Maybe it will work.
Maybe five or six or nine or 10 years from now, when future Madison Street statue Connor Bedard passes the Stanley Cup to franchise icon Kevin Korchinski as 21,000 fans scream in delirious joy and the Beloved old “Chelsea Dagger” will reverberate throughout the United Center, you’ll think back to the summer of 2022 and nod knowingly, a wry smile on your face.
You’ll laugh at how hilarious the Blackhawks were in 2022-23, how they had AHL tweeners in their top six, and how they probably celebrated Duncan Keith’s recovery penalty because it helped one of the most popular franchises. The league’s richest Coyote barely made their way above the salary cap floor. You’ll be shaking your head at all the wringing and beading on The Tank (which will earn its own banner at this point) long ago during that brief moment between two decades of dominance. You’ll raise a cold Old Style to longtime general manager Kyle Davidson, who boldly tore it all down so he could rebuild it all. You’ll stare at your $300 300 tier ticket and laugh at the mid-2020s when you could get a club-level seat on StubHub for $20.
After all, it’s The Way, isn’t it? That’s how modern sports work, especially in a hard-capped league. Either compete for championships now or compete for championships in the distant future. The pasty medium – good, but not good enough; bad, but not bad enough – is death, a wasteland of mediocrity with no hope of escape. The only way out is inside, the only way up is down.
I mean, hey, we’ve all been complaining about the Blackhawks’ lack of long-term strategy, recklessness and lack of direction, for years now. This is a plane. A plan Davidson knows about and has publicly stated will take years. A plan that CEO Danny Wirtz and President of Business Operations Jaime Faulkner fully support. An increasingly frustrated plan, fans even get involved.
Clever. It’s careful. It is justifiable.
It’s also rude.
Everything about tanking in professional sports is gross. It’s a cold, cynical way to do business, to treat fans, to betray players. We should condemn it, loud and clear.
It’s blatant to charge thousands of dollars for a subscription to the worst seat in the house when you’re actively trying to be uncompetitive. The Blackhawks drastically reduce their odds of winning, but they only marginally reduce the cost of watching them. Now bad hockey can be fun. I’m as big a fan of the sport as you’ll find, and spent most of my childhood watching the 1990s Islanders, who were pretty much a perpetual 2022-23 Blackhawks. But I could also enter the Nassau Coliseum for $10 and an empty Coke can.
The Blackhawks swear loud and clear to season ticket holders that they won’t go down 6-0 every night, that they will be a scrappy, fast, friendly team that will only lose by a goal or two every night, that they will won’t become Gillooly a rookie winger if he suddenly catches fire and sets off a (gasping) three-game winning streak that puts Bedard Watch in jeopardy. It’s very beautiful. Hell, the 2021 Blackhawks — who were in the early stages of a quickly scrapped rebuild — were a lot of fun.
But no one should have to pay more than, say, $100 to bring a family of four to the United Center to watch a billionaire-owned team actively try to lose. Even less $500. It’s even insulting to ask.
It’s cowardly to try to chase arguably the two most important players in franchise history out of town through passive aggressive aggression. It is becoming increasingly clear that the grand plan is to make the situation in Chicago so untenable that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews – who have well-deserved no-move clauses in the final year of their corresponding 84 million contracts dollars over eight years – come to the Blackhawks and demand their release. That way the Blackhawks get what they want — trading them for more forwards rather than extending either — but don’t have to be the bad guys who begged the stalwarts of the game. franchise to approve transactions.
Hey, don’t be mad at us; we wanted to keep them. They were the ones who wanted to leave!
Davidson was right Thursday in Montreal when he said guys like Kane and Toews are important for a rebuild because it takes proven winners to usher in the next generation and teach them first to be pros and then to be champions. But did he really mean it? The same day he traded Kane’s favorite winger (Alex DeBrincat) and later told his favorite center (Dylan Strome) he wouldn’t even get a qualifying offer? Let’s put it this way: there will be no contract extension on the table on July 13, when both are eligible. Davidson deserves credit for keeping both stars informed throughout this process, and Toews already appears to be on the fence about an extended rebuild over the past two years. Maybe it ends the same way no matter how deep the cuts are in the list.
