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Do NHL Teams Do Better or Worse at the End of an Era?

Keener explores how NHL teams have performed following their owners' passing, and the commemorative patches made to honour them.

If you’ve watched a Chicago Blackhawks game recently — and who doesn’t have their eye on the Hawks this year? — you’ve probably noticed the circular black patch on the upper right chest on their NHL team sweaters honouring recently deceased Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz. Memorial patches are pretty common in sports, and this isn’t even the first memorial patch the Hawks have worn in recent memory.

Back in 2007, Hawks owner Bill Wirtz died after more than 50 years as the club’s owner. To commemorate his life, the Blackhawks stitched a memorial patch to the upper right chest of their hockey jerseys for the 2007-2008 season. That just so happened to be the rookie season for both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Three years later, the dynamic duo would lead Chicago to their first Stanley Cup championship in the NHL’s modern age.

Again the Hawks find themselves wearing a memorial patch on their hockey sweaters, and again a rookie superstar bears the weight of that patch and the franchise on his shoulders. I can’t help but wonder if, in three years, we’ll see Connor Bedard and the Chicago Blackhawks hoisting the cup once more.

There’s no way to know for sure, but let’s take a look at how other NHL franchises have fared after the passing of their club’s owners.

Did Harold Ballard actually curse the Leafs?

nhl team toronto maple leafs patch honouring former owner harold ballard

Toronto’s commemorative hockey patch for Harold Ballard.

When Harold Ballard, the pugnacious original co-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs passed away back in 1990, the Buds honoured him with a memorial jersey patch for the 1990-91 campaign. The patch was a small version of the Leafs’ 1967 logo that they wore the very last time the team won the Stanley Cup and featured Ballard’s name.

So, how did the team fair following Ballard’s passing? Well, the Leafs are currently in the midst of the longest active Stanley Cup drought in NHL history — 55 years. But things started to look good shortly after Ballard moved to the front office in the sky.

The Leafs’ first year without Ballard was a bad one. The team only managed to scrape together 23 wins that year, and they would go on to miss the playoffs two seasons in a row. But in 1992-93 — three years after Ballard’s death — The Leafs made it to the Western Conference finals under the leadership of their newly acquired future Hall-of-Famer centre, Doug Gilmour.

The Maple Leafs have returned to the Conference finals three more times since then, but that’s as far as they’ve been able to get since Harold Ballard led them to their last league championship way back in 1967. It is commonly joked about amongst Leafs fans that Mr. Ballard left a curse on the team when he passed.

The Legacy & Struggles After the Passing of Mr. I

In 2016, long-time Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch (colloquially known as Mr. I,) died leaving a legacy most owners can only dream of. After purchasing the troubled franchise in 1982, Ilitch quickly developed the organization into a juggernaut, setting a then-record for most wins in a season (62 in 1996.) The team ended up winning the Stanley Cup four times during his tenure, even winning back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998.

The Wings honoured Ilitch with a simple red and white patch on their left shoulder that read “Mr. I”. I think the Wings took the loss pretty hard, though. They missed the playoffs the year following Ilitch’s death — and every year since.

detroit red wings patch honouring mr. i, mike ilitch

Tribute hockey patch for the Detroit sports legend, Mr I.

Mr. Knox: The Man Behind the Team, from the very beginning

Hockey fans in Buffalo, New York owe everything to Seymour Knox. Knox battled for years to bring an NHL franchise to upstate New York, before finally succeeding in 1970, and it was his idea to use the name “Sabres”, too.

Knox passed in May of 1996, and the following season the Sabres wore a memorial patch featuring his initials. All of Knox’s hard work must have inspired the players to return the favor, because in 1999 — three years after Knox’s death — the Sabres made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. And if it were not for a questionable Brett Hull overtime goal, they may well have won the championship that year, too.

buffalo sabres dominik hasek patch hockey nhl

Tribute hockey patch for Seymour H. Knox III.

ed snider, the man who brought hockey to broad street

Spring 2016 was a tough time for Flyers fans. In addition to losing to the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, that year also saw the loss of Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider.

Snider was instrumental in bringing the NHL to Philadelphia in the original NHL expansion in 1967, and seven years later the Flyers became the first expansion team to win the Stanley cup. In recognition of Snider, the Flyers donned a circular black patch with the initials EMS for the duration of the 2016 playoffs. For the 2017-2018 season, the team switched to a circular black patch featuring Snider’s signature and the words “A Flyer Forever” emblazoned above the Flyers logo.

The Flyers’ record has been spotty at best since Snider’s passing, missing the playoffs more often than not.

philadelphia flyers patch nhl hockey

A simple yet elegant hockey patch to honour Flyers founder, Ed Snider.

ottawa senators honouring former owner eugene melnyk

A simple yet classy design for Eugene Melnyk’s tribute hockey patch.

The Lasting Legacy of Eugene Melnyk

Last season the Sens stitched on a black patch with owner Eugene Melnyk’s initials after his death in March of 2022. Melnyk purchased the Senators in 2003, saving the franchise from bankruptcy. In 2007, the Senators marched all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before falling to the Ducks in five games.

It remains to be seen how the Senators will bounce back from the loss of Melnyk and subsequent acquisition by a new ownership group, but three years seems to be the golden number.

The Results

Generally speaking, NHL teams’ performance following the loss of an owner is a mixed bag, but the odds seem to slightly favor an up-tick in performance about three years after the owners passing. Of course, there is probably no direct correlation to improved performance, and the death of an owner is always a sad occasion. I say that as both a hockey fan and a business owner. I’d like to think Keener Jerseys wouldn’t do better without me. The employees would probably be inconsolable and it would take a lot of encouragement from Barker to keep their spirits up.

Anyway, only time will tell how the Blackhawks and Senators fare in the coming years, and we wish both teams nothing but the best, on and off the ice.

I love hockey, and I’m always looking for the strange, interesting, and weird stories that pop up in the fastest sport on Earth, so be sure to subscribe to the 4 Shots with Keener newsletter to receive more hockey insights and hot takes like this.

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Chris “Keener” Dougherty started customizing jerseys when he was 11. Over the next 20 years, Keener honed his craft to become a world-class customizer and leading expert on premium jersey customization.

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