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The Verdict: Blackhawks, alumni at peace with their pasts

Monday, 12.20.2010 / 12:00 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Blackhawks, alumni at peace with their pasts
Ambassadors Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito are just two of the familiar faces Hawks fans may see on any given day at the UC.

Cliff Koroll, president of the Blackhawks Alumni Association, didn’t have to wait long before hearing from the new regime. Shortly after being installed as president of Chicago’s franchise in repose on November 20, 2007, John McDonough picked up the phone and asked to break bread. Very shortly after.

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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“John’s second day on the job!” recalled Koroll. “He wanted to introduce himself and learn about us. One of the first things he emphasized was that in order for the organization to build a future, it had to understand and be at peace with its past. He asked about the relationship between the team and its former players. He wanted to know whether it was good, and even if it was, how it could be better. Again, this was his second day on the job. Impressive.”

Three years later the bond is stronger than ever. Fans throughout the city and the NHL duly noted when the Blackhawks designated four Hall of Famers as ambassadors—Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard. But before that, McDonough reached out to ex-Blackhawks, regardless of their era or fame. During his extensive tenure in the Cubs’ executive branch, McDonough embraced the team’s history and melded it with the daily fare.

“As an example, the seventh inning stretch, and the singing of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’’’ said McDonough. “We might invite the 24th guy on the roster from a team in the 1980s. But for one day at Wrigley Field, the whole world could watch him, and find out what he’s doing now. He was a rock star, if only for that one day.

"What we’ve tried now with the Blackhawks is similar, and this goes way beyond the ambassadors. We have a former player in the building for every home game at the Alumni signing booth. Lou Angotti was here the other night. Where he lives in Florida, he might not have created much commotion for the last 20 years. But in the United Center, there were 400 people standing in line for his autograph. He needed security! The former Blackhawks who come in are recognized and they are compensated. But most important of all, they are welcome. They know they are welcome here. Always.”

Hockey’s brotherhood is different from other professional sports. As kids, hockey players are weaned on the doctrine that their game is about teamwork, and it is as though they never forget the lesson. Former Blackhawks tend to reside in Chicago more than, say, former Cubs or Bears. But for a while, those former Blackhawks were more attached to the city than the team. They loved Chicago, but not necessarily the Blackhawks, and the disaffection was mutual. Those are not McDonough’s words; those are mine. Mind you, Bill Wirtz was supportive of the Alumni during his reign, but still, fractures were abundant.

When Mikita, who played his entire career here, says he felt a chilly stiffarm from management, there is a problem. But Mikita was not alone, which is why McDonough admits, “We knew there had to be repairs beyond Bobby and Stan and Tony.”

The Blackhawks Alumni Association was formed in 1987. Keith Magnuson, a fiery defenseman in his day, best pal Koroll and a half dozen others envisioned a group that would help players adjust to retirement and real life—a common mission statement of NHL alumni organizations. But Magnuson and Koroll, both of whom starred at Denver University, took the next step and established a scholarship program.

The first check was for $1,000. Now, the Alumni awards three annually—in memory of the No. 3 worn by Magnuson, who was killed in a automobile accident seven years ago—at $5,000 per year for four years. In total, the Alumni have funded college educations for 78 high school hockey players from Illinois, male and female.

It has gotten to the point that alumni of other NHL teams, and even other sports, contact Koroll for tips. He can tell them about the group’s two main fundraisers—a winter luncheon and a summer golf tournament. He can cite sponsors such as McDonalds, Mullins Food Products and Ferrara Pan Candy that fortify the cause. And he can point to the United Center suite that is provided for ex-players every home game, no small gesture considering the demand for Blackhawks tickets.

“We have great communication with the Blackhawks,” said Koroll, who took over as president when Magnuson passed away. “In talking with other alumni groups around the league, we realize we might be a dying breed. Players now make a lot of money and it’s not like they’re going to need direction when they retire. On the other hand, the relationship between us old guys and the current Blackhawks is terrific. We have periodic meetings, and almost always there’s a representative of the team there. John or [Executive Vice President] Jay Blunk or [Senior Director of Market Development and Community Affairs] Pete Hassen, who is our point man with the front office.

“But we’ve also had the coach, Joel Quenneville, and players. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell. They come for an hour or so, shoot the bull, have a bite to eat and genuinely have a good time. They have an interest in the team’s history, which goes back to what hockey players are all about. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a feeling, an attitude, that has always been there. Guys just stick together and look after each other, on and off the ice.”

There is a unique mindset and attitude about ex-players, among their peers and the public. It’s almost as though they are royalty, and I admire that. They helped build what we have today.” - President John McDonough

Hull has said it often: “When I got the phone call from John McDonough asking me to come back and join the family, it changed my life.” However, in a very real way, the gesture affected all former Blackhawks, whether they scored 600 goals or six. Reggie Kerr, an Alumni vice-president, is not in the Hall of Fame. But he’s a regular in the United Center because, he says, “We have never felt the connection with the team that we feel now.”

McDonough feels as energized as the former Blackhawks he has embraced.

“There is a unique mindset and attitude about ex-players, among their peers and the public,” he said. “It’s almost as though they are royalty, and I admire that. To see past Blackhawks walking around the United Center is really heartwarming. It’s inspiring. They helped build what we have today.”

Last Friday, Chris Chelios was honored with a Heritage Night, another staple of the new Blackhawks way. He won two Norris Trophies here before joining the Detroit Red Wings, for whom he now works as an executive advisor. A smattering of boos greeted his introduction, but the message conveyed by the organization was exponentially louder, and oozing with professional class.

Consider all the active Blackhawks players who were chased out of town, often for spurious reasons, by previous administrations. Do you think they would have dared to arrange such a deserved salute for a future Hall of Famer who is employed by their fiercest rival? Have the Blackhawks ever been at once so respected and so respectful?

I suspect you know the answers. I know I do. Some regimes hold grudges. Others move on, do it right, and hold the Stanley Cup.