By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS)That victory parade seems like ages ago.
So does the hyperventilation during the run-up season of ’08-’09, when attendance spiked, TV ratings soared and the Winter Classic came to Wrigley Field. It began after Joel Quenneville replaced Denis Savard in October, and built into a whirlwind.
Pat Foley was back in the booth, his exile over. 20-year-old Jonathan Toews was named captain. The run to the conference finals ensued, setting the stage for the next year.
Long-dormant hockey fans in an original-six market dusted off sweaters and returned to their seats at the arena. Casual observers sensing the next sports party came for a look, sang along to “Chelsea Dagger” when the red light turned on, and kept coming back. Die-hards grumbled about the vapid dilettantes, but understood it came with the better territory.
As Patrick Kane taught kids how not to wear a mouthguard and a city learned to pronounce “Byfuglien,” a stream of press-releases fluttered from the team’s offices describing record attention, viewership, listenership, and overall awareness of what long had been winter’s secondary interest. Even the nest of race-baiting hockey supremacists found voice, creeping in from the fringes.
The crescendo arrived with the goal nobody saw, gloves tossed in the air, buses through the streets and toothless grins. The trophy seemed to be everywhere at once, with pictures alongside it becoming ubiquitous, clichéd social-media avatars.
I was thinking about this Sunday, while sitting on a bench at a local sporting-goods store during the process of outfitting my mite for his first games after a year of instruction. Trying on new skates, refitting the helmet, learning how to attach the stockings to the Velcro on the shorts (no garters anymore, I guess), padding up shins, shoulders and elbows, debating the need for suspenders, learning about something called a “neck guard,” adding up the cost in my head, and realizing that I would not be there if not for the growth and success of the Blackhawks.
There are many other stories like mine – Chicago-area parents who never played the sport, now schlepping black, nylon duffel bags the size of manatees. All because of what has happened in the last few years, timed ideally with a kid’s burgeoning interests and a conveniently-located rink.
But the energy is about to dissipate, quickly and soon.
It would be hard to imagine a franchise with more to lose in the short term than the Blackhawks, after coming so far, so fast from darkness into the light. The death of Bill Wirtz in 2007 catalyzed a long-awaited chain reaction that let modernized ownership and management accelerate development both on and off the ice, at a rate that surprised even those involved.
Not to question either the NHL’s need for a sustainable business model or the potential benefit of that to every team in coming years, but each city’s situation is different. An extended work-stoppage comes at the worst time for the Blackhawks, who have worked too hard to claw themselves out of sports oblivion to see any of it undone by labor strife.
They made it harder for my generation to learn the game and understand the culture, since home games were kept off local television for bad, wrong reasons for decades. As soon as they had the first real chance to leap forward, though, they did. They called off old grudges, embracing a long history. They created promotional sizzle, backed it up with success and stamped its legitimacy with a Stanley Cup.
Now, the gears of progress have ground to a halt as the locks have been placed on the doors.
The resurrection is on pause.