TORONTO - Cliff Koroll never sought recognition, but he couldn't perform backstage forever. After side-splitting laughter subsided from Dennis Hull's introduction, Koroll, by unanimous decision, received the first-ever Outstanding Alumni Award at the annual NHL Alumni Association Gala Celebration here Monday night.
Koroll is president of the Blackhawks Alumni, an organization widely considered the most impactful of its kind throughout professional sports. A co-founder, Koroll in 2003 took over leadership from Keith Magnuson, who was killed in a tragic automobile accident.
Koroll and Magnuson, teammates at Denver University, were rookies on the 1969-70 Blackhawks who rode their energy - and Tony Esposito's goalkeeping - to first place, a year after Chicago finished last.
Also Monday night, Hall of Fame defenseman Raymond Bourque won the "Keith Magnuson Man of the Year Award," annexing a list of previous recipients that constitutes a Who's Who in Hockey.
The Blackhawks Alumni was conceived by Koroll, Magnuson, Stan Mikita and Jack Fitzsimmons, a close friend of the team and a minor official at home games. Other sports had such groups, some of which were loosely structured so as to provide retired players reason to, as Mikita once postulated, "hang out, drink beer and tell old stories." Nothing wrong with that, but the aforementioned four had a grander plan.
"We wanted to give high school hockey in the area a shot in the arm," Koroll recalled. "And that's where the scholarship initiative took hold. That was 1987. We playeda few games but any money we made went into that fund. At our first real meeting, we had eight guys who lived in town. When we went to [Blackhawks President] Bill Wirtz, he was all in. He gave us $25,000 on the spot to get us going."
And keep going. As of now, the Alumni has appropriated $1.8 million toward college educations for 103 students. In addition, the Alumni has donated thousands to various charities. The two main fundraisers are the Scholarship Luncheon every March and a golf tournament bearing Mikita's name every August.
"Stan really made it happen for the Alumni," Koroll went on. "To have a superstar on board put us on the map. Way back when Maggie and I were rookies, Stan invited us to lunch with Bobby Hull. We thought we were going out for a few beverages and laughs. Instead, Stan took us to a church event. 'This is part of your job as a Blackhawk... you give back to the community.'
"I've had 18 different teams call me about what we do - our bylaws, how we handle this, how we handle that.One of our greatest assets are associate members. They aren't former players, but CEOs and company presidents. They've been great for networking, helping guys transition from playing, get jobs.
"The support from the current Blackhawks has been outstanding. The door is always open to us, wider than ever. [President & CEO] John McDonough, [Executive Vice President] Jay Blunk, [Marketing Vice President] Pete Hassen. He's our point man, our main contact with the front office. And Rocky Wirtz is unbelievable. We've got our own suite at the United Center for games. He could use it for fans. But, no, he told the Bulls they can have it for basketball... we're not selling it for hockey.
"A few years ago, we were concerned about where the Alumni would be down the road. Fewer active players live in Chicago year-round than used to. But now we're not as worried. We've had some more recent guys gettinginvolved. Brian Campbell, Adam Burish. We have a great board. I accept this honor on behalf of them."
Koroll and wife, Lynnae, were joined here by Hassen, along with Burish, a member of the NHL Alumni Board who said its vote on Koroll was "the quickest ever... 11-0."
Koroll is battling the vestiges of age. He's endured two back surgeries in 18 months and has been diagnosedwith early stages of Parkinson's Disease.
"I'm doing OK," he said. "The other three are gone. Stan, Maggie, Fitzie. How much longer I can do this, I don't know. But I take my medication three times a day and go to boxing class three times a week. Motion is lotion. Exercise. Right side, left side. That's the key. Got tokeep moving."
As bachelor rookies with the Blackhawks, Koroll shared an apartment with Magnuson, who took boxing lessons and implored his best pal to spar on occasion.
"That was different," Koroll said. "I'm just punching a bag now. Those sessions with Maggie, they drew blood."