Rising from the Ashes
A New Sherriff in Town
Adam Burish doesn't remember who else was in the meeting. He just remembers John McDonough. McDonough has a way of dominating the room that way — the commanding presence, the authority figure, the man in charge, an imposing man who can impose his will. Even if you've just met him, you can tell you don't want to be on his bad side.
So when McDonough sat down with Burish and a couple of his teammates early during the 2007–08 season, shortly after he was brought in by new owner Rocky Wirtz to turn the Blackhawks from a bare-bones laughingstock into an actual professional organization, the conversation didn't get very far very quickly.
"What can change around here? What do you guys need?" McDonough asked.
To Burish, it felt like a trap.
"We were like, 'Oh everything's good, John. Everything's great. Cool. The NHL! The Blackhawks! Yeah! Everything's great!"
McDonough leaned in.
"This is your chance. I'm not judging. You're not complaining. You're not bitching. What do you guys need? Because we're going to get it for you. All of it."
The players looked around at each other nervously for a moment, their silence deafening. Finally, it all came spilling out, like kindergartners who were just asked what they wanted at the candy store, their voices overlapping as they ran off a wish list they had been privately building among themselves for years:
"We need a new plane! We need better food! We need food after games! We need food before practices! We need a real practice rink!"
Coming from the Cubs, a team that had had its share of on-field misery but that had just come off a Central Division championship, McDonough couldn't believe what he was hearing. Here were professional athletes, making millions of dollars, and they had no food to eat in the dressing room after killing themselves for 60 minutes on a game night. And once they got on the plane, they got a brick of mac-and-cheese and a cold ham sandwich. They didn't have enough sticks to go around some days. They didn't have T-shirts or hats to wear back home, or while talking on camera to reporters.
The Chicago Blackhawks weren't deemed the worst franchise in professional sports by ESPN in 2004 for nothing.
McDonough soon visited the team at the Edge Ice Arena in suburban Bensenville, looked at the cramped quarters and minor-league environment, and shook his head.
"This is all going to be gone," McDonough told his players. "This is all going to change. We're not going to be in something like this for long."
For the Blackhawks players, after years of being told "no," of being told to shut up and keep your head down and be grateful you're in the NHL at all, it was jarring to be told "yes" over and over and over again. It was motivating, too.
It was also kind of terrifying. That's part of the genius of McDonough.
"All of a sudden, as players, we're all thinking the same thing," Burish recalls. "Holy shit. We've got to play good now."
From his North Side office, McDonough didn't truly know how bad things were on the West Side. And frankly, he didn't want to know. Even with ownership in transition, McDonough felt secure and happy with the Cubs. The team was winning, the fan base was enormous, the reach was global, and business was booming. As a lifelong resident of the Chicago area and a 24-year executive with the Cubs, McDonough knew the power and stability of the Cubs brand.
So when McDonough received a call from a Rocky Wirtz confidante as he was preparing to head to Orlando for the general managers meetings in early November, he was in no mood to chat. McDonough was still stinging from the first-round sweep the Cubs suffered at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The conversation was over before it began.
About 30 seconds later, McDonough's phone rang again.
"I talked to Rocky, and he really, really wants to meet with you," the emissary said.
McDonough's curiosity sufficiently piqued, he met Wirtz at Champps, a bar/restaurant in suburban Schaumburg. For 45 minutes or so, the two chatted amiably about business philosophies and family and other small talk. Finally, Wirtz tipped his hand.
"John, I want you to run the Blackhawks, and I really don't have a Plan B," he said.
For four more hours, the two hashed out their concerns and goals, their fears and dreams. McDonough didn't sugarcoat things.
"I'd have to have total autonomy," he told Wirtz. "I'll keep you in the loop, always, but total autonomy. Nobody's sacred. And of course, we have to put all home games on television."
For Blackhawks fans, the television debate was the single most divisive issue — worse than penny-pinching in free agency, worse than alienating former players and driving fan favorites out of town, worse than losing year after year. It was 2007, for Christ's sake, and Chicagoans couldn't see Blackhawks home games on TV. It was an Arthur Wirtz policy that his son, Bill Wirtz, stuck with. The philosophy was that you shouldn't give away for free what you charge people to see live. The effect was the alienation of an existing fan base and a failure to raise a new generation of fans.
For all of his contributions to the league and his generous efforts in the community, Bill Wirtz was booed posthumously at the United Center during a ceremony to commemorate his legacy.
