Is Pinnacle Foods ready to win the food industry’s version of the Stanley Cup? Not yet. Even so, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods is proud to recognize the company for its dramatic, year-over-year improvements.

Forget about Lebron James for a moment. One of the year’s most compelling sports stories involves the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. And refrigerated and frozen food executives can relate, right? Heck, we’re even talking about temperature-controlled environments.

Chicagoans know the Blackhawks’ most intriguing story took place behind the scenes. This proud Chicago franchise (one of the NHL’s original six) sputtered under the ownership of Bill Wirtz. After Wirtz died in 2007, however, his son Rocky assumed operations and literally changed everything – from players, scouts and managers all the way to marketing and broadcasting.

The results? The 2007-2008 season would be the first time in six years that the team finished above .500. In 2008-2009, the Hawks finished second in their division with a record of 46-24-12. Moreover, they clinched a playoff berth for the first time since the 2001-02 season. As for this past year, 2009-2010: Stanley Cup champions.

Interestingly enough, 2007 also was a pivotal year of change at Pinnacle Foods Group. That’s when private equity investors, The Blackstone Group, bought Pinnacle from affiliates of J.P Morgan Partners, J.W. Childs Associates, CDM Group and former bondholders of Aurora Foods.

That change brought a world of change. With a larger, long-term view (at least five to seven years – leading to a public offering) Blackstone has invested everywhere – in product and packaging development and improvements, manufacturing upgrades and in food quality safety measures. It likewise has revitalized brand advertising and promotion and launched original consumer insights research. Under the leadership of new CEO Bob Gamgort (formerly of Mars and Major League Baseball), Blackstone also has brought in more new talent, promoted other leaders and created a new Pinnacle leadership team.

Then Blackstone acquired Birds Eye Foods last January. Not only did the deal raise Pinnacle to a mid-cap stock level but it also took Pinnacle’s retail frozen food business to a dramatically larger scale (reportedly fifth overall). Meanwhile, Birds Eye gives Pinnacle an even stronger frozen brand, broader category penetration, strong footing in healthier products and multi-serve meals, and world-class R&D capabilities.

Is Pinnacle ready to win the food industry’s Stanley Cup? Not yet. Even so, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods is proud to recognize the company for its dramatic, year-over-year improvements. At a time of heightened on-shelf competition between CPG companies and private label, it was critical that someone reinvest in Pinnacle’s well-known brands.

Stay tuned for Refrigerated & Frozen Foods’ December issue, where we’ll name R&FF’s first annual “Refrigerated Foods Processor of the Year.”