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As Blackhawks hit new low, fans’ disenchantment reaches United Center

The Hawks’ legendary sellout streak ended Sunday, when only 19,042 fed-up fans attended their 6-3 loss to the Red Wings.

The Blackhawks lost to the Red Wings 6-3 on Sunday.
Getty

Amidst the Blackhawks’ worst start since 1997 — a dysfunctional two weeks of hockey that has raised doubts about the vision of the team’s leadership, cohesion of the roster and legitimacy of the team’s goals for the future — another pillar of their modern era has fallen.

The 535-game sellout streak, dating to 2008-09, is no more. Only 19,042 fans, below the United Center hockey capacity of 19,717, attended the Hawks’ 6-3 loss to the Red Wings on Sunday.

Team president Danny Wirtz spun the news to promote the Hawks’ efforts to diversify their fan base, calling it an “opportunity to reassure fans both new and old that there is absolutely a seat here for them” in a statement.

But while the Hawks’ efforts to reach previously ignored parts of the Chicago community are indeed both real and worthwhile — and while the pandemic deterred fans wary of crowds or opposed to the vaccination-or-negative-test entry requirement and likely affecting ticket sales — the streak’s end demonstrates equally real frustration within the fan base.

Coach Jeremy Colliton’s approval rating is nearing Bill Wirtz-like depths. General manager Stan Bowman isn’t much more popular. Fans’ lingering but tempered disappointment with the last few years’ results has morphed into full-blown disenchantment with the organization at large.

Based on the first three home games, the United Center might be able to claim a new tradition — booing the Hawks off the ice at the final horn — to replace its slightly more esteemed but now expired one.

After all, the other chants heard throughout the third period were even more offensive: Several rounds of “Let’s Go Red Wings,” later were topped by a call to “Fire Colliton” that reverberated both literally and figuratively from ice level to the executive suites.

This vitriol is not Chicago’s fault. It is, unequivocally, the Hawks’.

The front office brought this upon themselves. They insisted this season would be better, mortgaging the future on that premise. They raised the expectations intentionally. Instead, it’s worse. Compared to those raised expectations, it’s far, far worse.

The anger is justified. So is the frugality. The Hawks have given zero reasons why fans should pay to see this production. An increasingly sizable number of those fans — severely understated by the mere 675-person difference between the announced attendance and capacity — have noticed and are making decisions accordingly.

Those who showed up nonetheless at least got to witness history. The Hawks broke the NHL record for the longest time to start a season without a lead. They sit at 360 minutes, 57 seconds and counting, topping the 2000-01 Capitals’ previous 350-minute record.

The Wings ensured that by scoring four times in the second period to run away with the game. The Hawks have been outscored 25-6 at even strength.

In postgame interviews, Jonathan Toews and Seth Jones backed Colliton but at the same time alluded to a disconnect in mindset and lack of unity among the team itself.

“This isn’t a coaching problem,” Jones said bluntly. “This is a locker room thing. Players are on the ice, playing the game. We have to find a way to get on the same page and have a common goal on how to play and what our identity is.”

“It’s a horrible feeling,” Toews said. “I don’t think there are many guys who have been through anything like this before, especially to start a season. When things go bad for us, it just seems to snowball. We only have ourselves to blame for that. So it’s up to us to find solutions.”

The Hawks just shouldn’t be surprised if, while searching for those on-ice solutions, fans decide to search for something else.

“We can play a brand of hockey and be a team that people in Chicago are proud of,” Colliton insisted. “But we’ve got to deliver.”