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Blackhawks season preview: Rocky is ready to roll

5-24-2009---Chicago Blackhawks host Detroit Red Wings game 4-western conference finals-- Hawks chairman Rocky Wirtz watches 3rd period unfold as Hawks

5-24-2009---Chicago Blackhawks host the Detroit Red Wings in game 4-western conference finals-- Hawks chairman Rocky Wirtz watches the 3rd period unfold as the Hawks dropped game four 6-1 to the Red Wings---Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

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FIVE KEYS
TO THE SEASON

1 Crow must soar: It all starts with goaltending in the NHL, and Corey Crawford took a step back during his sophomore season, his GAA rising from 2.30 to 2.72. He’s motivated by the two soft OT goals he surrendered in a first-round playoff exit against Phoenix.

2 Fix the power play: Can’t get any worse, right? Two years ago, the Hawks were fourth in the league, scoring at a 23.1 percent clip on the PP. During the memorable 2010 postseason, they scored at 22.5 percent. Last year, it was 15.2 percent, 26th in the league.

3No. 2 with a
bullet: New year, same story line — the Hawks need a No. 2 center. Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane are both more comfortable (and more productive) as wingers, so Dave Bolland is getting the first crack at it. Known more for his defense, Bolland has an offensive pedigree and could be a difference-maker.

4Time management: The onus will be on Joel Quenneville to make sure his players get enough practice time and enough rest, as well. As Hawks broadcaster Ed Olczyk said, “You may be struggling, but you have to be able to say there’s no practice. Time management by coaches will decide a lot.”

5stay healthy: With 48 games in 99 days, including a dozen back-to-back sets, the Hawks’ depth surely will be tested. And any major injury could be a brutal blow. Jonathan Toews missed 23 games last season — this year, that’d be nearly half the season.

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Updated: January 17, 2013 10:33PM



Rocky Wirtz’s phone, sitting on his bedside table, buzzed at about 4 or 5 in the morning Jan. 6, startling him awake. When his head cleared, the Blackhawks’ chairman briefly flirted with the idea that it was an official e-mail telling him a handshake deal had finally been reached to end the four-month-old NHL lockout.

At 4 or 5 in the morning, however, sleep overrides everything else.

But at 6 a.m.?

“The compulsive curiosity, I couldn’t stand it,” Wirtz said with a laugh. “I had to look.”

While Wirtz wasn’t up all night feverishly reloading websites and monitoring Twitter like so many fans were, he felt the same exhilaration and relief that they did when the news finally broke — the news that his fellow owners, hundreds of players and millions of fans had been waiting for since September finally broke. Hockey was back.

So Wirtz — who spoke at length with the Sun-Times in his lakeshore office Wednesday — said he understands the fans’ frustration and anger over the lockout. He also repeatedly said he thanks them for their patience during the collective-bargaining process. But he also said neither he, nor anyone else, owes those fans an apology for nearly losing an entire season for the second time in eight years.

“I don’t think the owners or the players should have to apologize for going through a collective-bargaining process,” said Wirtz, an investor in the Sun-Times’ parent company, Wrapports LLC. “Labor is labor, and that’s just the way it is. It might be very distasteful for the fans, but, unfortunately, when you have unions involved, that’s the process you have to go through.”

Many Hawks fans felt differently and took to the Internet with their displeasure about a brief “thank you” letter signed by Wirtz and team president John McDonough. It, too, thanked fans for their patience, but offered no apology to fans, local businesses and others who were hurt by the lockout. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — essentially the working arm and mouthpiece of the owners — apologized publicly in the wake of the Jan. 6 agreement. Wirtz said Bettman “was speaking from the heart” but didn’t feel it was necessary.

Following suit with what teams across the league have done to reward fans for their loyalty and patience, the Hawks on Thursday announced their “Fan Salute” program, which will involve giveaways of tickets, autographed jerseys, pucks and sticks, meet-and-greets and even dinner with a “Hawks Ambassador.” It’s all about saying “thank you,” not “sorry.”

“I don’t think there should be any apologies,” Wirtz said. “It’s unfortunate it took this long, but it is what it is. And what we have to do is move forward, not look back.”

Avoiding the fiscal cliff

So moving forward, what exactly does the future hold for the Blackhawks? On the ice, the matter is pretty simple — nearly three years removed from the 2010 run to the Stanley Cup, the Hawks again fully expect to be contenders during this 48-game sprint season, which begins Saturday against the defending champion Kings in Los Angeles. Few teams, from a competitive standpoint, are positioned as well as the Hawks.

But off the ice, there’s still a long climb ahead, Wirtz said. The Hawks are a model franchise — a big-time team in a big-time city with 190 consecutive sellouts at the cavernous United Center (the Hawks said they’ve gained 250 fans on the season-ticket waiting list during the lockout). A beer can run a fan $12. Parking costs $25. Tickets cost anywhere between $27 and $450.

Yet Wirtz said they’re still a money-losing venture, citing Chicago’s sky-high city and amusement taxes and parking taxes. Wirtz said the Hawks are “getting there” and are “shrinking the gap.” But once they become one of the 10 highest revenue-producing teams in the league, they’ll be forced to pay into a revenue-sharing pool for the bottom 10 teams.

If the Hawks can’t make money, what hope is there for the New York Islanders, Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers, just to name a few? Cutting the players’ share from 57 percent to 50 percent was a start, Wirtz said. Corporate sponsorships and TV revenue — both of which took a hit during the lockout — could help close the gap further.

“That’s why the collective-bargaining agreement was important,” Wirtz said.

But where does the league go from here? A 48-game schedule after the 1994-95 lockout. A completely lost season in the 2004-05 lockout. Another 48-game slate after the 2012-13 lockout. The new CBA is a 10-year pact with an opt-out after eight years. The fear is that the never-ending cycle will continue — owners, hemorrhaging money, will decide the last CBA didn’t go far enough, players will stand their ground and another season will be on the brink.

Wirtz is optimistic that won’t be the case. He said the new CBA is a good deal “for both parties.”

“The reason I like it, it’s 50-50,” Wirtz said of the split in hockey-related revenue. “The players can’t do any better by the owners doing any worse, or vice versa. We truly are joined at the hip. It’s important for us to grow the sport. It’s important for the players to grow the sport. And the more the sport makes, the more the players are going to make. I look at it as a win-win.”

Olive branches

But more than any other major pro sport, the NHL is a gate-driven business. Hence Bettman’s apology, hence all the fan initiatives across the league — free food, free tickets, free autographs, free jerseys.

Of course, hockey fans are a different breed, particularly in traditional markets such as Chicago. They were always going to come back. They were always going to pack the United Center. They can’t help themselves. So more than anything, the Hawks’ olive branch to their peeved yet passionate fans will be to do what hockey players are best known for — being accessible, signing autographs, doing charity work and simply acknowledging the fan base. Sometimes, a raised stick after a game or a posed picture at a restaurant can mean more than any apology ever could.

“Fans are excited to watch hockey again, and we couldn’t be more appreciative for something like that after everything we’ve been through the last couple of months,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “Every single day you try to spend some time with your fans to sign autographs, and that’s going to be a huge priority for us. We’ve really got to take advantage of those opportunities to mix in with the fans a little bit and show them we appreciate them coming back.”

It’s not an apology. That’s not coming, not from either side of the bitter labor dispute. But for a league that always appears to be on the brink of disaster, it’s at least the first step in yet another healing process.



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