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McDonough accomplishing challenge of a lifetime

Saturday, 12.13.2008 / 10:00 AM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

"I underestimated how angry they were. They were angry because they felt as if what they had once possessed, revered and loved probably in their eyes was not coming back. The franchise didn't seem to have a face. It didn't seem to be a warm place."
-- Blackhawks President John McDonough

No desire. No passion. No interest. Get us out of here.

This was five years ago when McDonough -- a Blackhawks' fan dating to his childhood in Edison Park, a blue-collar neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side -- finally took his two boys to the United Center for a hockey game.

"I knew they (the Hawks) weren't drawing, that they weren't good, but I wanted my sons to get a feel for what this is like," McDonough, now the Hawks' president, told NHL.com. "They played Ottawa at 3 o'clock on a Sunday, and I was sad. I think there were about 4,000 people here. My attempt to connect them to hockey failed because of the atmosphere."

Ryan and Michael McDonough were raised in Wrigley Field. They knew the Cubs' players and the ushers in the stands. To them, a decent crowd for a regular season game no matter if its April, July or September was 41,000 screaming fans.

A bland afternoon at the United Center surely wasn't going to turn them into hockey fans.

"There was a hollow sound in the United Center and it was frightening," McDonough continued. "It was a one and done. I didn't bring them back again. I could look in their eyes and see there was no desire.

"They're back now, though."

So is just about every other lost fan and thousands of new ones. McDonough's vision, guts and personality are a big reason why, but the job has brought on challenges even a veteran executive like McDonough had never seen or imagined.

'CHALLENGE OF MY LIFETIME, AND MORE'

When McDonough decided to leave his stable job as president of the Chicago Cubs last year, he was leaving an organization that he called his employer for 24 years for a job he calls "the challenge of my lifetime and more."

"That week as I was pondering (leaving the Cubs) there were a lot of tears within my family," McDonough said. "I had been identified with the Cubs and had no reason to go anywhere else. I was very happy with my career with the Cubs, very pleased. It was a real tough decision because why would you leave something that is there and is going to be there and kind of defines you? I had some other job offers when I was with the Cubs, but I wanted to stay in Chicago and I look at this as the greatest challenge."

His job was to make the Blackhawks matter again. The task was great.

From an outside perspective, McDonough had to reverse years of estrangement with the fans and the community at large.

"I underestimated how angry they were," McDonough said. "They were angry because they felt as if what they had once possessed, revered and loved probably in their eyes was not coming back. The franchise didn't seem to have a face. It didn't seem to be a warm place."

What's worse is McDonough had to basically start from scratch on the inside. The staff was minuscule. It didn't even include a human resources director or -- and this shocked McDonough most of all -- a receptionist.

"It was sobering," he said.

It was also an opportunity, a chance for McDonough to bring an old-time hockey franchise into the new millennium.

'SELLING PROMISE'

With the Cubs, McDonough said he was selling, "nostalgia, history, tradition and a cultural phenomenon. You were selling promise there as well because people always want to be around when they win that World Series. And, you are selling a ballpark."

None of that exists with the Blackhawks.

Chicago Stadium gave way to the United Center 14 years ago. The Hawks haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1961. Unlike the Cubs, whose home games for years were on national superstation WGN-TV, the Blackhawks had no TV deal for home games.

McDonough had to go on the basis of selling promise and stability.

"We had to get better because we have so much ground to make up," McDonough said. "We missed a few generations of kids, but now we're marketing to kids that aren't much younger than the kids that are on our team. It's a very interesting dynamic."

"Every time another team takes two steps, we need to take 10 just to get back to square one."

The sales pitch centered on the young generation, specifically two fresh-faced, super-talented kids and high draft picks named Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

"They are the face of our future," McDonough said. "So when you say that we're selling hopes and dreams and potential, they are the face of that right now."

McDonough's task goes beyond goals and assists, wins and losses. In fact, he runs his business model on the basis that his team won't win a game. It's a philosophy he sold to Jay Blunk, who came with McDonough from the Cubs to become the Blackhawks' senior vice president in charge of business operations.

"From a business standpoint in baseball, I always imparted on Jay that you have to assume that they are going to go 0-162, but you have to also assume that you are going to have a very strong and powerful sponsorship base, the games will be sold out, you're going to have the best produced game with the most talented broadcasters," McDonough said. "You can't control the on-field variable, so you have to look at every win as a bonus. If someone tells you, 'Well, we're not winning, so we can't sell.' No. Wrong business."

To sell his team in an unfriendly marketplace, McDonough imparted his supremely media- and fan-friendly philosophy on his re-built staff. The media, as he well knows, is the tie between the fans and the team.

It helps that he got the team's home games back on TV, too.

"For us, when we do interviews, he wants us to know who we're talking to and call them by their name, to be mannerly and respectful that way," Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell told NHL.com.

McDonough is that way himself.

"When you're done talking to him, he always says, 'Is there is anything I can do for you or anything you need, just let me know,' " Campbell added. "When my parents came down here in the summertime he asked them that. That makes me feel good as a player and makes my parents feel welcome."

McDonough does the same thing with the fans.

