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Blackhawks are losing games, fans

March 18, 2007|From the Associated Press

CHICAGO — All around the cavernous United Center is a sea of red seats, thousands of them empty as the Chicago Blackhawks skate through their pregame warmups on a chilly March night.

Across the street, on what's now a parking lot, the Chicago Stadium once rocked for hockey, a venerable and deafening venue where Bobby Hull used to shoot pucks at dizzying speeds and the sport was one of the city's most popular.

Now the crowd noise is subdued -- no chance of drowning out the singing of the national anthem, a ritual at Blackhawks games through the years. For a game with the Colorado Avalanche, the announced attendance is 10,522 in the 20,500-seat arena. There's plenty of leg room, and flagging a vendor is no problem.

"Obviously, we would much rather play in front of 20,000 people rather than 10,000 or 11,000, but that's the way it is now. You have to work with what you've got," said veteran wing Martin Lapointe.

The retired numbers of Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall and Denis Savard -- now the team's coach -- hang high above the ice. There are other banners, too, touting the many successful seasons for this proud franchise.

One stands out: The Stanley Cup in 1961, the last time the Blackhawks won the championship.

Chicago, which has lost stars Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios in recent years, will miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons.

The club signed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million contract before last season -- a club record -- and rewarded scorer Martin Havlat with a three-year, $18 million contract.

But neither deal elevated the Blackhawks to contender status. Nor have they re-established their popularity in a city where the White Sox won the World Series two years ago and the Bears were in the Super Bowl this past season.

Many fans blame owner William Wirtz for allowing too many good players to leave over the years, and for his refusal to televise most home games. Some even have started an anti-Wirtz Web site.

Wirtz, whose family bought the team in 1954 and whose financial empire includes liquor and real estate businesses, told reporters during a news conference to announce Havlat's acquisition last summer that the Blackhawks lost $19 million the first season after the 2004-05 lockout. He projected the team would probably lose another $20 million this season.

"Off for a year, I think $19 [million loss] is good," Wirtz said at the time.

Through a team spokesman, Wirtz declined to respond to e-mail questions from the Associated Press about the Blackhawks' future. Senior vice president Bob Pulford, who's been with the team for 30 years, including stints as coach and general manager, also declined comment.

Under Pulford's leadership, the Blackhawks once made 20 straight playoff appearances and won eight division titles. But since moving to the United Center 12 years ago, Chicago has made just four playoff appearances -- only two since 1997.

General Manager Dale Tallon likes the mix of young and old he's been able to develop in little more than two years on the job. He's also changed coaches twice and now has the team under the leadership of Savard, a Hall of Famer and one of the most popular players in team history.

"You know, who knows?" Tallon said of a turnaround. "But I'm very hopeful it's very soon. We're very excited about the way this is going on, and we're trying to get better every day."

Through the middle of March, Chicago had 61 points. Only Phoenix and the Kings had fewer in the Western Conference. Tallon said he expects the Blackhawks to have a shot at the playoffs next year, but he knows the reality of his situation.

"If we don't win, then sayonara," he said.

According to the NHL, four of the league's original six members -- the Montreal Canadiens (21,273 fans per game), Toronto Maple Leafs (at least 19,400), Detroit Red Wings (20,066) and New York Rangers (18,200) -- have announced sellouts for each home game this season. The Boston Bruins are averaging 14,423 and the Blackhawks 12,772.

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