The Chicago Blackhawks are currently in the conversation as to who will finish first in the Western Conference, with the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild also in the mix. The Hawks are firing on all cylinders, with all their stars - Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin - scoring, and rookie Nick Schmaltz filling in for the injured Artem Anisimov; Corey Crawford and Scott Darling are also doing their part keeping the puck out of their own net.
As the NHL is preparing for its 100-year celebration, the Hawks are currently in their 91st season. Unlike the Toronto Maple Leafs, which started out as the Toronto Arenas and were also known as the Toronto St. Patricks before taking on the Leafs moniker, the Hawks' only name change was its spelling, as they were known as the Chicago Black Hawks from 1926 until 1986, when they combined the words to become the Blackhawks.
For many of its formative years, the Hawks were comfortable sharing last-place with the New York Americans and New York Rangers. Things turned even worse during the James E. Norris era (1944-1966), as the Detroit Red Wings' owner - who also owned Chicago Stadium and had the Hawks as tenants - bought the franchise, essentially making it a farm club for his Wings... and one less adversary to bother with, essentially cementing their playoff position every year by winning against their own B team.
Things got better upon Norris' death, as Arthur Wirtz and son Bill orchestrated the Hawks' move to the weaker Western division and plowed through the expansion teams for most of the 1970s. Sure, the WHA dealt the team a serious blow when the Winnipeg Jets hired Bobby Hull (and, to a lesser extent, André Lacroix), but they still won seven division titles in the decade. However, when it came to championships, the team could not compete with the Eastern Division come playoff time - especially not the mighty Montréal Canadiens.
The 1980s brought forth Denis Savard, Steve Larmer and Doug Wilson, so, again, the team was competitive enough to make the playoffs, although it was never a true contender. The decade was all about the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets out West, and the New York Islanders, Habs, Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins and Québec Nordiques (for the first half) in the East.
The franchise peaked with a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1991-92 for the first time in 19 years, powered by the likes of Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour, but it was all downhill from there. Bill Wirtz saw his team trade away all of its stars and finish near the bottom of the standings from 1997-98 until 2008-09, with the sole exception of their first-round exit in 2001-02.
In 2004, ESPN even named the Hawks the "worst franchise in sports", as their arena was empty - partly because the team was so awful, but also as a protest towards Wirtz' media blackout where the team's local games were not televised.
In 2007, Rocky Wirtz took over the franchise after his father's death and revised many of the team's policies, including that of the TV blackout. GM Dale Talon had built the foundation of the team's depth and drafted Toews and Kane as the franchise's offensive cornerstones. They hadn't necessarily tanked prior to building their contender - they just sucked - but they were on a definite upswing, one that remains to this day, as Chicago can proudly claim to be this generation's dynasty team, with three Stanley Cups to date with the same core, supported by a bunch of two-time winners.
In speaking of the Hawks' history, I decided to feature a card that showed them celebrating their 75th anniversary; granted, it was during a bleak period in their history, but one they had to get through to become what they are today. And so I present you the signed version of card #83 from In The Game's 2001-02 Be A Player Signature Series set, it of the ''gold'' variant variety:
Steve Sullivan, wearing the team's classic red (then-away) uniform, with the 75th anniversary patch on his chest. It was signed on-card in thin black sharpie.
These days, Sullivan is an Arizona Coyotes player development coach.