By Dan Bernstein–
A little over a year ago, I was standing in a United Center suite, talking to a top Blackhawks official as we surveyed the scene in front of us.
Patrick Kane had just zoomed past a Detroit defender, delighting the sellout crowd. The air crackled with anticipation and a shared understanding that something special was possible, that night and beyond.
“Look at this,” I said. “Did you ever think you’d see this, so soon?”
“We have a long way to go,” he answered. “We have a lot of work to do.”
I assumed then that he was talking more about winning the Stanley Cup than anything else. I was aware of the salary-cap crunch that loomed, but not thinking about it actively.
What I had no idea about were the financial difficulties occurring for the Hawks as we spoke: they were bleeding money, using dollars from other Wirtz-family businesses to cover operating expenses. According to a Tribune report in July, these “internal capital calls” were made several times last season when the team ran out of cash. Rocky Wirtz estimated in April that it would take “four or five years” before the team could break even and look to turn a profit.
The big picture was daunting to those who could see it, even then, amid the mania of resurgence into the Chicago sports consciousness.
We know what came next. In what now, upon recall, seems like a show we watched on fast-forward, the Hawks marched to a championship, threw a huge civic party, kept celebrating for weeks, traded away half the roster and started the next season.
Ok, so that happened.
As it turns out, the Stanley Cup is not the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail (at least from what I know about them from Indiana Jones movies). It can make people very happy for a short period of time, but it cannot alter reality.
The Blackhawks’ play can still remind us of last season, but not often enough to this point. Reminders are just as likely brought by opposing rosters, with each next foe seemingly employing one of the smiling, badly-bearded lugs who held the cup aloft downtown.
It has been a long time since we have seen stories about television viewership – a regular subject of team press releases the last two years. There’s a reason for that.
The Hawks are in a better position than they were in the dark days, no doubt. Their title run seeded the ground to cultivate a new generation of fans. They can make things pop again with a desperation-fueled, late-season winning streak and a playoff spot.
But those stubborn, large-scale headwinds remain, even if their on-ice fortunes improve this year.
The effect of the hard salary cap was brutally obvious, causing the stark remodeling project that is still ongoing. The overall lack of NHL popularity means that league TV revenue is a fraction of what teams get in other major sports, reported to be less than $10 million per team, per year. Money has to come from local sources: gate receipts and TV/radio sales.
That moment in the UC last year seems like forever ago. Gone is the intoxicating atmosphere of something building, becoming, accelerating and culminating.
Kane, perhaps symbolically, is gimping around the ice with a lingering ankle injury. His production is down. He and his teammates have a lot of work to do.
I understand, now, what I was being told that day.
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM.
Listen to The Boers and Bernstein Show podcasts >>