The current Blackhawks are a textbook marketing creation. They very well could be the real thing, an actual competitive hockey team, but I have no way of knowing that right now.
I do know, thanks to a marketing strategy that resembles an exuberant carpet-bombing, that they are new, improved, bigger and better, have less trans fat than competitors, and quite possibly will improve your posture while removing stains.
The team that has been publicized, hawked, packaged, airbrushed, Photoshopped and otherwise thrust upon us is a team that should go deep into the NHL playoffs. I happen to know this because a hefty majority of voters in a chicagotribune.com poll said so before the season began. And the voters said so because they had been hit over the head with the Hawks' advertising campaign.
That campaign created wild expectations, unreasonable expectations, borderline silly expectations.
So instead of a 1-2-1 start being what it was, a disappointment, it became a 1-2-1 start, the end of the world. If you market a season as if it were the second coming of the Roman Empire, you might be a little freaked out by going 1-2-1 against ragtag enlistees from distant outposts of the kingdom — New York, Washington, Nashville and Phoenix.
The Hawks fired coach Denis Savard on Thursday. That the ouster involved one of the more popular people in Blackhawks history is beside the point. Did Savard deserve better? Yes. But he was facing forces that were much bigger than him.
His sin was that, four games into the season, the new Hawks looked a little too much like the old Hawks. Bill Wirtz might as well have been alive, running the show and keeping the games off television.
If Hawks officials doubted Savard was the guy to take the team to the next level, why didn't they do the dirty deed before the season began? When an organization fires a coach four games into the schedule, it's obvious confidence in him wasn't overflowing in the first place.
Chairman Rocky Wirtz and President John McDonough are trying to bring back a franchise from the brink of complete public indifference. Everybody gets that part of it. The two men hyped this team at Frank Caliendo levels. Then they asked players with no history of winning as a group to live up to the hype.
Marketing the team was the easy part. When the Hawks announced last season they finally were putting the games on TV, you would have thought someone had just invented inexpensive cars that didn't rely on gasoline. They got rid of musty Bob Pulford. They scheduled an outdoor hockey game at Wrigley Field. They honored Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito before adoring crowds at the United Center. They brought Pat Foley back to the TV booth. They righted all the wrongs of the former regime.
Miracles were not being worked here. Heartstrings were.
Fans responded. Season-ticket sales went up. Interest grew.
McDonough couldn't market a ballpark the way he did with the Cubs. The next lines of poetry written about the United Center will be the first. So he marketed promise. You could not go to a Cubs or White Sox game over the summer and be Blackhawks-free. You could not open a newspaper or watch TV without seeing a Hawks ad. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were everywhere, and in their fresh faces was possibility.
This all started last season, when Wirtz took over after his father died. One idea was implicit under the publicity blitz: The Hawks had to win in 2008-09. The Great Marketing Campaign of 2007-08 would be a lot of empty words and images without victories to go with it the following season.
It was too much.
It's hard to imagine this team living up to the marketing campaign. A team led by two guys who barely shave? Again, hard to imagine.
The Cubs had to deal with the weight of 100 years of failure. This team has to deal with artificially created expectations. Different kinds of burdens, but burdens nonetheless.
The writing was on the wall before this season began, and a subliminally suggested question came with it: "The 2008-09 Chicago Blackhawks, Stanley Cup contenders?" At the first hint of trouble, the Hawks fired Savard and elevated Joel Quenneville, a veteran coach who was not brought into the fold weeks ago to sit around and watch.
Maybe a coaching change will help. Maybe Savard was the problem. Maybe the Hawks needed a fresh start after a four-game disappointment. Maybe Scotty Bowman is the grand potentate behind the scenes.
Or maybe, just maybe, this season was built on a flimsy foundation.