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McDonough's persistence pays off for Blackhawks

by Dan Rosen
John McDonough called Wrigley Field his office for more than two decades as president of the Chicago Cubs, but never once did the marketing guru who now conducts his business out of the United Center envision a hockey rink inside the "Friendly Confines."

"In my 24 years with the Cubs, it never was even a passing thought of having the Blackhawks play an outdoor game there," McDonough, the Blackhawks president for just over a year, told "But when I saw the game in Buffalo, I called (Hawks Chairman) Rocky Wirtz the next day and I said, 'We have to have this game.' "

It took a lot of pleading and prodding, but McDonough got his wish.

As McDonough explains it, if it weren't for a pre-planned lunch date with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and various other League executives, the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1 may never have come to pass.

"The discussion that initiated all of this was with the commissioner on maybe Jan. 15 with an appointment that we had already set up," McDonough said. "It was a meet and greet because I had never met him before."

McDonough believes Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who he calls one of his mentors, "spoke to Gary and was the bridge for me to spend time with Gary."

He sat down for a power lunch at the 21 Club in midtown Manhattan last winter with a gathering of big wigs, including Bettman, Hawks Senior Vice President Jay Blunk as well as John Collins, Ed Horne and Brian Jennings from the NHL.

Once the dishes were off the table, McDonough found the opening he needed to deliver his first impassioned speech about why Chicago is the perfect city for the Winter Classic and Wrigley Field is the ideal historic venue.

"It got sentimental and romantic," McDonough recalled. "We were talking about the rooftops and the bleachers and possibly painting ivy on the boards and the neighborhood and what a national, mega event it would be and Wrigley Field. There was so much syrup coming out. I really poured it on."

The response from Bettman was precisely what McDonough expected.

"Gary said, 'I hear you, and I'm glad we're talking about this, but it appears this is going to the Yankees and New York,' " McDonough said."I understood that. I knew we were a long shot."

McDonough, who admits he grew up a Chicago White Sox fan, has nevertheless always had a romantic connection to Wrigley Field. He calls it "the perfect ballpark," especially at the end of every May when the ivy starts to bloom.

"When you walk into Wrigley Field, it's really like you're walking into a Norman Rockwell painting. It's perfect, for me at least."
-- John McDonough

"When you walk into Wrigley Field, it's really like you're walking into a Norman Rockwell painting," he said. "It's perfect, for me at least."

Now he thought it would be perfect for hockey in the winter, too, and he wasn't going to let his dream die.

Three weeks after his lunch with Bettman, McDonough said he and the commissioner spoke again, but on a completely different topic. Of course, being his persistent self, McDonough couldn't resist getting into the commissioner's ear again.

"About halfway through the call I found another way to bring it up and he said something to the effect of, 'You're every bit as persistent as I heard you were,' " McDonough said. "I said, 'Gary, I just want to reiterate that I think this would be a wonderful place, but you're set with New York and the Yankees and I understand that.' "

Only, McDonough really didn't believe that. He had been hearing rumors.

"I had been hearing things that it wasn't necessarily a done deal (with the Yankees), so I had an obligation to the Blackhawks and the city, to everybody, because I think it would be great for this franchise," McDonough said.

While he was only hearing rumors -- and we know what that means -- McDonough found some truth to them when he got a call from the NHL.

"Two or three weeks later I got a call from the NHL asking, 'OK, who was that Cubs contact that you had?' " McDonough said. "I had a great relationship with the (Cubs) chairman there now, Crane Kenney, and he said to me, 'John, if there is an opportunity, we'd be interested.'

Jennings, the NHL's executive vice president in charge of marketing, said the League had to investigate all possibilities in Chicago, including Soldier Field and U.S. Cellular Field before settling on Wrigley.

"The more we spent time with Cubs the more we recognized that between the Blackhawks, Cubs and the NHL, we had three motivated partners to exercise a world-class event in an iconic stadium and a market on the uptick," Jennings told "I call it the perfect storm. All those things colliding made it a good collaboration and it made sense."

Even so, while the League was working the phones, McDonough waited restlessly. He reached out to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to let him know there is a chance the city could get the Winter Classic and the game would likely go to Wrigley.

"He was very supportive," McDonough said. "You know there is a 2016 Olympic bid for Chicago and not that getting this game will have any impact on that, but I think on Jan. 1 everybody in this country will notice what is going on at Wrigley Field."
"I think on Jan. 1 everybody in this country will notice what is going on at Wrigley Field" -- John McDonough
What started as a long shot for McDonough and his city became reality when Jennings phoned the Hawks president with the good news. McDonough said that call officially put Chicago back on the hockey map again.

"After about three and a half months of very little sleep, of hearing -- 'We think you might have it,' 'There is a chance you're going to get it,' 'Maybe not,' 'It looks like you're going to get it,' 'It's back over there,' -- I got a call from Brian Jennings and he just said, 'We've made our decision and the game is coming to Chicago,' " McDonough said.

"In some ways, it was a validation that (the NHL) at least knows something is happening here," McDonough continued. "They have trust in us that we're really going to help market this game; that we're going to put a competitive team on the ice and the city will embrace it. It's going to be a six-week, video holiday card for Chicago."

One the marketing guru from Chicago's northwest side never saw coming.

Contact Dan Rosen at
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