Duncan Keith remembers sitting in the stands before a game in 2005, unrecognized in his suit and tie by the fans around him.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” Keith said.
Dave Bolland had a similar experience the next year.
“I remember being at an exhibition game and just sitting by the glass, eating nachos and cheese and having a Coke,” he said.
Veteran Blackhawks like Keith and Bolland have come a long way with their formerly woebegone team, ranked dead last in popularity in Chicago in the mid-2000s. In less than a decade the team has gone from selling only half the seats in the United Center to hosting sell-out crowds. Now standing-room only tickets are flying from the box office as the team plays in the Stanley Cup Final.
“Times have changed and it’s great to be here now,” Bolland said. "It’s great to be on the team now and have this city rocking as it is."
The Hawks were once the dregs of the NHL, with just 20 wins in 2003-04 and 26 in 2005-06. Some United Center games were less than half full.
“I remember coming in here and only 10,000 fans in the building, (empty) spots everywhere,” Bolland said.
Home games were still blacked out on TV, a policy owner Bill Wirtz maintained to protect season ticket holders.
“He was a stubborn German,” son Rocky Wirtz said when asked why his father didn’t follow suit when United Center partner and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf generated nightly sellouts after putting all games, home and road, on TV.
Hockey chatter was considered a ratings killer on sports talk radio. Management of WSCR-AM (670) The Score strongly discouraged Hawks talk among its hosts.
Then a chain of events changed the Hawks' outlook.
The losing records enabled the team to draft Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who became productive players while still teenagers. Rocky Wirtz took over as owner after Bill Wirtz died in 2007, almost immediately lifting the home TV blackout. The John McDonough-led front office began aggressive marketing.
"It just kind of all hit at the right time," Sharp said. "Once you started seeing the building sold out and all the great moves management was doing, you definitely expect to be here (as Cup contenders).”