Restore the roar

Yes, it’s still hard to believe, but it’s amazing how the Chicago Blackhawks have changed their fortunes – on and off the ice.

At a time when a few NHL teams are struggling financially and the Arena Football League is ceasing operations for the 2009 season, the Blackhawks are thriving at the gate. After years of being in the bottom five in total attendance in the league, the Hawks has bolted first so far this season, with season ticket sales zooming from 3,400 last year to more than 14,000 this season. Ratings are also up this season on Comcast SportsNet.

All of this is due to marketing – a sport team’s best friend. After owner Bill Wirtz died last year, the team was taken over by his son Rocky – and he implemented a marketing plan that took effect almost immediately. This included hiring John McDonough away from the Cubs to run the marketing department, centering around the team’s two young stars – Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and televising all the team’s games for the first time – including home games, something Bill Wirtz staunchly was opposed against. The team also struck a deal to carry games on WGN-TV and brought back Pat Foley as play-by-play.

The team’s media coverage has increased as well, with both the Tribune and Sun-Times recently introducing blogs on the Blackhawks.

And the team is playing better since coach (and former Hawks player) Dennis Savard was dropped for Joel Quinnville.

Now the Blackhawks are getting ready to hit the big time – they will play their arch nemesis Detroit Red Wings in the NHL’s second Winter Outdoor Classic on January 1 from Wrigley Field, airing on NBC in the U.S. and CBC in Canada. Bob Costas is anchoring the event, with Mike Emerick and Hawks commentator Eddie Olczyk calling the game. Last year’s inaugural Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. – the first regular-season game held outdoors in the U.S. – was a ratings hit.

This year’s classic will likely do better, given the fan bases of Detroit and Chicago and their longtime rivalry.