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Blackhawks innovating by communicating

by Adam Kempenaar and Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks
President John McDonough (far right), along with (L-R) Asst. GM/Sr. Dir., Hockey Operations Kevin Cheveldayoff, VP/Asst. to the Pres. Al MacIssac, VP/GM Stan Bowman and Exec. VP Jay Blunk, have changed the culture of the Blackhawks.

When the Blackhawks were recently singled out by SportsBusiness Journal’s readers as having the NHL’s most innovative business practices, the accolade wasn’t necessarily earned on the basis of new technology or first-of-their-kind fan events, though the team certainly boasts those credentials. Perhaps the biggest cultural shift under John McDonough’s watch as team president is rooted in a quainter concept, but one that is increasingly uncommon in the modern business world: good old-fashioned face-to-face communication.

“It goes back to my first conversation with [Chairman] Rocky Wirtz,” explains McDonough, who joined the Blackhawks in November 2007. “When he asked me what my ideal organization would look like, I said it couldn’t have a business side and a hockey side pulling in different directions. There would be one organization. One Chicago Blackhawks.”

For an industry built around the concept of teamwork, it’s not uncommon for a pro sports team to be fractured. Like a Law and Order episode, clubs are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: the business operation – marketing, public relations, ticketing, community outreach and more – and the team operation, responsible for scouting, signing players, coaching and everything you see on the field of play or inside the locker room.

But the Blackhawks truly are one business, one staff, a cohesive unit with “One Goal” in mind. It’s been McDonough’s mission statement since he moved to West Madison Street.

“I’ve heard of teams where the hockey and business operations aren’t even on the same floor,” says McDonough. “There are some clubs where interaction is discouraged. It’s a case of ‘you do your job, I’ll do mine.’ We couldn’t succeed that way.
McDonough's first move as president was to unite the front office. "We had to make sure both sides understood each other's objectives."

“It’s the number one thing I get asked about,” McDonough adds. “‘You’re telling me your hockey guys will actually sit in a business meeting for two hours every week and they’ll stay? You’re not going to tell me that they participate, too?’ Yes, they participate. ‘But they don’t ask questions, do they?’ Yes, they ask questions. ‘You mean to tell me the hockey guys will divulge confidential information to 15 other department heads and no trust has been violated?’ So far, so good. But we work very hard at that.”

One of the first moves that McDonough and Executive Vice President Jay Blunk made upon joining the Blackhawks was to open all-staff meetings to all departments. Now the monthly meetings have an attendance befitting their name. Everyone from Wirtz, McDonough, Blunk, Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville, to account executives, skills coaches and trainers regularly sit in. Even players occasionally drop by.

"The central force behind unification of both the hockey and business departments comes from John," says Blunk. "His vision has enabled us to enter some unique territory with regard to our business interests. The most important part of his unique approach is the cooperation of our players. They understand the importance of a strong, direct relationship with our fans. It's one of the hallmarks of this regime. Some of the best examples are the players' numerous appearances in the Chicago area, including our season ticketholder holiday party and the Blackhawks Convention. The players attend many of these events on a volunteer basis and understand the importance of staying in touch with our fan base. It's a very powerful relationship."

“There was an enormous divide between the two halves of the business when I took over, and we had to bridge that,” McDonough recalls. “We had to create respect between them and make sure they understood each other’s objectives. The hockey people had to know what the journey was going to be and what we were going to do to sell out this building. The business side needed to understand the product they were selling, and there needed to be trust and confidence between them.”

Not only is there a healthy and respectful dialogue between the operations, but those discussions have been leveraged into real, substantive change and improvements for the business overall. After the 2010 Stanley Cup championship, for example, McDonough, Blunk and the marketing staff strongly considered changing the Blackhawks’ “One Goal” marketing campaign – until a discussion with Bowman helped shift their thinking.

“We had a meeting with Stan, and he had a very strong opinion on it. It had an impact on the direction we went,” says McDonough. “There are some heavy issues on the business side that I bring the hockey guys in on for a different perspective. There are no factions. We win together; we lose together.”

“I think the relationship is unique, at least compared to how it had been here in the past,” says Bowman. “There wasn’t much synergy between the two groups. We worked side by side but kind of in our own worlds. It’s completely different now. We share information, sometimes confidential stuff in terms of players and moves that may be likely to happen. And likewise they come to us to get our opinion on things before they execute them. It’s genuine interest too, not just lip service. They take what we have to say to heart.

“In that particular case, they asked for our thoughts and we gave our perspective as hockey people and gave them some things to think about,” adds Bowman. “We didn’t make the decision; our input just kind of helped push it over the edge.”

But it’s not just at the organization’s highest levels where collaboration is taking place. Over the summer, McDonough challenged the team’s human resources department to create a mentorship program for the Blackhawks’ young front office staff. The program involves more experienced members taking on protégées to teach them about other parts of the business. All senior staff members, including McDonough, Blunk, Bowman and Assistant GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who was instrumental in creating the program, gladly agreed to participate.

“We have such strong leaders, and we’ve hired so well, I think we have an obligation to impart and pass that on,” McDonough says. “Every time I look out at our group, I’m looking at the future management of the Chicago Blackhawks.

“I’m 57. The average age of our staff is around 32. We have an obligation not only to lead them, but to teach them and provide as much direction as we possibly can and take time for each other.”

As these ideas usually go, it’s not only the protégées who have learned a thing or two.

When [Rocky] asked me what my ideal organization would look like, I said ... there would be one organization. One Chicago Blackhawks. - President John McDonough
“I’ve found the program to be very interesting,” says Bowman. “I have three protégées  – two from community relations and one from the ticket sales side – and I’ve tried to do different activities with each. I brought them into our suite to watch a game with me to get a sense of my experience before and during a game. We’ve also done some individual and group activities to get to know each other better as people. It’s helpful to understand our different backgrounds, motivations and aspirations.”

With this unique level of communication and collaboration, McDonough knows the Blackhawks can affect meaningful change on the organization, Chicago sports and possibly professional sports as a whole.

“There’s a different mantra here. There’s a very ambitious dynamic where the bar goes higher every single day,” says McDonough.

That dynamic goes a long way toward ensuring that the Blackhawks’ most recent accolades for innovation won’t be the last.

“To see that the readers of SportsBusiness Journal, the bible of our industry, recognized us as the most innovative is a great credit to Jay and his staff,” says McDonough. “After winning the Stanley Cup, people say all the time, ‘Why don’t you guys take sit back a little and enjoy your success?’ But that would just take time away from us getting better.”
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