The greatest hockey game ever played has come to be known as the “Miracle on Ice.” It happened in the 1980 Winter Olympics when the United States with its team of amateurs took on and beat the Soviet Union, which had won the gold every year since 1964, and was considered invincible. I remember it like it was yesterday.
But I believe I witnessed an even greater hockey miracle Wednesday night when Patrick Kane scored the winning goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime, making the Chicago Blackhawks the Stanley Cup champions, for the first time in 49 years.
But this miracle was slightly different. Much of it happened off the ice beginning three years ago when three men, who had a limited background in hockey, but an unstoppable drive and a powerful vision, came together
In the world of logic and statistical probabilities, the Blackhawks had virtually no chance of winning this Cup or even making it to the final or the playoffs. Truth is, they had no business even being in business.
Formed in 1926, the Blackhawks, one of the six original NHL teams, have a storied history, but they began a downhill slide a few years after 1961 when they last won the sacred Cup, eventually becoming the laughing stock of the NHL.
For a 10-year period starting in 1997, the team became so irrelevant, the press even stopped writing laughing-stock stories until ESPN reported the franchise was the worst team in all of professional sports.
Then in 2007 the miracle off ice began. Rocky Wirtz acquired the team from his father Bill after he died. Dad was a micromanager and overlooked big picture issues such as how to run a winning hockey team.
Rocky Wirtz had not been involved with the Blackhawks. And after only two days on the job he learned dad’s franchise was short $6-million on that month’s payroll and needed $34-million to make it through the season, according to Forbes.com.
But Wirtz was determined to do whatever was necessary to reinvent the Blackhawks, so he made an out-of-the-box decision. Way out of the box. He hired two hocky neophytes from the Chicago Cubs, better known as the “lovable losers,” who hadn’t won a World Series since 1908, and he gave them carte blanche.
John McDonough was named team president, and his sidekick, Jay Blunk, became head of business operations. Turns out, they despised the term “lovable losers” and had actually been recreating the Cubs big-time in recent years.
The rebuilding efforts paid off as the Cubs came within five outs of making into the World Series in 2003 and won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Not the World Series but impressive.
McDonough and Blunk were also sports marketing gurus, so win or lose, the Cubs always had a strategically cultivated loyal fan base, who filled the seats at Wrigley Field. Several years ago I attended a Cubs game at the Friendly Confines for the first time since my youth. I noticed nothing had changed. McDonough told me they spent millions every winter to make sure the stadium, built in 1914, stayed that way.
The two men transferred their winning strategies from the Cubs to the Blackhawks, and in three short years transformed the worst team in sports into this year’s Stanley Cup winners.
Just as he had done at the Cubs, McDonough established an unwavering commitment to winning, coming up with the slogan “One Goal.” He fired coach Denis Savard, a popular Blackhawk great, and replaced him with Joel Quenneville. Wirtz backed up the new coach by spending big money for good players.
The team’s fan base had dwindled to only a few thousand per game. But recently the Hawks celebrated their 100th consecutive sellout, thanks to successful marketing innovations carried over from the Cubs, such as “Blackhawk Conventions” which brought fans and players together. They hired Blackhawk legends Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito as goodwill ambassadors, just as they had done with Ernie Banks at the Cubs.
Then of course, there’s that catchy song called “Chelsea Dagger” by the Fratellis that’s played after every Blackhawks goal. The fans love it, just as Cubs fans love “Go Cubs Go” by Steve Goodman, which can be heard after every Cubs victory at Wrigley Field.
Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant, described the Blackhawks to Forbes.com as “arguably the most remarkable turnaround in the history of sports in the United States.”
Nothing short of a miracle.
Dave Berg is a writer-producer. Until recently he was a co-producer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Dave worked with Jay since he became the host of the show in May 1992. He has served as a writer-producer for NBC News, a reporter and executive producer for various news organizations and has written for such publications as Reader’s Digest, National Review, The Washington Times and Crisis magazine.