I am not one to rejoice at the death of any person: it's not nice, and neither does it sit well with my moral code. Which made the news of the death this morning of Bill Wirtz, the longtime owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, something of a moral quandary. I'm not so much happy that Mr. Wirtz has died as I am that he will no longer be at the reins of the formerly mighty Blackhawks. Nor am I the only one who feels that way. There are likely to be more than a few pints raised in bars all across the Chicago metropolitan era at that news. I'll almost certainly be raising at least one of them tomorrow evening after class is over. It's been damned hard being from the Chicago area and watching what has happened to the Blackhawks since Bill Wirtz took them over in 1966.
I'm too young to have witnessed the Hawks win the Stanley Cup in 1961 (the last time they managed the feat), but I grew up watching Blackhawks games on television. I have a cousin who used to play hockey through his high school years and who idolized several of the Hawks' legendary players from our salad days. Chicago is an Original Six team. They have made the post-season a grand total of four times since they moved from the old Chicago Stadium to the United Center--and only twice in the last decade. They haven't sold out a single game at the United Center, to my knowledge--which is great for me, since I only go in to see a game when someone I actually like to watch is playing them. And there are always empty seats available, even in the second row where you can practically reach out and touch the players.
And that hurts. I'd love to be able to root for the home team, the way I've seen fans in other cities do when I've been able to take in a game away from town. But that simply hasn't been possible under Bill Wirtz's leadership. Every time, or so it seems, that one of the Hawks' players has gotten on a hot streak or looked like he might develop into a champion of the caliber of some of the great players they used to be proud to claim, Wirtz has shopped him somewhere else and brought in yet another in a seemingly endless parade of nonentities to replace him.
And on those rare occasions when Wirtz was willing to spend a few bucks, he has generally not spent them wisely--as witness the very player The Hockey News mentions in its article linked to above: current #1 goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. Since coming to Chicago at the start of the 2005-06 campaign, Khabibulin has significantly underachieved. He's played a total of 110 games in a Chicago uniform, going 42-52-11 and recording a single shutout. None of those numbers is anywhere close to his production while he was with Tampa Bay before coming to Chicago, and they're even below his career averages. Yet Wirtz signed him to a four-year contract in 2005 that's worth $6.75 million a year.
There were some good things on the horizon for the Blackhawks this year: the signing of top draft prospects Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, for example. The extension of head coach Denis Savard's contract, for another. But I have to say I'm hoping for a much brighter future with Mr. Wirtz's promotion to that great box suite in the sky. Let us hope whoever succeeds him at the helm will not continue his penny-wise and pound-foolish ways, and that perhaps someday before I shuffle off this mortal coil myself, I may get to see the Hawks lift Lord Stanley's cup in triumph yet again.