At one point in time, Chicago was a deserted basin of hockey. Thanks to the resurrection of the Blackhawks, that has since changed.
During the 2006-07 season, the Blackhawks were drawing a meager 12,727 fans per game, filling just 62.1% of the capacity at the United Center. Their metropolitan counterpart, the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, were seemingly more popular than the team in red and white.
Eight years and two Stanley Cups later, the Blackhawks have been the driving force behind a revitalized interest in hockey in Chicago.
“I think it’s undeniable that the Blackhawks have a huge hand in what’s happening in hockey’s popularity in Chicago,” said Chris Peters, editor of unitedstatesofhockey.com and a regular contributor to CBSSports.com’s Eye on Hockey Blog. “You add in two Stanley Cups, every game on TV, sold out buildings every night and an infrastructure to support that growth, it’s been the perfect storm.”
Blackhawks CEO Rocky Wirtz revolutionized hockey in Chicago by allowing Blackhawks games to be televised locally for the first time. The move revived a once lost and discouraged fan base.
While it is easy to see that the interest level in professional hockey has risen in recent years, per the capacity crowds at the United Center, it is even more encouraging to take a look at USA Hockey membership and youth hockey. A 25% increase in USA hockey membership within the state is certainly indicative of the growth of hockey in Illinois. Hockey cathedrals such as Minnesota or Michigan have prolific college programs. Illinois does not have such a luxury, although the door is now open for programs such as Illinois or Northwestern, both in a marketable conference and who could easily build up and support a reputable program. Now that participation and interest in hockey in Illinois have both spiked, the talent pool is right there.
“There have always been good players in the greater Chicago area and there still are good players there,” said Tom Newton, assistant men’s hockey coach at Michigan State University. “I really hope they can do it.”
Now, nobody is going to mistake Illinois for Minnesota or Michigan, but the talent pool is right there. With powerhouses such as Loyola Academy and New Trier, both of whom have produced NHL talents, universities certainly would have the opportunity to keep kids local. Current recruitment in Illinois is dominated by schools such as Notre Dame and Wisconsin. However, if universities in Illinois could keep high school kids at home in state, the possibilities are wide open.
“They would have problems early until they established the program with the proper facilities and such, but I think once they did that, they would be able to compete with anyone in the country,” said Newton.
Clearly, the opportunity is right there for hockey to really explode in the greater Chicago area and it was all started by the resurrection of the Blackhawks, a team that once was a bottom dweller of the NHL but now has brought the glory of hockey back to its home.