"You've got to respect a guy who stood by his values," Brent Sopel says. "He was very old school. He said, 'If you're buying tickets, you're going to see the game. These guys aren't buying tickets, so why would I show them the game?' Obviously, he was a very smart businessman — look at what he created, look what he had. I respect his views on that kind of thing, and loyalty. Did he cut corners? Absolutely. Why? Because he was trying to make money. He wasn't cutting corners to be an asshole. They were making money. It was a business. But the effect was, players were getting screwed and not getting treated right. Fans, too. That all changed when Rocky took over and brought in John. They saw this huge thing on the horizon."
McDonough indeed saw a huge opportunity. He also saw a huge task. His first job was to clean house, which, frankly wasn't all that hard, because there were hardly any employees in the Blackhawks organization. There was no receptionist. There was no human resources department. The business was being run by a part-timer. So McDonough cleared out the old guard because he figured they'd all be entrenched in the old way of thinking, and brought in his own people.
McDonough immediately contacted his friends at WGN-TV and WGN Radio to get Blackhawks games on the air. It wasn't an easy sell.
"I basically groveled with them to take our games," McDonough says. "I kept saying, 'This thing is really coming and it's going to come in a big way. It's going to be fortuitous for you to get involved.' They weren't so sure if it was going to work, but they both jumped on board."
McDonough wanted to think big picture and make big sweeping changes, but he kept getting bogged down in the minutiae. Every day was an eye-opening experience about just how thin the staff was, just how poorly the business was run, just how cheap the organization had been.
Three days into his tenure, McDonough was in his office trying to wrap his brain around the enormity of the task at hand — "Everything is on fire," McDonough says — when head athletic trainer Mike Gapski poked his head in the doorway. He had a purchase order for $84, and for the second time in a day, he had interrupted the team president to sign it. The idea that a giant operation like the Chicago Blackhawks could come to a standstill because of a measly $84 is mind-boggling, but that's just how things had been run.
"Mike, can you close the door?" McDonough said. "What is this? You've got a budget. We can expand it if we need to."
"We just want you to know how things were previously done around here," Gapski said. "We had to sign every single purchase order."
"I couldn't believe it," McDonough says now. "They were reluctant to even give hockey bags to people. Just things I never imagined in baseball. They needed to think bigger, and I don't know if there was an intimidation period or not for some of these guys, but I think they sensed from Day 1 that we were here to make things better for them. I mean, in some ways, this was incomprehensible. How could we have gone this long without some of these things? Even the quality of food in the press box. You've got to treat people well. This is an Original Six team in Chicago, Illinois, and we were not acting like a major-market team. All of that had to change."
Spending Rocky's money was easy. Changing the culture around the team took a little more work. Image and presentation meant everything to McDonough, and he quickly laid out ground rules for public appearances and media availabilities. He hired a media coach to sanitize and homogenize players' speaking styles and mannerisms during interviews.
Blackhawks hats on at all times — never backward, either. Shirts must be worn at all times. Never talk while seated, always stand up. And when doing live television interviews, always say the interviewer's name at the very beginning and the very end. Never "Thanks, guys." Always, "Thanks, Eddie." During the national anthem, players were to stand still and look at the flag, never stretch or sway or wobble.
Given the young and raucous nature of the team that eventually won the Stanley Cup in 2010, it was a fine line to walk between managing their occasionally rowdy personalities and marketing them to young, enthralled fans.
Even the players were sometimes confused.
"We were all intimidated by John," Burish says. "He had that presence and you didn't want to screw up around him. You wanted to shake his hand and say his name every time. He intimidated everybody a little bit. You want to do things right around him, because you know he's the boss. But then all of a sudden we'd do something stupid, or we'd do some goofy interviews, or they give Sharp and me a camera on the road to go and screw with guys, we're like, 'They're okay with all this? We can get away with this? Well, let's keep doing it, because this is fun.' They allowed us to have personalities. They had rules, but we could stretch some things out. They let us have fun."
There were hits to that finely crafted image, of course. The highest-profile incident in those early years was in August of 2009, when Patrick Kane, then 20 years old, and his cousin James were arrested in Buffalo after getting into a fight with a cab driver after 4:00 am. The 62-year-old cabbie told police he was punched in the face, grabbed by the throat, and had his glasses broken in the altercation, which was allegedly over 20 cents in change. The Kanes pled guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct and had to apologize to the cab driver. Kane told the judge before his sentencing that it was a "learning lesson" that was better to learn at a young age than "later in life."
It was hardly the only time a player found himself in hot water.
