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For McDonough, the Hawks' journey isn't complete

by Mike G. Morreale /
CHICAGO - John McDonough wants to make one thing perfectly clear.

He didn't reinvent the wheel here in Chicago after stepping in as president of the Blackhawks in November 2007. Instead, he surrounded himself with great people who were as determined as he to turn this Original Six franchise around and, most importantly, re-establish a lasting relationship with its fans.

"This is Chicago, Illinois, one of the premier cities in the world," McDonough said. "If we're an Original Six franchise, we had to act like it. And if we want to attract fans, change perception and attract prospective free agents, we had to change the way we were doing business.

“Fans had heard of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and the goalie with the funny name, but there has been more of an awakening here and my approach remains a big-picture approach -- how are my decisions going to impact today and how will they affect the future."

It's hard to rationalize with a man adamant about how much more work is needed from within despite the fact his 2008-09 team not only qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six seasons, but won a playoff series for the first time in more than a decade.

"Since day one, the message to this organization is 'We're not going to accept anything short of excellence,' " McDonough said.

Oh yes, the dreaded 'E' word.

"People kind of get jelly-legged all the time when they hear that word -- 'Excellence,' " McDonough said. "There are expectations on me and I'm tougher on myself more than anybody. But if I hire somebody, I expect them to be great at their job. I'm not really patient and have a tendency to call people on things because, to me, once is a trend. We're trying to build this organization where it's not a hockey operation, it's not a business operation; it's the Chicago Blackhawks and there will be a Chicago Blackhawks way of doing things."

To that end, McDonough, who spent 24 years with the Cubs as senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting and as the team's president prior to joining the Blackhawks, welcomed back Chicago legends and Hockey Hall of Famers Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito as official team ambassadors. He would later add Denis Savard to that all-star group.

"When I was with the Cubs, we had a great relationship with Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks and we would allow these former players to sing 'Take Me Out To the Ballgame.' It created almost a college-reunion type of atmosphere so I knew that having former players return to the organization was as important as the current guys on the field."

McDonough also established a landmark partnership with Comcast SportsNet and WGN Television to have all 82 regular-season games televised for the first time in franchise history while announcing a radio partnership with WGN News/Talk 720.

"I don't think there's anything magical about it -- what fans wanted to see was a different approach," McDonough said. "They wanted to see a different playbook, they wanted to see the Blackhawks get out of the grudge business, they wanted to see relationships rekindled with Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito and they wanted to see their team any chance they got."

And they did. But McDonough literally knocked it out of the park, so to speak, when he brought the NHL to his former home-away-from-home, Wrigley Field, on New Year's Day for the 2009 Winter Classic. It would be his Blackhawks against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings.

"I really do believe that the Winter Classic changed the DNA of this franchise," McDonough said. "It was a highlight; a flashpoint moment for this franchise because I think our fan base had not been accustomed to really being the focal point of anything positive for so long."

McDonough has always been quick to point to Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz as another architect to building a bond between the team and its fans.

"When Rocky Wirtz took over, he used the words commitment, resources and expectations to achieve one goal -- win the Stanley Cup," McDonough said. "They were words that, from what I understand, hadn't been articulated here in a while."

And despite the fact the Blackhawks failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2007-08, attendance increased 47 percent from the previous season with merchandise revenue up 175 percent.

"We didn't make the playoffs in 2007-08, but our ticket base went from 3,400 to 14,000 and that's coming off a non-playoff year," McDonough said.

The Blackhawks' 104 points in 2008-09 was the seventh-highest total in franchise history and the first time the club had cracked the 100-point plateau since 1992-93 (106). The team's 24 wins at United Center were the most since 2001-02 when the club had 28. And, to McDonough's delight, the Hawks set a single-season attendance record during the regular season and averaged a League-leading 22,244 fans at each home game.

He's certainly enjoyed the team's marvelous run this playoff season.

"I like the fact that they're not impressed by themselves," McDonough said. "For a young group, I'm not sure they know enough to be intimidated by the playoffs. I think they get a real consistent message every day from a veteran coach and Joel (Quenneville), in my opinion, is a great coach. They see somebody that doesn't panic, that provides great leadership and I think these players are just inspired by playing in front of a full house every night."

Contact Mike Morreale at
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