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Consistency of excellence

Wednesday, 06.01.2011 / 4:08 PM / Features
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
John McDonough (right) with the Blackhawks' senior management team during the 2010 Stanley Cup parade.

This essay is excerpted from the bestselling book One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. To get your digital copy of the book, click here.

When John McDonough was named president of the Blackhawks on Nov. 20, 2007, he knew his job would be challenging. But despite exercising due diligence, even he did not fully grasp the enormity of his task.

“It was like taking over an 80-year-old expansion team,” McDonough recalled wistfully. One could argue that the situation was worse than that. At the very least, an expansion team can enjoy the warm embrace of a captive, hungry audience, anxious for games to be played in a vibrant new market, with a honeymoon period an integral part of the equation.

Alas, the Blackhawks were gasping for air, fighting apathy in a competitive sports landscape and atrophy on the ice. Indeed, after a 59-point season in 2003-04 — a franchise low since 1957-58 — the NHL shut down for 2004-05, yet it was as though hockey’s fan base in Chicago, such as it was, did not miss scores and highlights a bit.

That residue of disenchantment is what McDonough inherited, along with a front office he perceived to be lacking in spirit, initiative and purpose. The cupboard was not totally bare because some talented players were in the system, but even they, by osmosis, felt as empty as the United Center about an organization that required a heart transplant on top of a complete attitude adjustment.

Only the most committed optimist could imagine that, by the spring of 2010, the Blackhawks would earn a Stanley Cup and see drastic increases in sponsorship and ticket revenue during McDonough’s brief tenure, which coincided with the most serious economic freefall since the Depression. Come September, the Blackhawks had sold out of tickets for their opening Training Camp Festival, prompting coach Joel Quenneville to muse, “How do I run a practice in front of 20,000 fans?” It was a nice “problem” to have, for sure, and one that seemed utterly unfathomable until McDonough altered the overall environment to such an extent that the modern hymn about how a “culture change” is imperative for upward mobility does not suffice.

McDonough, however, will be the first to admit that this mission implausible would not have materialized without the resources and vision of Chairman Rocky Wirtz. Owners of professional sports franchises tend not to mingle with the public — and for good reason. They tend not to be liked. That Rocky Wirtz invalidated that theorem about 15 minutes after taking control of the Blackhawks on Oct. 5, 2007, serves as just another example of how one man, with passion and a plan, can effect the resurrection of a woebegone hockey team and direct it to a championship inside three years.

When his father Bill, a Hall of Fame builder and team president for four decades, passed away, Rocky was overseeing the vast family business interests — wine and spirits distribution, insurance, real estate and banking. They were successful and profitable, and Rocky needed no introduction among movers and shakers, in Chicago or beyond. But, as per the line of succession, Rocky inherited one sector of the Wirtz heirloom that was struggling. The Blackhawks, once mighty and beloved, were drifting toward irrelevance. If they were a sleeping giant, as some observers in the National Hockey League believed, the Blackhawks had overdone their hibernation.

They were losing customers by the droves and bleeding money. With Bill hospitalized, Rocky received an emergency message: The Blackhawks were at the point of fiscal exhaustion and required an immediate transfusion of $34 million just to make payroll and put players on the ice for the 2007-08 season. Given that alarming information, Rocky could have been excused, upon his sudden and life-altering call to duty, for operating in a deliberate fashion and requesting patience. He might have said things that chairmen in distress say, things like “rebuilding” and “five-year plan” and “we are assessing our situation and will form a committee to discuss our options so as to become competitive again.”

Rocky Wirtz did none of the above. “I knew we had to do something quickly,” he said. “And we had to do something dramatic.”

Chairman Rocky Wirtz welcomes John McDonough to the Blackhawks on Nov. 20, 2007.
Was it ever. It didn’t happen overnight. It only seemed that way. Well before the Stanley Cup celebration in the Loop on June 11, 2010, the machinations of Wirtz and McDonough had registered throughout the cutthroat industry of North American sports leagues. In 2004 ESPN ranked every franchise in baseball, football, basketball and hockey. The Blackhawks finished dead last. But in the spring of 2009, Forbes Magazine published a story, “The Greatest Sports-Business Turnaround Ever.” It was about those same Blackhawks, albeit same in name only. The article described how “the changes have been breathtaking and comprehensive, quickly impacting every part of the team’s business, perception and on-ice performance.”

