the Blackhawks to cherry-pick free
agents and players other teams will have to unload. This strategy
presupposes a salary cap, which will not be achieved without a
lockout, if at all. The Blackhawks, in other words, are liable to
improve more if they don't play than if they do. With a lottery
pick and another seven draft choices in the first four rounds,
Chicago, if it drafts well--a big assumption considering its last
impact pick was Jeremy Roenick in 1988--could be poised for a
turnaround as dramatic as that of the Detroit "Dead Things" of
the 1980s. Of course, before becoming the NHL's gold standard,
the Red Wings changed owners. Chicago shouldn't hold its breath.
The Blackhawks' owner asserted himself in October after firing
general manager Mike Smith. (Chicago has refused to pay Smith the
remaining one-plus years on his contract, claiming Smith violated
the terms of his deal; the matter is before the NHL.) Wirtz named
Pulford, the senior vice president, as general manager--Pulford
has been the G.M. four times, having bounced around the front
office since 1977--but also named Dale Tallon as Pulford's
assistant and said Tallon would, after a period of
apprenticeship, be the next G.M. When Pulford later said his new
assistant might not necessarily be his successor, Wirtz issued a
press release asserting that Tallon certainly would be. For a few
bizarre days, it seemed as though the Blackhawks were playing in
the Divided Center.
The sharp, personable Tallon, who was director of player
personnel from 1998 to 2002, was the team's TV and radio analyst
for 17 years. The former defenseman did half the games on
television and the other half on radio because only the Hawks'
road games are on local TV. In any discussion of Wirtz in
Chicago, the owner's refusal to televise home games comes up
within 30 seconds. The policy is rooted in the philosophy that TV
hurts attendance more than it enhances the brand. Eschewing the
possibility of airing what are essentially three-hour commercials
for his team, Wirtz reiterated that "for us, season [ticket
holders] are first, second and third." Considering that Chicago
is down to 6,000, Wirtz could thank each one personally on Fan
Wirtz's Blackhawks once made the playoffs for 28 straight years,
but since the late 1990s they have had an unerring ability to
trade (or allow to leave via free agency) precisely the kind of
gutty players of whom Chicago fans are so enamored--Roenick,
Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour, Tony Amonte and now Sullivan. When
Wirtz did spend, the money was wasted on the declining Doug
Gilmour (in 1998) and the unreliable Theo Fleury (2002). While
the Blackhawks lurched from plan to plan, solid players such as
Bryan McCabe, J.P. Dumont and Ethan Moreau were lost. As Thibault
said, "We've been a dog chasing its tail."
There have been promising signs from the current group of young
Blackhawks, such as rookie center Tuomo Ruutu and left wings Mark
Bell and Kyle Calder, but the sign that really grabbed the city
was off an expressway. A billboard promoting the Chicago Wolves,
a minor league team that has won two IHL championships and one
AHL title since 1998, read, WE PLAY HOCKEY THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY.
WE WIN. With the Blackhawks forced to play Craig Anderson and
Michael Leighton in net while Thibault recovers from hip surgery,
the Wolves (who average 7,080 fans per game) have the best goalie
in town, Atlanta Thrashers draft choice Kari Lehtonen.
Still Sutter, whose contract expires at the end of this season,
soldiers on. The Blackhawks made the playoffs in his first year
and were positioned to do so again last season before an incident
involving Fleury and some teammates in a Columbus, Ohio, strip
joint in January 2003 marked the start of a slide that saw them
lose 21 of 35 games, taking the team out of contention. (Fleury
got into a scuffle with the club's bouncers; he and two teammates
were fined.) This year's squad, which has played 13 rookies, is
thinner but more enthusiastic than last year's. After Chicago's
6-3 loss to San Jose last Thursday, the Sharks were apoplectic
that Ruutu had gone unpenalized for drilling defenseman Tom
Preissing from behind 40 seconds into the game and that
Blackhawks enforcer Ryan VandenBussche had charged Todd Harvey as
the final horn sounded. San Jose coach Ron Wilson called the
latter move "VandenBussche league," which Sutter took as a
compliment. After a spirited practice last Friday, Sutter said
the trouble is that Chicago doesn't give opposing teams reason to
complain more often. "Like I always say, when you come to the
bench and somebody isn't hacking and whacking you, asking where
your wife was the night before, then you've gone about your job
with quite a bit of complacency," Sutter said.
In the postlockout, salary-capped world that may be on the
horizon, the Blackhawks will seek character players, the kind of
big-effort, no-excuses guys of the 1980s and early 1990s who made
Chicago hockey an event. For better or Wirtz.
More NHL news from Michael Farber, Stephen Cannella and Darren
Eliot plus notes and photos at si.com/hockey.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NEIL LEIFER STAN THE MAN Mikita, shown here in '67, helped lead theBlackhawks to the '61 Stanley Cup; they haven't won one since.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO WHO'S THAT? Having dumped its best players to save money, Chicagois a team of youngsters, like rookie wing Travis Moen.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMES DRAKE GLORY DAYS When Hull was starring for the Blackhawks, from 1957to '72, they were the hottest ticket in town.
COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/BBS TAKING WING When Sullivan wouldn't take a pay cut, the Hawkstraded their leading scorer to Nashville, where he had 10 pointsin his first three games.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK HUMPHREY/AP PHOTO [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/BBS In his 38 years as owner of the team, Wirtz has gone from hockeycolossus to cartoon villain.