It’s been great to see fewer empty seats at Verizon Center of late (five straight crowds over 17,000) and it was good to see the Caps notch their first sellout of the season yesterday with the Devils in town. Those of us who have lived in these parts for a while knew the fans would come when the team improved, and that has been the case. The Caps also traditionally get a second-half attendance bump and they’ve also benefited from their long-term commitment to Alex Ovechkin (and Ovechkin’s commitment to the District).
Back in September, I would have predicted a nice attendance bump for the Caps this season. But I would not have done so for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Although I spent most of my formative years in Chicago, I was never actually what you’d call a Blackhawks fan. I watched the road games on TV (the late Bill Wirtz refused to show home games on TV for decades out of deference to “season reservation holders”), I went to games at the old Chicago Stadium whenever I could, and shared a plan with some buddies for a while. Hockey was always on the radar in the Windy City in those days, the 1970s and 1980s. Plenty of great players and very good teams skated the Stadium surface, and the building was jammed, loud and lively more often than not. Newspapers and radio airwaves were filled with discussion of the Hawks and hockey.
The Hawks sort of lost touch with their fan base over the last several years. Attendance dwindled, and more alarmingly, season reservation holders opted not to renew in droves, driving the team’s STH count down to among the lowest in the league. Newspapers began to devote less space to the Hawks and more to other teams on the city’s sporting landscape. Radio sports talk all but ignored the Hawks in recent years. For those of us who lived in and near the city during the salad days of Chicago hockey, it was painful to see. The team has been mediocre for years, and the organization was unable to convince the fans that it cared enough about them or putting a good team on the ice.
That’s all changed now. Bill Wirtz passed away in September, and his son Rocky took the reins. The younger Wirtz wasted no time in breathing life and vitality into a long moribund franchise, and the quickness and degree of the turnabout have been astounding. Wirtz and newly hired team president (and marketing whiz) John McDonough have combined to revive the club off the ice while a pair of ex-Hawks from the glory years — general manager Dale Tallon and coach Denis Savard — have combined to revive the club on the ice.
A few months back, I wrote about the Hawks’ ambitious new TV campaign. Since then, the Hawks have reached out to legendary alumni Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, making them part of the Hawks’ family once again. The team is likely to fall short of the playoffs, but the building is jumping again and fans are taking notice.
When I talk to friends and family back home, they talk as much of Wirtz and McDonough as they do Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Those of us around here are familiar with Comcast’s “Washington Post Live,” and Comcast Chicago has a similar vehicle called “Chicago Tribune Live.” McDonough had been with the Chicago Cubs until Wirtz spirited him away, and I asked one of my Cub fan pals what made him such a great hire for the Hawks. “He’s not a huckster,” was the reply. “He’s genuine.”
When I started here with the Caps some years back, I pitched a couple of ideas that fall outside the realm of my job description, just because I thought they were good ideas that would play well in this market. First is the idea of a Caps Convention, a summer hockey festival that would bring fans in and get the Caps some newspaper play in the dead of the summer offseason. It could be scheduled to coincide with the release of the NHL schedule and/or the team’s annual summer development camp. It’s hardly an original idea; McDonough presided for years over the Cubs’ annual winter gathering, a weekend-long event that drew attendees from around the world. The success the Cubs had with their off-season venture is what led me to suggest it in the first place.
Second, the Caps have been in existence for a third of a century now and it’s time the team established a Caps Hall of Fame. (It was “time” a few years back when I first brought it up, too.) Form a committee that would be in charge of elections/inductions and get it going. The Baltimore Orioles do a great job of honoring their alumni in this fashion, and the Orioles do a great job with very few things these days. Each year, one or two ex-Orioles gets inducted. He returns to town and is honored/inducted at a nice luncheon event and in a pre-game ceremony. It gives the fans a chance to connect with alumni they’ve watched for years and it makes far more sense than retiring players’ uniform numbers, an honor I believe should be reserved for a very, very special and elite class of player.
I know fans responded well to last April’s Caps alumni game and can’t wait for the next one. The annual Caps Hall of Fame induction could be scheduled around the alumni game.
The Hawks continue to grow together on the ice, too. They’ve still got a long way to go, but for the first time in a long time, the fans are starting to believe that they’ll get there.
During my travels around the league, I recently had a conversation with a high-ranking Hawks exec. He was beaming at the team’s progress on and off the ice, and we eagerly traded tales of the resurgence of our respective teams. We concluded our chat by agreeing how great it would be to see the Hawks and Caps facing off for the Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future.