Little wonder why, at that Cup parade, hundreds of thousands of sunbaked bystanders hailed the chairman as the savior with chants of “ROCK-Y, ROCK-Y, ROCK-Y!” It is that way, too, at the United Center, whenever his face is shown on the Jumbotron. You don’t need a search party to find him either. Rocky could watch his hockey team in relative seclusion, ensconced in a suite above the red line, midst a security detail and finger sandwiches.

Instead Rocky sits among the people, in open air, open to suggestions, but mostly sincere thanks from the fans who have come back inside from the cold after too many losing winters. “It’s almost embarrassing,” says Rocky of the adulation he receives for “just doing my job.”

Rocky implemented serial master strokes, none more crucial or timely than his impulse to schedule that initial meeting with McDonough, whose 24-year tenure in the executive branch with the Cubs was synonymous with elevating Wrigley Field to a destination point. They used to close the upper deck on weekends at the Friendly Confines for lack of interest. Under McDonough’s reign, sellouts became routine.

McDonough thought he was being asked to lunch so Rocky might pick his brain. Somewhere between the soup and salad, McDonough realized there was more on the table. He agonized for a week or so — baseball, after all, was a significant slice of his adulthood. Finally, about six weeks into Rocky’s reign, McDonough joined the Blackhawks as team president.

“I knew what I didn’t know about hockey, same as I knew what I didn’t know about baseball,” said McDonough, who surveyed the Blackhawks executive branch and discovered a twig. There was no receptionist. Human resources director? What’s that? In the old days, folks curious about purchasing season tickets were instructed to call the main switchboard and “ask for Mildred.”

Instantly McDonough built from the ground up. Pat Foley, the popular broadcaster, was brought back and dozens of sales and marketing personnel brought in. Scouts were hired and sent on their way, around the globe in search of the next generation of Blackhawks.

From Day One, Wirtz and McDonough talked about a Stanley Cup, not making the playoffs. They talked about growing revenue, not trimming costs. They talked about restoring pride in the jersey, not about overpaying a veteran on his last legs to patch a roster hole. Kevin Cheveldayoff, assistant general manager and senior director of hockey operations, nailed it: Some franchises view player development as an expense; the new Blackhawks view it as an investment.

“We wanted to build an organization,” McDonough said. “This is not just a hockey team. We were woefully short in many areas, from the way we treated our players, past and present, to how we traveled to our practice facilities. We needed to achieve a higher level of sophistication and professionalism. Players are your product, and you have to treat them with respect. You have to go above and beyond to put them in a situation to win. I couldn’t believe that we didn’t have a team physician on the road, for instance, perhaps to cut corners. We had to make it known that business would be done differently in Chicago. Fortunately I found that word travels fast around the NHL.

Our hockey and business people operate as one. There is no division when it comes to what we want to achieve. That is how you build toward consistency of excellence. - John McDonough
Our hockey people and our business people operate as one. There is no division when it comes to what we want to achieve. That is how you build toward consistency of excellence. We speak one language. And if you ask me to give myself a grade, I would say ‘incomplete’ because our organization is still under construction.”

The born-again Blackhawks endeared themselves to fans by televising a few home games during Rocky’s first season at the helm. Then, in April of 2008, another dramatic announcement: Every game, home and away, 82 in all, would now be televised, including 20 on WGN Channel 9, the huge local independent that reaped boffo ratings for hockey back in the glory days. Bill Wirtz had stridently opposed showing home games on TV in Chicago.

“I’d say, ‘Dad, were losing generations of fans,’’’ recalled Rocky. “He said it wouldn’t be fair to our fans with season tickets. But we’d gotten down to 3,400 or so just before he passed. And maybe half of them weren’t going to the games. So we weren’t televising home games for 1,700 people? Why bang your head against the wall?”

That is as far as Rocky ever ventured in commenting on the old-school philosophy of his father. In fact, Rocky expressed admiration and respect for Bill. When interrogated about whether he was being disloyal by countermanding his father’s policies, Rocky offered a perfectly airtight response: If Dad were still with us, I would hope that he feels I’m doing whatever is best to enhance the family business.

Bingo. And business boomed. Season subscribers currently top 14,000, and there is now an estimable waiting list. It’s not a list of people waiting to be convinced that the Blackhawks are for real again. The waiting list is for tickets. Just like old times when the Stadium rocked and rolled from standing room only customers in the second balcony to the glass down below.

In January of 2008, McDonough hired a gifted sidekick from the Cubs, Jay Blunk, to run the business operation. His mission was to build the Blackhawk brand, and to say that Blunk has instituted a marketing machine is to vastly understate a body of work that is the envy of every professional sports franchise.

