Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Blackhawks are Exhibit A: There is hope

Are you rooting for the Chicago Blackhawks? I am.

Not just because they have one of the coolest uniforms ever. And not only because they have exciting young talent like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. It's because the Hawks represent what's possible for a team like the Islanders. That you can be face-down in the gutter one day, and on top of the world the next.

Chicago's 7-5 victory over the Canucks sent them into the Western Conference finals, and whether they get eliminated there or go on to win the Stanley Cup -- which would be the Hawks' first championship since 1961 (kinda makes 1983 look like last week, doesn't it?) -- this season has seen a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that was, just a couple of seasons ago, among the worst in all of sports.

Prior to this season, Chicago had missed the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons, including five straight. They had just 59 points in 2003-04, followed by seasons of 65 and 71. Things were so bad that you could get rinkside seats for almost nothing. They started showing some mojo last season, with Kane and Toews providing the spark, and then this season they shot up like a bottle rocket.

So what changed? Well, owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz died in the fall of 2007. Known as a generous and fiercely loyal man in private, he was hated by Hawks fans for his stinginess. They booed during his moment of silence, for God's sake! This was a man who had home games blacked out on local television. And I get pissed when the Isles are on MSG Plus 2 and not in high-def!

Control of the team fell to one of Bill's sons, Rocky, who got the Hawks back on local TV, hired former Cubs executive John McDonough to be the team president, and retained GM Dale Tallon. They changed the culture. They went with youth. They rebuilt burnt bridges with stars like Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull.

Not only did the Hawks make the playoffs this season, they drew more than a million fans to the United Center. One. Million. Fans. In this economy.

I can hear some Islanders fans already saying, "See? We need to throw out Wang and Snow! That will change things!"

Well, no. Wang -- his regrets aside -- is the only reason the Islanders are still here on Long Island. You try spending $23 million a year on a sports team knowing you're going to keep on losing money. And Snow's rebuild has only just begun. We'll see what he does with the No. 1 pick, but if the performance of guys like Kane and Toews tell you anything it's that if you can get superstars, you grab them. Hello, John Tavares!

Wang is desperately trying to change the Islanders' economic reality with the Lighthouse Project, which -- if it is approved, as it should be -- would put the club in a better financial position, allowing it to be more aggressive in adding to the roster. They have a couple of possible future stars in Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey.

Of course, it would help if local government was more supportive. While county executive Tom Suozzi has been a staunch supporter of the Lighthouse as a lynchpin of the future development of Nassau, Town of Hempstead supervisor Kate Murray has been the fly in the ointment and a superior example of why politicians get such a bad rap. How important is the Lighthouse Project to Ms. Murray? So important that she didn't bother to show up at a project meeting on Monday. You can't make this stuff up.

The point is, change on the ice can happen and it can happen faster then you think. The Bruins are another example of a team that -- under the same ownership, by the way -- has gone from basement to penthouse in a couple of seasons thanks to better management and outstanding young players.

So I'll be rooting for the Blackhawks and the Bruins to meet in the Cup finals. Two Original Six teams showing the league how it's done. Hopefully, the Islanders and their fans are paying attention.

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