"There were incidents that would come up, and we would handle all of those quietly and internally and nobody knew about them," McDonough says. "That was part of the growing pains at the time, and we recognized that. Two years earlier, they were playing in front of 5,500 people. Now they go from being this garage band to all of a sudden, they're selling out Soldier Field. I mean, really, really popular. They'd go to other cities and Blackhawks fans are following them everywhere. I'm proud of the way they handled it. We certainly had some bumps along the way. And it wasn't just boys being boys. We didn't tolerate that. We allowed them to grow and mature. But we addressed some of the things early on. They had fun together but within the boundaries of respect — for the most part. Not perfect."
The team is older and more buttoned-down these days, but all of McDonough's rules still exist. Duncan Keith is the only one who really flaunts them, occasionally daring to stay shirtless during a postgame media scrum. Even a future Hall of Famer such as Marian Hossa is always looking over his shoulder, hoping to avoid the ire of McDonough, transmitted through the glare of media-relations staffers. After a two-goal game in Dallas once, a few reporters approached Hossa in the locker room. He instinctively reached back for his hat, but it was nowhere to be found. After sheepishly apologizing, he scurried off to a side room and then returned, wearing a hat, now ready to talk about the game. Rules are rules. And McDonough makes the rules.
Each of these edicts seems ridiculous on its own. But added together, they create the most polished, corporate, marketable team in hockey. That was McDonough's vision — the little details that add up to the big picture.
The Blackhawks, after decades of pissing off their fans, now reached out to them. Two months into McDonough's tenure, they brought back popular television announcer Pat Foley, who had an ugly falling out with the previous regime two years earlier. They created the Blackhawks Convention, now an annual summer gathering that draws thousands of fans to downtown Chicago in July for autographs and panel discussions. And they healed old wounds by declaring an end to the era of holding grudges and bringing back team legends Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Tony Esposito (and later Denis Savard, after he was fired as head coach) as team "ambassadors," regular presences at the United Center and at community events throughout the area.
Chicago has always been a hockey town, but it lay dormant for decades thanks to the archaic policies of Bill Wirtz. Rocky Wirtz and McDonough threw a bucket of cold water on the town to wake it back up. It was an all-out public-relations blitz, and the timing couldn't have been better. The team was ready to take off, and Chicago was ready to go along for the ride.
"Everything changed so quickly," Ben Eager says. "We all noticed it right away — how much more professional it was. When John and Rocky came in, they made a lot of changes. John's a marketing genius. Rocky made the game more accessible to people outside the rink. And then Kane and Toews coming along didn't hurt things. It was kind of a perfect storm."
The Chosen Ones
It was all there at 12 years old — the distinct, purposeful stride, the menacing glare, the bulldozing style, and, yes, the seriousness.
So, so serious.
Patrick Kane and the other kids would screw around all the time, in the locker room, during practices, even having mini-stick games in the hotel hallways. Not this other kid, though. He was there for one reason and one reason only: to play hockey.
Yes, Kane can still think back to the first time he saw Jonathan Toews, and, well, he looked a lot like Jonathan Toews.
"We were surprised at how serious and dedicated he was, even at that age," Kane says.
Their first encounter came when Kane's Junior Flyers, a group out of the Toronto and Buffalo areas, played Toews' Winnipeg Jets. And while the Flyers whipped the Jets by a 9–3 score, Toews was the standout, with all three Winnipeg goals.
"We were like, 'Wow, this kid's amazing,'" Kane recalls.
Amazing enough that Kane's team recruited Toews for a couple of tournaments in Toronto and Montreal. And somehow, a team with two future Hall of Famers on it came up short.
"We shit the bed," Toews says.
And that was that. The two preteens went their separate ways, but high-end prospects always keep an eye on other high-end prospects, especially from the same birth year. ("88s," Kane calls them.) Kane kept tabs on Toews as he worked his way up through Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota and the University of North Dakota. And Toews occasionally followed what Kane was doing with the U.S. National Team Development Program, especially when he lit up the Ontario Hockey League for 62 goals and 83 assists in 58 games with the London Knights during the 2006–07 season.
They never imagined they'd be drafted to the same team. That they'd be roommates for five years. That they'd win Stanley Cups together. That they'd be inextricably linked for all time, the faces of a franchise reborn, sure to be enshrined in statue form outside the United Center one day, the modern-day Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, only bigger and more successful.
Toews and Kane came to the Blackhawks with the world at their feet and the world on their shoulders. As the No. 3 pick in 2006 and the No. 1 pick in 2007, respectively, the handful of people left in Chicago who still cared about the "other" tenant at the United Center projected all their hopes and dreams, all their mounting frustration, all their pleas to the hockey gods on a couple of awkward teenagers — one of whom was too uptight, one of whom was far too loose.
And they loved it.