But considering all those banners in the rafters and all those jerseys in the stands, Kane and Toews deserve better than that. Their fans too.
It’s naive to think that what the Blackhawks are doing now is definitely going to pay off. Tearing everything down is one thing. Tearing it down like that is another. What kind of rebuild involves trading a hyper-competitive, penalty-killing 24-year-old sniper who has two 40-goal seasons and another 50-goal season in just five years, and that actually sought be there throughout the reconstruction? What kind of rebuild is ditching the third overall pick from just three years ago (Kirby Dach) for the No. 13 pick in a draft universally considered “meh,” especially when the previous regime left the closet so bare by trade the team’s first pick of the previous eight drafts.
What type of reconstruction fails to get a single asset for Dylan Strome (154 points in 225 games with the Blackhawks) or Dominik Kubalik (62 goals in three seasons)?
The Blackhawks haven’t even gotten a single Ottawa deep pool prospect for DeBrincat, or a first-rounder in next year’s much more coveted draft. They didn’t even get a midterm pick for Strome or Kubalik, who could have signed short-term deals to help keep Kane or Toews or the fans happy without really changing the trajectory of the franchise. They only moved up 13 spots by accepting Petr Mrazek’s bad contract from Toronto, then picked a player who almost every draft pundit believed would have been on the board 13 picks later.
It’s about tearing it down for the sake of tearing it down, not tearing it down to maximize future success. Too many assets are wasted by a team that cannot afford to waste assets.
All – everything – is difficult to digest. Of course, the Blackhawks will probably get away with it whether it works out or not. The fanbase that has built up over the past 15 years is young, committed, enduring. The Blackhawks will still be able to find at least 13 or 14,000 people with enough disposable income and enough love for the team and the game to keep showing up and keep paying $25 for parking and $12 for a beer. Korchinski and Phillip Kurashev won’t wear their own jerseys at Millennium Station, handing out free tickets to Blackhawks games, like Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp did in the mid-2000s. Rocky Wirtz won’t be pulling home games from his television crew like his father, Bill, did (although he might be doing Chicago a favor if he did). It will never be so bad again.
It helps (or hurts, depending on your perspective) that the Cubs prompted Chicago to tank by winning the 2016 World Series after their own low. This team encouraged general managers and ownership groups across all professional sports to follow suit, entrenching the all-or-nothing, championship-or-bust mentality as the norm. They were not, however, the first. The Penguins are famous for having Mario Lemieux and were rewarded again for their ineptitude two decades later with Sidney Crosby. Five Stanley Cups later, everyone laughs at the 1983-84 Penguins who won 16 of their 80 games, and everyone in Pittsburgh remembers wryly the “X-Generation” Penguins who were so atrocious that the Penguins managed to draft Marc-André Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby in back-to-back drafts.
Tanking can work. There’s all kinds of evidence — the Penguins, the Astros, half the NBA. But there are the Sabres. The brown ones. The Dolphins. The other half of the NBA. Hell, even having Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl didn’t put the Oilers in the true top echelon of the NHL. The Red Wings, famed for their consistency, and now with revered GM Steve Yzerman at the helm, are about to enter Year 7 of their rebuild and they’re still a long way from being a real contender.
Maybe the NHL will see its Golden Goose franchise in Chicago lose points and profits and do the right thing and find a way to legislate to eliminate the game. Because tanking is a scourge and should not be rewarded. Objectively speaking, the best thing for the league might be for the Blackhawks to fail spectacularly.
That said, few NHL teams have truly managed to get rid of the cleats and completely clean the board like the Blackhawks seem determined to do. It is certainly bold. And a plan is better than no plan, which has been the case for years. It’s entirely possible that this column — that Cassandra-style screed, that Helen Lovejoy-style lament — will poke fun at future Blackhawks fans with all that other quaint stuff looking back on the summer of 2022. The Tank could be the best thing that ever happened to future Blackhawks and future Blackhawks fans.
But that doesn’t mean we have to love it, welcome it, or support it. Because it’s not just a lousy way to run a team – it’s cruel and cold and cynical and anathema to everything we love about sport.
(Top photo: Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)