Blackhawks Ambassadors: Embracing your past
Shortly after being installed as president of the Blackhawks, John McDonough began gathering telephone numbers. During his front office reign with the Cubs, he was aware that several hockey players had left Chicago’s Original Six franchise in a bad way. These awkward or acrimonious departures tainted the team’s history and, by extension, affected fans who hurt for their bygone heroes and wondered why they were not part of the mix."
“One of our first objectives was to let it be known that we were out of the grudge business,” recalled McDonough. “You can’t have a meaningful present or a strong future if you are at war with your past.”
Soon management announced that four Blackhawks Hall of Famers — Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and later, Denis Savard — would serve as official “ambassadors,” performing a variety of duties, including personal appearances and autograph sessions, but most of all, helping to heal a fracture between the team and fans.
“For one reason or another, we just didn’t feel especially welcome in the building or around the Blackhawks after we retired,” said Mikita, who spent his entire career (1958-1980) with the club. “But that all changed.”
McDonough’s initial gesture was toward Hull, who logged 15 glorious seasons with the Blackhawks before he jumped to the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association in 1972. “The Golden Jet” had been brought back for a couple of cameos in the Chicago Stadium and United Center, but, like Mikita, was not a visible presence.
“Bobby and I were on the phone for about two hours, and most of the conversation was one-way, if you know what I mean,” said McDonough. “I put my listening skills to good use.” Hull also discussed his situation with Rocky Wirtz, the new team chairman, who confirmed McDonough’s doctrine. After briefly mulling the offer, Hull accepted.
“Leaving the Blackhawks was the worst mistake I ever made, and I never thought I would be back,” said Hull. “A lot of bridges were burned, and I had made some statements over time that weren’t too kind to the Blackhawks. But I felt a tremendous void without them over a period of more than 30 years, and Rocky and John will never know what this has meant to my family and me. That phone call changed my life.”
Hull and Mikita — who collected 604 and 541 goals respectively for the Blackhawks — were introduced as ambassadors at a United Center ceremony on March 7, 2008. A couple weeks later they were joined by Esposito, who played 15 seasons (1969-1984) in goal for the Blackhawks, winning a franchise record 418 victories. But he retired with little fanfare and assumed front office roles with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s great to be back with the Blackhawks,” said Esposito. “They do everything first class, and even before they won the Stanley Cup, you could see how the new management had brought hockey to where it used to be in Chicago.”
Savard, the fourth most prolific goal scorer (377) in Blackhawks annals, became the fourth ambassador in November of 2008.
“Rocky and John didn’t owe me anything,” said Savard. “Instead they have made me part of the family and treated me like gold. I only want to do this forever.”
Since Wirtz and McDonough designated icons as ambassadors, other teams in Chicago have followed their lead. The Bulls named Scottie Pippen to a similar role; likewise the White Sox with Frank Thomas. Connecting with their legends had nothing to do with how the Blackhawks fared on the ice, but it had everything to do with altering the culture of the organization.
Of course, there was the possibility that Hull would politely decline. What then? “One thing I can assure you of about Bobby,” said McDonough, “I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”