I'm going to tell you the story of a hockey team. This hockey team, a storied franchise in the NHL, had a lot of success in the early-to-mid-1990s. After some ownership changes and some bad luck on the ice, the team absolutely fell apart. Fans stopped showing up, the hockey on the ice was irrelevant and by the late 90s and early 2000s, the darkest era in the city's hockey history was dawning.
If you think I'm talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins, you'd be wrong.
From 1969 to 1997, the Chicago Blackhawks made the playoffs every single year, and from 1958 to '97, Chicago missed the playoffs just once. But the once proud franchise was reduced to its core in the following decade thanks to cost-cutting policies by owner Bill Wirtz, and the Blackhawks went from respected Original Six club to laughing stock.
As the on-ice product dipped, so did the atmosphere inside United Center. In 1997, the 'Hawks were third in the league in attendance behind just Detroit and Montreal. From there, the numbers plummeted. The following year they dropped to fifth, then eighth, then 16th, then 24th, and you see where this is going.
By 2004, the team was welcoming only 13,000 people into the building each night for games, better than only Nashville, Carolina and Pittsburgh. Chicago dipped to 29th in the league in attendance numbers in 2007 before things finally improved. The following season, they catapulted back up to 16th, and by the 2008-09 season, the Blackhawks led the league in attendance, filling the United Center to 111% capacity over the course of the year.
A few things led to the sudden upswing. Obviously, the on-ice product improved. Despite missing the playoffs in 2007-08, Chicago had their first winning season in five years thanks in large part to the addition of young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who each joined the club that year.
Also, as terrible as it may sound, Wirtz died. His son Rocky took over ownership of the team in 2007, and from there, the archaic practices the elder Wirtz employed went out the window and right into the Chicago River. Blackhawks home games, blacked out locally while Wirtz was owner, were broadcast on TV for the first time in year.
So, you have a team that returns to relevancy after finding some on-ice success. Essentially, they tanked for years to land some high draft picks, which gave the franchise the ability to pull themselves out of a hockey funk.
You remember the years 2000 to 2006, right? The Penguins were in a bit of a mess themselves, fighting to get a new arena built while also threatening to leave town. At the same time, they were amassing several high draft picks, allowing them to select guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.
With the foundation set, the team was able to go out and acquire free agents, just like Chicago has successfully done. The Pens acquired guys like Sergei Gonchar and Ruslan Fedotenko, while the Blackhawks were able to find guys like Brian Campbell, Marian Hossa and Cristobal Huet on the free agent market.
Soon after, things cleared up. With ownership problems out of the way, the fans returned, the team began to win, and the playoffs became a regular occurrence. Pittsburgh lost in Cup Final before winning it all in 2008-09, while Chicago lost in the Conference Final before breaking through to the big stage this year.
For our sake, let's hope the similarities between these two clubs stop there.