This excerpt is taken from the October 2011 issue of Blackhawks Magazine, the official game program of the Chicago Blackhawks. You can get your copy at all Blackhawks home games, beginning Oct. 8 vs. Dallas.
Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi sat down with Stan Bowman to ask him about changes in hockey’s offseasons, connecting with fans and what it takes to build an NHL dynasty.
There really is no offseason for NHL executives anymore. Are you too young to remember when the front office was actually closed for weeks at a time?
No, I remember. I was in my mid-teens and dad, Scotty, was coaching the Canadiens. He’d pile the family into a motor home at least twice a summer. We’d drive to southern Illinois. He met my mom when he was coaching in St. Louis, so we’d see her side of the family there. Then we’d take another trip to Montreal, where his dad lived. That was usually in August. We’d time it for my grandfather’s birthday, the 16th, which is also my parents’ wedding anniversary.
No timetable, no cellphones, no meetings?
No. We’d just go until we felt like stopping. Dad loves roller coasters, so we hit a few amusement parks along the way. One of the highlights for me was going to the factory outlet stores, like L.L. Bean. They stayed open 24 hours, and we might get there at 2 a.m. to go shopping. Sounds silly now, but we couldn’t wait to get there.
Extended summer vacations are impossible now, correct?
There’s the amateur draft in June, prospect camp and our Convention in July, then you start planning training camp. There’s a little lull in August when you can steal a week, but this past August, my wife, Sue, had a baby. So we didn’t go far.
Do you yearn for those days when the NHL basically shut down?
Well, I never experienced that when I had a job. But as a kid, I loved it. I played a lot of golf at home with my dad, and that’s where I developed my enjoyment for that game. Our backyard was the sixth hole of a country club.
This past summer you were busy improving your team. The Blackhawks got an A+ from The Hockey News for the draft and a B+ for other offseason moves.
We’ll see how it all turns out, but I feel gratified now about the results of all our hard work. We set out to fill specific needs, and things fell into place. We were able to accomplish what we set out to do, which was bringing in some players who played a different style and had character and leadership.
What do you mean by a different style?
We wanted some players who would give us a little different personality to complement the players we already had here. We all agreed at the end of last season that we needed to have a team that was a bit tougher to play against.
You said after last season that you elicited input from your core players.
We did. I had a feeling for what we were lacking. Then we met with the coaches, who were pretty much in keeping with what I thought. Then our players had their say, and it’s as though we were all pointing in the same direction. We all felt we needed a few guys with more “sandpaper,” as it has been called. I think it’s important that coaches know you will listen and likewise for the players. Now, if you do everything they say, then why do they need me? But they have the perspective of being on the ice, in the games and in the locker room, and I value their input. Why would you not want their opinions?
Now that you’ve been on the job for a while, how important is it to you are trusted?
Obviously, it’s better than the opposite. If you feel your staff and the fans have confidence in your ability, it’s nice. But it’s not necessary inasmuch as you can’t cater because you can get yourself in trouble there. You want to be right, not popular. In our case, after last season, there seemed to be a consensus about what we needed.
You mentioned fans. Do they understand the hard salary cap that exists in the NHL but no other major sport?
We’re getting there. I don’t expect fans to understand completely because there are so many intricacies about the hard cap. If you had asked me that a year ago, when we had to turn over so much of our roster after winning the Stanley Cup, I would have said we have a long way to go to educate fans. But they realize now that changes come every summer to every team because of the system that we play under. As difficult as a hard cap might be for individual clubs, I believe it is good for the league.
Good franchises lose good people. And good franchises have good people waiting in the wings.
Like Marc Bergevin, our new assistant general manager. Not every player who played 20 years in the NHL is willing to put on a jacket and tie and report to work for a completely different career, but he’s been building toward this. He’s got an eye for talent, he’s got great people skills, and he wants to grow. He is honest in admitting that he doesn’t have a complete grasp of numbers and the salary cap, but he doesn’t say, “Oh, I can’t do that.” He takes it as a challenge to learn it. The sky is the limit for Marc.
When critics say the Blackhawks “backed into” the playoffs on the last night of the regular season last April, does that bother you?
We were just a few points out of having home ice in the playoffs, too. No, I don’t buy into the idea that we had a bad season. We had a tough task because we had a short summer and a new group. We had a slow start, but we were right there. We took Vancouver to overtime in seven games and were one shot away from advancing. Vancouver wound up going seven games in the finals. It’s just difficult to get cranked up in October after winning the Cup in June.
When it comes to the Stanley Cup, your dad says NHL dynasties are obsolete.
The Stanley Cup is the most difficult championship to win in professional sports. I mean, even the Masters is still just 72 holes, not two months. Like dad says, the days of teams winning multiple Cups in a row might be gone. But if you stay competitive, anything can happen. That’s what we want to establish here, that we are a viable contender year after year.
Quite a change.
From when I started here, it’s like I’ve worked for two different franchises. When Rocky Wirtz came aboard, then John McDonough, we’ve gone on a whole new path. The aim is to be elite, first class, in every way. It’s remarkable what’s happened to the Blackhawks and hockey in Chicago. Amazing. This has become a destination point in the NHL. We have great leadership. And I believe, if I was on the outside looking in, I would still feel the same way. I would think that the Blackhawks are a special franchise that’s never satisfied. I would think, that would be a great place to work.
Your building is full and you have a long season ticket waiting list, but you still want to connect your players to your fans. Why?
First of all, we have a great group of guys who play for us. Really, really good people. And our fans have been so great, they deserve to see our players out in the community. We’ve been very fortunate with the caliber of individuals who play for us, and there are more coming. We have a number of youngsters who are going to be Blackhawks. That’s a huge part of the process, to keep talent coming through the system. We’ve come a long way, and our fans have been a big part of it. When you walk around Chicago on a hot day in the summer and see people wearing Blackhawks jerseys, that’s very gratifying. We’re gaining more and more traction. Our kids see the sold-out United Center every game night, and they want to be part of it. There’s a lot of pride in our building, at all levels.