It’s easy to forget just how different the climate was around the Blackhawks prior to the signing of Brian Campbell.
There have been other big acquisitions over the years, such as the steal of a deal in the 2005 Patrick Sharp trade and the free agent deal offered to Marian Hossa in 2009.
But no one move indicated how different things were going to be than the free agent signing of Brian Campbell in 2008.
There was reason for optimism that summer.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane exploded onto the NHL scene in their rookie seasons. A late-season surge fell short, with the young Hawks missing out on a playoff spot by just three points. No conversation about the 2008-09 season occurred without mentioning the Hawks as one of the league’s most promising teams. They needed a few more proven players, and they had the salary cap space to do it then.
But the doubts of the past remained.
The Hawks’ front office had been notoriously stingy in the decade prior. It led to the departure of beloved players like Ed Belfour and Jeremy Roenick while the two were still well within their primes. It meant that “big” offseason signings were guys like Matthew Barnaby and Jassen Cullimore and “captain” Adrian Aucoin.
The death of longtime owner Bill Wirtz in September 2007 and subsequent handing over of the franchise to his son, Rocky Wirtz, sowed seeds of optimism that the penny-pinching ways of the past were gone.
Doubts still permeated, though. Bill Wirtz had drawn such ire of Hawks fans that boos rained down during a speech given by former GM Dale Tallon at Wirtz’s memorial, and that much anger was not easily surrendered. Even with a player of Campbell’s stature available through free agency, it was hard to fully believe that the Hawks were going to be true contenders for his services.
And then the Hawks threw a boatload of money at Campbell.
Eight years, $57.143 million dollars, for an annual cap hit of $7,142,875. As Greg Wyshynski detailed on Puck Daddy today, they OUTBID three other teams in the process, a concept so foreign to Hawks fans at the time that Caps Lock isn’t enough to adequately express the shock.
The next summer, a similar story would play out when the Hawks spent a ton of money on Hossa’s deal, but it was already clear at that point that things had changed rapidly from the prior era of Blackhawks hockey, which was led by a man who reportedly once deemed Stanley Cups “too expensive” to win.
It’s easy to point to Toews and Kane’s NHL debuts as the moment the course of the Blackhawks’ franchise finally altered after its early-2000s plummet to the basement of anonymity. But if the Hawks were ever going to win again, there had to be an equal commitment from the players on the ice and the people in the front office.
When the Hawks’ brass opened up the pocketbooks to allow for Campbell to sign in Chicago, it confirmed that the ways of the past were no longer going to be the ways of the future.