The Blackhawks in 2008-09 established an NHL record by drawing an average of 21,783 fans per home game, not counting the 40,818 who attended the New Year’s Day Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, a mega-event. A new radio flagship station, all 50,000 watts of Chicago’s WGN Radio 720, came aboard. Merchandise sales increased by more than 300 percent over a three-year span. TV ratings were so prodigious they could have passed for typographical errors. Dozens of sponsors were added, as was a Training Camp Festival and a Heritage Series honoring former Blackhawks on selected home dates. The Blackhawks were everywhere in traditional and new media. The team’s website, with behind-the-scenes features from Blackhawks TV, buzzed 24/7, and promotional partnerships were forged with civic groups, plus the Cubs and White Sox.

When, or if, McDonough and Blunk take a vacation, or even sleep, is unclear. But the era of a summer sabbatical is past. Once upon a time, NHL teams turned out the lights for an entire month after the season. The Hawks never rest.

Some of their efforts are highly visible and seriously overdue. Four Hall of Fame ambassadors — Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard — were brought back into the franchise fabric in 2008. But other gestures are performed behind the scenes. The Blackhawks possess a vibrant staff of employees, average age around 31, and if you doubt their intent on being fan-friendly, win or lose, ask a season ticketholder about that random phone call in the middle of January. “Is everything OK? Are you pleased?”

Last winter the Blackhawks Standbys were designated as the team’s official fan club. Members soon were commissioned to pass out questionnaires about whether United Center spectators were satisfied with the experience, the food, the restrooms. With all due respect to previous regimes, pre-Rocky-McDonough-Blunk, some of us are ancient enough to remember when “the experience” of attending a Blackhawks game did not entail sharing our opinions.

Leaders do not conduct polls on inner sanctum issues, and the club’s resurgence required difficult personnel choices to be made behind the Blackhawks bench and within hockey operations.

When, or if, John McDonough and [Exec. V.P.] Jay Blunk take a vacation, or even sleep, is unclear. But the era of a summer sabbatical is past. Once upon a time, NHL teams turned out the lights for an entire month after the season. The Blackhawks never rest. 
“Sometimes you need to make tough decisions that you strongly believe are in the best long-term interest of the franchise,” McDonough explained.

Stan Bowman, a front office fixture since 2001, didn’t require an adjustment period when McDonough installed him as the new general manager. His seat barely warm, Bowman embarked on signing three of the team’s young stars — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith — to long-term deals. Bowman reminded fans that the league’s hard salary cap would necessitate significant roster alterations at season’s end, but he resisted the opportunity to ease payroll stress during the season — another tough decision. He could have traded, say, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg in January, but would the Blackhawks have won the Cup without them?

Upon reviewing the first championship for the Blackhawks since 1961, Bowman aptly described the gamble as worthy, adding that the team had been somewhat of an anomaly. Toews, Kane and Keith had contributed mightily to the Cup by earning less than $4 million total, a statistical improbability that allowed the Blackhawks a surfeit of depth.

“Our youngest players were among our best,” said Bowman, who at 36 became the youngest GM ever to win a Stanley Cup. “In 99 percent of the cases around the league, that isn’t so. That enabled us to pay a third line center $3 million. But, starting with the 2010-11 season, the new scale for Toews, Kane and Keith make it different. There are no tricks to avoid a hard cap. Every team in the league deals with it.”

But even in the NHL, there is a cap only on brawn, not brains. Witness the spectre of Stan’s father, Scotty, another prime mover in a Blackhawks front office that is loaded. As senior advisor to hockey operations, Scotty participated in his twelfth Stanley Cup, a 35-pound jug that captain Toews raised on June 9, 2010, in the Wachovia Center. Toews kept his distance from the Clarence Campbell Bowl when the Blackhawks defeated San Jose to win the Western Conference, and he seemed somewhat disinterested in the Conn Smythe Trophy he earned as most valuable individual for the playoffs.

But Captain Serious was expressive when he latched onto that Stanley Cup because it represented the crowning achievement for a 22-year-old who established himself as the quiet leader in a locker room nourished by extraordinary chemistry. Toews never dabbled in the “I” formation. It was always “we.” Character cannot be taught; it must be vested within. And the manner in which Toews carried and comported himself belied his age.

At the 2010 Blackhawks Convention, Toews resisted every opportunity for self-absorption. Instead he thanked fans in a jammed Chicago Hilton ballroom for their support. There is little mystery why Toews and the Blackhawks took over the city again, just like old times. They not only won the Stanley Cup, they shared it.