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Second City Revival
June 21, 2010
The Stanley Cup belongs to the Blackhawks at long last. Finances may prevent a repeat, but that's a worry for another day
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June 21, 2010

Second City Revival

The Stanley Cup belongs to the Blackhawks at long last. Finances may prevent a repeat, but that's a worry for another day

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Every time the Blackhawks would score, the telephone would ring. His son was calling from Wilmette. Now his son from Highland Park was on the line. Abe Matthew was watching the 42-inch flat screen in his suburban den with his wife of 63 years, Nettie, his high school sweetheart whom he used to take to Chicago Stadium during the war ("Second balcony, the only seats we could afford"), and the phone was jangling, goalie Antti Niemi was kicking out pucks, defenseman Duncan Keith was motoring, winger Patrick Kane was whirling, and Matthew found himself doing something he hadn't done in 50 years.

He was biting his nails.

He has been a season-ticket holder since 1951. He remembers Chicago's 1961 Stanley Cup team, of course, and rattles off names—Hull, Mikita, Pilote, Hall, captain Eddie Litzenberger—as if they were old friends, which, in a way, they were. He sat through the darkness but rarely did it alone. When the boys were young, before they had their own families, they also came to the games. As sure as Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had a plan to shut down the Flyers' top line, Matthew had one of his own. He reasoned if his boys shared his love of the Hawks, a sturdy connective thread would forever be woven through his family.

See, the Blackhawks were not merely his team. They were part of his legacy.

Then shortly after 10 p.m. CDT on June 9, Kane scored the Game 6 overtime goal in Philadelphia. Hallelujah. Halley's Comet comes around once every 76 years. This Cup arrived in roughly two-thirds the time, although you wouldn't want to set your calendar by it. The goal judge and referees couldn't see the puck—Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who displayed a keen interest in pucks during the series, would have had to organize a search party to locate it beneath the padding on the base of the net—but when Kane flung his gloves skyward in ecstasy, Matthew demanded no confirmation that the 49-year wait was over: "One of the most thrilling moments of my life."

Then he did precisely what all 83-year-olds should do at 10:30 p.m., after their team wins a championship. He drove to a sporting goods store and bought a Blackhawks flag for his car, banners for his office—he still works daily at his automotive-accessories company—and Stanley Cup championship T-shirts for his sons and seven grandchildren.

The team had always been a family gift, only now it was officially licensed.

About the time Matthew was in the checkout line, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz was fielding questions near center ice at the Wachovia Center as a party swirled around him. Wirtz, a lumpy man, is gracious and approachable but hardly casual. He wears white button-down dress shirts with ties tugged right to the collar, including during a Cup parade on a day when Chicago was a sauna. He does not look like a man of the people but, given the cries of "Thank you, Rocky," might be the most popular owner in North American sports, living proof that one man really can change history.

Rocky was the right Wirtz.

His father, Bill, the NHL colossus who constructed the Blackhawks but left them as hollow as Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, died in September 2007. Rocky, who worked in the family liquor business, took control of the team instead of his brother, Peter, who had been a Hawks vice president. Dramatic reversals occur in the sports entertainment field all the time, but generally they involve a pro wrestler removing a foreign object from his tights and using it to bop an opponent over the head. The Hawks' turnaround was legit. Within two months of his father's death on Sept. 26, 2007, when the season-ticket base had shrunk to a skeletal 3,400 in the wake of four straight losing seasons, Rocky hired John McDonough away from the Cubs to be the Hawks' president. Thirty-one months later Chicago, with 102 straight sellouts, is the epicenter of hockey. Said Wirtz, "I didn't know if we could bring it back." The team was riven from fans, the renowned ex-Hawks players, the corporate community and the city, but the Blackhawks spackled over every crack and metamorphosed from irrelevant to incandescent.

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