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Five Questions: Blackhawks CEO on Winter Classic

by Dan Rosen's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Chicago Blackhawks president and CEO John McDonough:

John McDonough walked through the doors at United Center as president of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 with big dreams, big aspirations. He wanted to not just turn around the Blackhawks from their moribund days, he wanted to turn them into a well-recognized and highly respected global brand.

McDonough has seen his dreams become reality.

The Blackhawks hosted the 2009 NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. That was their welcome back, their return to relevance. They won the Stanley Cup in 2010; it was their first championship since 1961. They won it again in 2013, and they're favored to do so again in 2015. They hosted a Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at Soldier Field last season.

On New Year's Day their brand will be back on the national stage in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park. The Blackhawks will be the visitors against the Washington Capitals.

McDonough spoke to on Monday about Chicago's involvement in the Winter Classic, what it gains, tangible or intangible, from being in the game, and how the organization can continue to build the Blackhawks brand based on being involved in yet another major NHL event.

Here are Five Questions with…John McDonough:

Here are the Blackhawks, the team selected to play as the visitor at the Winter Classic in Washington. You're Chicago, not a traditional rival of the Capitals, and a lot of times you see traditional rivals in the Winter Classic. What does it say about the Blackhawks brand at this point that you can be selected for this game and not be a traditional rival?

"Well I'm not so sure it's so much about a traditional rivalry. I think this is a jewel event. It elevates a franchise. It's an honor and a privilege to participate. And I don't know if it's so much about the matchup. The fact that we're chosen, we've played in these before, the stage is bigger, the lights are brighter, and this outdoor game, this Winter Classic, has really served us well before. When you talk about a traditional matchup, when we played Detroit people would go, 'OK, that makes a lot of sense, that's a perfect matchup.' But I think the Wrigley Field game was really the start of a cultural explosion. We hadn't made the playoffs yet. The '07-08 season we did not make the playoffs. So that '09 game was really a validation, but the fact that it was the Red Wings took it to even greater heights."

You dreamed big when you got to the Blackhawks. You dreamed of winning the Cup, and now you've done it twice. What comes with that is notoriety. So now to be involved in what is your third outdoor game, your second Winter Classic, how does it help the organization for now and the future, different from the others perhaps?

"I think it's another step forward. I think it helps the organization. It galvanizes the city. There is kind of a mystique and an aura about this game, so on so many different levels, it's healthy and robust for the franchise. One of the things that captured the city before, not only when we played last year in one of the Stadium Series games under the lights at Soldier Field, where it was really something out of a movie studio, the brilliance of these games to me is there is a certain purity and innocence about the Winter Classic that is unlike any other sport. For many players and fans, playing outdoors and dealing with the elements was their first experience with hockey, so I think it brings everybody back kind of to the roots, the origin of all of this. For us to be able to participate in another one is a privilege and we treat it accordingly. There is no level of expectation. We do grovel, I will tell you that. We do. I'm not sure I have ever had a conversation with Gary [Bettman] or John [Collins] where I haven't said, 'Is there anything else out there that Chicago can participate in?' We're pretty good at that and we're just very fortunate because a lot of teams are worthy. We just keep doing what we're doing, and it's nice to be selected. Every team is worthy of these games."

What are the benefits to being the visiting team in an event like this?

"When you're playing in it now, all of a sudden you're part of the fabric of New Year's Day, which to me is the epicenter of sports programming. Now you're kind of dropped in the middle of all of that on NBC, it's an incredible validation for the sport and your franchise and the city that participates. So from the Blackhawks standpoint, we are all in, be it home or road. We certainly, going forward if we're ever included or playing in a neutral site, we'd like to participate, but playing on the road is a huge privilege.

"I think you're going to have an incredible viewing audience back here in Chicago on New Year's Day that are going to be participating in their own way, whether it's parties in their home or parties in restaurants and bars. It's a festive, holiday occasion that the Blackhawks are playing on New Year's Day at noon on a nationally televised game on an enormous stage. Sure it's great to have these games at home, we've had two, and the game at Wrigley Field for this franchise was a lightning bolt because no one ever anticipated we'd get that game. It was a year after the game in Buffalo, and I think the following year it was supposed to go to [Yankee Stadium], and due to a number of circumstances we were able to secure it. At that point there was a shift in the perception that something good was happening to that Blackhawks franchise, minimally something different, and we're going to take a look. But that was a home game. We're proud to be playing on the road. I think people in Chicago are really planning for a celebration on that day. It's great. I would imagine that the numbers coming out of Chicago from an audience perspective will be huge, and it'll be at the heart of their celebration."

Obviously being involved in this game means you're also involved in the all-access show put on by Epix. What did you think of the first episode, but more importantly what does being involved in that show do for your organization?

"I love it. I think it's real. I think it gives everybody a bit of a glimpse to what really goes on. Unvarnished, this is it, and probably what goes on in every other sport. I think there are probably people a little bit surprised. People are always like, 'What are they saying to the officials?' 'What is the coach saying to the players?' 'What are the players saying to each other?' It opens up that lens and that audio that people really haven't heard before. I think it's great. I think the depiction is great. It's kind of a sports symphony the way they do this. I don't know how you can improve it. Just looking at what they put together based on all the video and the opportunities, they don't miss anything. It's part of the value of every franchise when you're able to put together these shows that really, really precede the game and kind of sets the table for what they are thinking about and what they've done over the last month. It humanizes the players and coaches, and aren't we all looking for that? We're looking for the real, authentic, what goes on, unedited, humanizing moments."

Off topic of the Winter Classic, let's look at the Blackhawks this season. From a big-picture perspective, how do you weigh, handle and appreciate success in December when you are with an organization that measures itself by how it does in June?

"I think the foundation for everything is humility. We've been there before. We don't get caught up early in the season. If we stumble there is no panic button here, and we recognize the big picture. But I think at the core of all this is probably a humble swagger. We're incredibly well-coached. Joel [Quenneville] does a great job. We have a very, very talented team that Stan Bowman has assembled along with Al MacIsaac, Norm Maciver and Mark Kelley, they've just done a tremendous job. The players we have coming from Rockford with Mark Bernard, they've just done an amazing job. But I would say there is a humble swagger about these guys that says, 'Look, we don't take anything for granted. We're the Blackhawks. We know where we're seeded in this city relative to the Bears and the Cubs, the Bulls and the Sox, and I really like playing that underdog role. I really do. It just makes us hungrier. But it's about humility, and no entitlement. Joel is the embodiment of that. He doesn't let these guys get too far up field. He doesn't panic. It's the right amount of Joel.

"Now I don't get caught up in rankings and all of that other stuff. I mean, we have a ways to go. We have a long ways to go because we're never going to get it right. No organization does. But there is a certain level of expectation here that is unwavering that is not going to change. We're going to do everything, whether it's on or off the ice, the in-game experience, team performance, players handle interviews, how we as an organization handle situations. There is a great collaboration here between business and hockey. The best way I can explain it is it's very healthy, and not every day here is 'The Sound of Music,' by the way. We have some tough days here at Blackhawks headquarters."


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