Just three years ago, the names Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were unrecognizable to most Chicagoans. The Madhouse on Madison always had extra tickets to home hockey games; and when Chelsea Dagger was played, it was on the radio, and not associated with the Blackhawks scoring a goal.
Now, the Chicago Blackhawks have garnered support from the entire city – they are Chicago’s team. Kane and Toews are household names printed on the backs of thousands of jerseys. Chelsea Dagger’s song indicates a goal, or a even better – a win – and causes mass hysteria and dancing throughout the United Center, in the local tavern and in living rooms across Chicago, and the state.
The United Center has sold out over 100 consecutive Blackhawks games, causing tickets to become pricey and almost impossible to come by. Hawks fans are coming out of the woodwork, and with two straight trips to the playoffs, the bandwagon is overflowing. Restaurants and bars proudly fly the Blackhawks flag, and are drawing hundreds of fans for each game, and sports stores struggle to keep Hawks apparel on the shelves.
Jeff Dano, a bartender and server for the Buffalo Wild Wings in Woodridge, Ill., said the increase of Blackhawks fans is incredible, and with each game and each win, there are more fans.
“Two-and-a-half years ago hardly anyone would come in for Hawks games, it was all Cubs and Sox,” Dano said. “Now, you just see every TV on the Blackhawks.”
The demand caused Buffalo Wild Wings to create food and drink specials during the games, bringing in more fans and creating an atmosphere for Blackhawk hockey.
“We try to do food specials, and a lot of Buffalo Wild Wings have giveaways with the Hawks organization,” Dano said.
Giveaways include jerseys and t-shirts, and oftentimes a representative from the Blackhawks organization will be in attendance to greet fans, and hand out prizes.
While Buffalo Wild Wings gives credit to the Blackhawks for filling their seats, Toby McCaw, manager and bartender at Curly’s Grill in Glen Ellyn, attributes the rise in attendance to the Blackhawks fan base he has built over the years.
A self-proclaimed diehard fan, McCaw said he understands that the victories are not the only part in bring in more fans.
“They’re making such great runs in the playoffs, and have world-class players such as Toews, Kane and (Marian) Hossa,” he said.
Brett Gorski, manager at Sports Fan in Wheaton, said the biggest beneficiaries to the Blackhawks success is the retail industry. He said Hawks merchandise is outselling all other Chicago team apparel in his store, and is “flying off the shelves.”
“Three years ago, we had not even a quarter of the (Blackhawks) stuff we have now. It didn’t sell,” Gorski said. “Now it’s unbelievable. They’re the hottest selling items that we have.”
The increased fan base comes with winning, Chis Olds, 24, from Woodridge said. It’s about winning games, and making playoff runs.
He said when the organization went and picked up Toews and Kane, and in the off-season signed Marian Hossa, fans realized they were serious about winning.
“They’re a young, energetic and fun team to watch,” Olds said.
McCaw agreed. But said the real change didn’t come with new players, it came with new ownership.
“The new aggressive marketing scheme they have adopted and the death of Bill Wirtz have helped gain fans,” he said, adding that the Blackhawks made big strides after Wirtz death.
Wirtz, the previous Hawks owner for over 40 years, died in September 2007. Ownership then moved to his son Rocky Wirtz. Bill Wirtz, nicknamed “Dollar Bill” for his frugality, was opposed to television broadcast, thinking it would prevent fans from attending games in person.
After Rocky Wirtz took over, he brought in John McDonough, formerly with the Chicago Cubs, as president. A move Matthew Byrne, sports videographer for NBC 5, said was a “game changer” for the Hawks organization.
Byrne said McDonough’s marketing strategies are responsible for the Chicago hockey craze.
“All of these (strategies) attracted those who used to be fans 15, 20 and 30 years ago as well as a new generation of young fans,” Byrne said. “They have hired old Chicago Blackhawks players as ‘ambassadors’ to the team. (It) helps the older fans connect to their old favorite team.”
The Stanley Cup drought, which dates back to 1961, is closer to Chicago than ever before, and Byrne said fans throughout the city can thank Rocky Wirtz for that.
The Blackhawks, just two wins away from bringing Lord Stanley back to Chicago, have the support of Chicagoans; and win or lose, it has been an exciting season, and Hawks fans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Also check out Crain’s Chicago Business’ story: WMAQ shut out if Hawks win next two.
NOTE: This story has been corrected. Matthew Byrne is the videographer, not Bryne.