The Hawks have been clinging to playoff life for what feels like the entire season. The stakes seem to only get higher with each game, with last night's home loss to the Ducks being the most recent example. The loss resulted in the defending champions sliding to 8th place; that fact has been well-documented.
What many aren't talking about is the underlying impact that missing the playoffs could actually have on this franchise. It might not be at the forefront of our minds, but its something I've paid close attention to, and there is no doubt spotlight-hungry Team President John McDonough has as well.
You know where I'm going with this, but let's get one myth out of the way: The Hawks will not slip back into pre-2007 interest levels by finishing 9th. I've heard people say that, and its dumb. It would take years and years of futility to ever approach that again, which is what was necessary for it to happen in the first place.
Missing the playoffs does have its consequences, however, and they aren't all on the ice.
The playoff run of 2009 and Stanley Cup win of 2010 led to proclamations of the Hawks "stealing the spotlight" in Chicago. While nobody would argue that the Hawks (or anyone) could actually overtake the Bears as the city's #1 team, last year's attendance numbers, secondary ticket prices and TV ratings are tough to argue with. Oh, two million people showed up for the parade, too. The Hawks were the toast of the city.
What's keeping McDonough up at night isn't so much the team losing its chance at defending a title, but the team's place in the Chicago sports spectrum. McDonough and the Hawks said they weren't satisfied with one Stanley Cup, and I believe them. Their "one goal" wasn't hoisting one Stanley Cup. There's a reason that slogan continues to be used this season. They wanted something bigger, and you can't put a number on it. They wanted a decade-long grip on this city's hearts, the way the 90's Bulls had. The core is signed long-term, the season ticket base is there, and management has the farm loaded. That's all great, but missing the playoffs a year after winning a championship puts that goal severely in danger. And there's more.
Derrick Rose and the current Bulls are (justifiably) the talk of the town right now. They have the same atmosphere surrounding them that last year's Hawks did. Fans are having a hard time envisioning them losing, even to elite teams in a playoff series. They appear to be "championship special." They have the IT factor, and they're catching the city's attention.
The Hawks have not portrayed those same type of intangibles since June. The attention the Bulls are and will continue to receive is what the Hawks wanted to themselves for a long time.
Despite being the city's most recent champion, the 8th-place Hawks already have catching up to do. The good news is, the playoffs and a deep run remain attainable.
That's exactly what it will take to remain in casual Chicago sports conversation.
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Note: For those of you who follow my stuff and haven't heard, I've recently accepted a teaching job in Eastern North Carolina. Blame the Illinois education budget. My intention is to continue writing, but as the month-long layoff demonstrates, teaching is very time-consuming and I don't have the spare time that I used to. I have yet to miss a Hawks game (thank you Slingbox and Versus) and plan on writing as often as possible going forward. Thanks for the kind words and support.