Blackhawks Vs. Flyers For The Stanley Cup? Really?

The final battles for the Holy Grail of hockey, Lord Stanley's Cup, begin tonight in Chicago. The Chicago Blackhawks face the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Both teams are somewhat unlikely finalists; the Flyers just squeaked into the playoffs and staged an amazing comeback to win in Round 2. In Chicago, the Blackhawks were long thought dead; not only were they among the worst teams in the league a few years ago, with a dwindling fan base, but ESPN ranked them the worst franchise in all of professional sports.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Stanley Cup finals begin tonight in Chicago. And for the host, Blackhawks, it's the culmination of an amazing turnaround. They had the longest Stanley Cup drought in National Hockey League History, havent won a championship since 1961. And at one point a few years ago, ESPN ranked the Hawks as the worst franchise in sports. What? In the same town as the Cubs? NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: Just how bad were the Chicago Blackhawks? Ask forward Adam Burish.

Mr. ADAM BURISH (Forward, Chicago Blackhawks): I came to a couple of games when I was in college and nobody was here. I was like, this isn't cool. This stinks. Like, nobody even comes to the games. Nobody cares about hockey here.

SCHAPER: (Unintelligible) that University of Wisconsin player just drafted by Chicago worried he'd be playing in front of far fewer fans than at college ranks. Though it has a storied history as one of the original six franchises in the NHL, the Blackhawks had dark days in the late '90s and most of this decade, failing to make the playoffs in 10 of 11 seasons until last year.

Fans hated owner Bill Wirtz, calling him Dollar Bill for his tightfisted ways. He often traded star players rather than pay them big salaries. Troy Murray played for Chicago in the '80s and early '90s and is now the team's radio color analyst.

Mr. TROY MURRAY (Radio Color Analyst): The product on the ice wasn't something that the fans wanted to come and see. And there was some, you know, organizational decisions that weren't taken too well for the fan here in Chicago.

SCHAPER: Wirtz also alienated fans by not showing home games on TV, which he believed undermined ticket sales. But fans stayed away. Even an upstart minor league team - the Chicago Wolves - often outdrew the Blackhawks. But it all started to change in the fall of 2007 when high scoring superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane started with the team, and longtime owner Bill Wirtz died and his son Rocky took over. Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith...

Mr. DUNCAN KEITH (Defenseman, Blackhawks): Really, once he took over, it's been a whole new world for the players and for everybody, I think, involved with the Blackhawks and who follows the Blackhawks.

SCHAPER: Rocky Wirtz immediately put home games on TV and hired John McDonough away from the Chicago Cubs, who implemented the same kinds of fan-friendly marketing strategies that fill an old crumbling ballpark daily with fans wanting to see a losing team. And the Blackhawks started winning too. Within a year, the season ticket base exploded from 3,400 to 14,000. And the United Center has been sold out for close to 100 hockey games in a row.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: Sixteen-year-olds Bridgette and Shannon Sullivan and Samantha Delberto are part of a group of fans waiting outside the Blackhawks team parking lot at the United Center, waiting for the players to drive out after practice.

Unidentified Female #1: Because we want to see...

Unidentified Female #2: Patrick Kane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: All of you just want to see Patrick Kane?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: And Versteeg and Toews

Unidentified Woman #1: Sharp. And Sharp.

Unidentified Woman #3: Patrick Sharp.

SCHAPER: Well, how exciting is it that there is...

Unidentified Woman #1: Really exciting. It feels like we're like...

(Soundbite of screaming)

SCHAPER: And with that, the three teenage girls are off and running down the street chasing a black SUV driven by one of their heartthrobs, team captain Jonathan Toews. Hockey is definitely back in Chicago.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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