"There aren't too many times you see the president of the team out shaking hands as people enter the building, but he does that on a number of occasions to say thank you and see if they need anything," Campbell said. "He's pretty hands on that way."

To keep the fans interested in the hot summer months, McDonough created the Blackhawks Convention, a three-day fan event held in July at the Hilton in Chicago's downtown.

It included autograph and Q&A sessions, exhibits and interactive games. Stars from the past and present were all in attendance. The passes for the weekend were $50 and they sold out.

"It was 8,000 people and it sold out in 12 days," McDonough said. "We needed to build a bridge from the end of one season to the beginning of another and gather all these people in the same place at the same time, where winning and losing wasn't an issue, but they had a chance to celebrate their allegiance to the Blackhawks. The fact that we had all of the current players and many former great players was really the celebration of these fans. It was almost their endorsement, them saying we're really back now."

McDonough knew it for sure when he picked up the Saturday, July 19 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

"We had a first place baseball team on the north side and a first place baseball team on the south side and on that Saturday of our convention, the Chicago Tribune had a big picture of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the front page and the headline was, 'It's a New Ice Age,' " McDonough said. "That was another moment where I sensed this was changing, that there was a cultural shift going on. There are people that have said that not only would the Blackhawks not been on the front page in the summer, but they are never on it during the winter."

Now they are all the time.

"It's good for all franchises to be doing as well as possible and this franchise, having gone through a tough period, is doing extraordinarily well," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "That's a good definition of happiness in terms of NHL hockey in Chicago now."

BRINGING BACK THE GHOSTS

To fix the generational gap among Blackhawks fans, one of McDonough's first tasks was to reunite the entire fanbase with the stars of the past.

"Bobby Hull had been estranged for 36 years. I mean, 36 years and this is the greatest Blackhawk of all time," McDonough said. "When I was with the Cubs we had a very, very good relationship with our former players."

While the current group of 30-and-under fans didn't grow up with Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, their fathers did. By bringing those stars back, McDonough was also bringing back a generation of fans that had gone into hiding.

"It's very difficult to be selling today and tomorrow if there is no reference to yesterday," McDonough said. "Relationships with your superstars and Hall of Famers are important because that's what a number of generations remember and respect."

McDonough had that with Cubs legends Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo and, of course, Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks.

"We had the seventh inning stretch with 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' and they would sing and they would all be awful, which is what we wanted," McDonough said. "That's the beauty of that concept. We always wanted people to be really bad because it's disarming and it humanizes the whole game."

Bringing back Hull was his first priority, and one of the toughest assignments he gave himself. "The Golden Jet" became Chicago's forgotten superstar in 1972 when he left the Blackhawks to join the Winnipeg Jets of the upstart World Hockey Association.

"I met with Bobby a couple of times," McDonough recalled. "I did a lot of listening and it was profane, toxic and angry, but I think for Bobby it was cathartic. He needed to say what he said. I called him eight days later -- that may be the title of my book -- and he mentioned that he wants to come back."

The Hawks honored Hull, Mikita and Esposito last season. This season, they retired the jersey No. 3 for Pierre Pilote and Keith Magnuson. Hull, Mikita, Esposito and former coach and Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Savard are now team ambassadors.

"We have a good relationship with all the alumni," McDonough said. "They're here on a regular basis and we provide suites for them during games. I try to stop in and see them all the time to keep that pipeline going. I want everybody who has ever worn that uniform to be respected and welcomed back here."

Added Toews: "They're legends in Chicago and the history of the game, so it’s awesome to talk to them and hear their stories."

 
REALISTIC HOPES AND DREAMS

In one year, the Blackhawks have done what appears to be a complete 180.

Season-ticket sales have tripled. More than 21,000 fans are walking through the turnstiles at the United Center for every game. The team's jersey is a top seller. Sponsorship sales are way up. They've got the Winter Classic. McDonough said he's pushing to host a future Entry Draft.

"But," he warned, "we're not going to get caught up in any of this -- the attendance thing, sponsorship sales, concession sales. We're going to get caught up in winning and that is really what this is about. I respect what has happened, but when you come from a franchise where there wasn't an empty seat for 20 years you're not awed by any of this."

Even though McDonough's philosophy is to operate as if each win is only a bonus for the business model, he knows the Blackhawks won't be able to sustain this kind of success without a winning team on the ice.

So far the results have been pleasing, but not great.

That's OK.

McDonough doesn't expect, nor does he want the people that work for him or the fans they represent to believe that the Blackhawks are all of a sudden a perennial Stanley Cup contender.

"We have a very good young team, but it's the second youngest team in the NHL and that's with two goalies in their 30s," McDonough said. "One of the things that (coach) Joel (Quenneville) has commented on is how incredibly young this team is. I think the future is bright. This is an interesting game. You've got 16 teams that make the playoffs and it would be nice to be one of those. We just need to be realistic."

The important thing for McDonough is that there is a process in place and a concerted effort to reach that intended level of greatness.

The fans, he believes, see that and smile.

"We sometimes get confused with the popular thing to do and the right thing to do. I want to see the Blackhawks do the right thing and that's what I think they see," McDonough said. "They are happy to have a good, solid, young team. Ideally the playoffs are in our future this year, but they recognize that there is a new way of doing business at 1901 West Madison."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.