Who would have thought, as little as four years ago, that the Blackhawks would be forcing other teams in Chicago to spend money?
This summer the Blackhawks have not, and will not, be active in the free agent market. But that’s the luxury of spending personal time with the Stanley Cup in mid-June; the Hawks achieved the ultimate goal of winning a championship this season, and now are going about the business of keeping the core players together for an extended stretch of dominance at the United Center.
However, one of the reasons the Hawks have been quiet in free agency (and have lost a number of players via trade) is because they were very active in free agency the previous two summers. Former General Manager Dale Tallon successfully added the brightest stars on the free agent market in consecutive summers, first with Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet and then Marian Hossa, and the mix he put together was just right.
In the history of Chicago sports, chasing top free agents has never been a successful, much less profitable, endeavor. Since Michael Jordan left, the Bulls have done nothing but strike out in free agency. The Bears have never spent money on their own players, much less on someone else’s talent. The White Sox have always been mindful of their wallets, and while the Cubs have certainly spent money, they have never received an appropriate return for free agents like Alfonso Soriano or Kosuke Fukudome.
All of this has now changed.
Since the Blackhawks started to emerge as a legitimate team two years ago, consider the sports landscape in Chicago.
The Bears traded for, and then extended, quarterback Jay Cutler. They then landed the top free agent this spring, Julius Peppers, with an uncharacteristic six-year, $91.5M deal.
The White Sox traded for Jake Peavy, who is due roughly $50M over the next three seasons, and took a long-shot on Alex Rios on waivers from the Blue Jays with him being due at least $60M over the next five years (perhaps as much as nearly $75M with an option).
The Bulls signed Carlos Boozer to a five-year deal worth $75M, and have been desperately trying to land the biggest free agent in the history of professional sports, LeBron James. If the Bulls don’t land James, they will still be spending a lot of money to make their team better between Boozer and other free agents that could sign in the coming weeks.
The Cubs…. well, yeah.
That’s a lot of spending from teams that don’t normally throw money around. Chicago has always been a great sports town, but there is a growing sense that every other team is trying to keep up with the Blackhawks’ momentum with the city’s fans.
Now for the harsh reality checks.
In 2005 the White Sox were the first non-Michael Jordan team to win a championship in Chicago in 20 years, but they quickly dismantled their roster by moving home-grown players for veterans (Aaron Rowand for Jim Thome comes to mind). Over the following couple seasons, most of the roster would be moved, and the Sox are trying to get back to the top of the division this year – five years later.
The Bears reached the Super Bowl after the following season, but failed (thanks, Rex). That loss began another fire sale, but this time the team inappropriately stripped valuable players like Thomas Jones from the roster and failed to replace them. They have struggled to even get into the playoffs since then, and have spent four years trying to find the right formula.
The Bulls made a little noise in the playoffs a few years ago with Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon, but they never got over the hump. They have now burned the team down and are starting their fourth rebuild since Jordan left only 12 years ago. The Elton Brand Era failed. The Eddy Curry-Tyson Chandler Era failed. The Kirk-Luol-Gordon Era failed. Now it’s the Rose-Noah-Boozer-? Era. We’ll see how that goes.
The Cubs have been rebuilding for 102 years.
The Blackhawks are going through their own growing pains right now, and while it’s nearly impossible to compare one professional sport to another because of the different rosters and salary cap flexibility, it is worth noting that the Blackhawks appear to have the best approach of the group as they attempt to maintain their success.
Where the Bulls failed was putting their faith in individuals and lacking depth and a team concept.
Where the Sox failed was by getting older, not younger or even necessarily better.
Where the Bears failed was by putting too much faith in key positions into players with limited/no experience.
Where the Cubs have failed is… well, just about everywhere from ownership to the bullpen catcher.
The Blackhawks have put their long-term confidence and financial faith behind winners like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith. They have depth and clearly have a working team concept. They are getting younger, faster and, probably, better. They now have rings at nearly every key position on the roster (Niemi?), and have replaced some veterans like John Madden with other experienced players like Marty Reasoner.
Where other champions have made mistakes, the Blackhawks are rolling with the punches.
The reason for that is leadership. From the top down, leadership has been lacking in other situations, but the Blackhawks have an all-time great in Scoty Bowman helping guide a ship that appears to be on track and staying there. The Blackhawks aren’t going away, but could only be getting better for continued success.
The pressure is on the rest of Chicago to keep up.