SCF Game 6: We're all fans of the Stanley Cup

A dozen years ago, you could've heard a pin drop in the United Center this late in the Blackhawks' season. Heck, you could've heard a pin drop in many of the regular season games for the Blackhawks in those days, because the United Center was often more empty than full in the bleak years between the "Jeremy Roenick days" and the modern Blackhawks era.

While the attendance statistics from the past fifteen years show that the Blackhawks have averaged over 15,000/game attendance every year (except 2006-07, when it was 14,706), it often didn't feel like there were that many fans in the stands in those days. Some games, the attendance figures were in the mid-four-figures, and players on-ice chirps could be heard all the way in the 300s. The United Center could've moved everybody down into the lower bowl in those days with "pick your own seat" promotions, had they thought of it.

The "pre-Toews and Kane days" were tough times for an Original 6 team. Team owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz - named the third greediest owner in all of sports in 2002 by ESPN - was against broadcasting home games because he claimed that it was unfair to season ticket holders. It has also been said that the move was intended to force people to come to the stadium to view them (in other words, purely revenue-driven), versus seeing them "for free" on TV. The problem with that train of thought was the old adage of "out of sight, out of mind": sightings of people wearing Blackhawks gear around town in the early 2000's were few and far between. Some people even thought the team had moved out of town.

Wirtz wasn't spending money on quality players, either, and with Jeremy Roenick's departure for Phoenix, the Blackhawks best players were guys like Éric Dazé and Tuomo Ruutu. In 2003-04, the Blackhawks went 20-43-11-8 in a season that saw them go through 36 players and six goalies. It was terrible hockey. Not surprisingly, people weren't exactly lining up to watch games, or to snap up season tickets.

Talent began trickling onto the team. Duncan Keith, drafted in the second round in 2002, began play in the AHL for the Norfolk Admirals, and started with the Blackhawks in 2005-06. His frequent partner, Brent Seabrook, was drafted 14 overall in 2003, and also played with the Admirals before joining Chicago in 2005-06. The Blackhawks acquired Patrick Sharp via trade in December 2005. Jonathan Toews was drafted 3rd overall in 2006, and Patrick Kane 1st overall in 2007, the team rewarded for two of their very worst seasons.

The team's turnaround was fast at that point: in 2009, the Blackhawks went as far as the Western Conference Final. The next year, they went all the way and won the team's first Stanley Cup since 1961. The streets of downtown Chicago were awash with red for the team's Cup parade and rally, with crowd estimates of 1.5+ million.

There was a lot of talk of "bandwagon" fans. The label was sneeringly thrown Chicago's way, mostly by fans of rival teams; and lifelong fans muttered it in the way that old men say "get off my lawn!"

Sure, winning attracts fans. Lots of fans. Titles attract lots and LOTS of fans. Who doesn't love a winner? In a sports-loving town, is it any surprise that people wanted to celebrate this team? For long-time hockey fans, is it any surprise that new fans watched some hockey and got hooked by the thrilling excitement of the games?

And so the Blackhawks fandom grew. And the Blackhawks won another Cup in 2013, and the fan base grew even more.

With the Blackhawks on the cusp of their third Cup win in six years, the condescending sneers of "bandwagon fans!" haven't gone away - if anything, they've gotten worse. But the management of any other team in the NHL would gladly welcome the legion of fans that have swollen the Blackhawks' ranks over the past several years, and the "problems" that come with it: Cup wins, ticket price increases, sold-out games, greater national exposure, and victory parades, not to mention the boost to league revenues.

The league doesn't want any fan base to become stale. When the league talks about "growing the game", it's not simply talking about cultivating better talent, or expanding the number of teams, or increasing sales - although that's all certainly part of the equation.

No, the league wants its fan base to grow. It wants to see you bring your friends to games, to turn them on to the sport. It wants people to discover a love for hockey they didn't know they had until they watch a playoff game on TV. It wants your ticket revenue, and it wants you to pony up for all the team-branded gear that you can cram in your house. In the league's eyes, though fans may wear red or blue or yellow or black, the fans are all green.

While the league might not have imagined that a Blackhawks-Lightning Final was in their best interest, they may be finding that they're mistaken. The pace of this Final has been one of the fastest in years; there is no question of "boring" hockey. The speed with which these teams have played much of their series is reminiscent of Olympic medal games. (And while the league might not [officially] recognize it as such, Olympic hockey games are good for the growth of hockey in general, as many sports fans tune in to see games filled with the best-of-the-best players in the world.)

Having the Lightning in the Final also proves that Southern hockey can be successful. Tampa Bay regularly sells out its games, and Amalie Arena is an electric place to watch hockey - and not just because of the Tesla coils in the ceiling. The Lightning have a vibrant season ticket holder base, and superstar Steven Stamkos is finally in the spotlight he deserves.

Unfortunately for Stamkos, he's been held nearly scoreless in what should be his coming-out party. He's had just one assist in five games so far. Tonight, as the Lightning fight for their season, may find him more productive.

But overall, being in the Final is excellent for the Lightning. Coverage of the series has shown off an excited, enthusiastic fan base - a sea of blue both inside and outside their arena. In a state often maligned about its hockey fans - mostly due to the lackluster Panthers support - Tampa Bay, like its California counterparts, is showing that the NHL can thrive in the Sun Belt.

It's not surprising that hockey players come out of Chicago. One of them, Scott Darling, sits on the Blackhawks' bench this season; he grew up dreaming of one day playing for his hometown team. There is no doubt a young player somewhere in the Tampa Bay area, dreaming of the same for the Lightning.

At the end of the day, we're all fans, dreaming of the beauty of our favorite team hoisting the most iconic trophy in all of sports.

 

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Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final is being broadcast tonight, June 15, at 8pm EST on NBC.

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