-- John McDonough got his first look at the ice at Wrigley Field Sunday and came away thoroughly impressed, using words such as "surreal" and "magical" to describe his feeling as the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic nears.
"It's almost incomprehensible for me to believe that this is four days away," McDonough told NHL.com. "I think it hit me when I looked down on the field and I saw the simulated brick on the outside of the boards. It's just amazing."
Bringing the Winter Classic to Chicago, specifically to Wrigley Field, was McDonough's brainchild. After watching last year's Winter Classic in Buffalo, he called Blackhawks' Chairman Rocky Wirtz and said, "Rocky, we have to have this game."
Now that it's just around the corner, McDonough is marveling at the work being done by the National Hockey League.
"I'm just so impressed and I'm privileged to be a part of this, to play a small role in this is gratifying," he said. "To these people that are working on the rink - and that's a word I never in my life thought I'd use here in Wrigley Field, rink - and making all this happen, I'm just very impressed with the operation. It's a much larger task than I had imagined, but I think the city of Chicago is going to embrace this maybe unlike any other regular season event the city has ever seen."
McDonough believes the Winter Classic will be a "validation" of what the Hawks have done so far in their amazing resurgence from moribund franchise to the hottest ticket in the League.
"People feel as though there is something going on in Chicago and we're excited about it," McDonough said. "I'm greatly appreciative of Commissioner (Gary) Bettman, (NHL Executive V.P. of Marketing) Brian Jennings and (NHL Chief Operating Officer) John Collins for allowing us to do this. We really want to prove to them that they made a great decision."
McDonough said he's looking forward to two things on New Year's Day.
"I'm anxious to hear that horn go off as much as possible," he said, referring to the horn that blares when the Hawks score a goal during a home game, "but I'm also anxious to hear what it is going to sound like with 41,000 fans in complete delirium as the National Anthem is being sung."
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is the event that defines Cubs' games at Wrigley Field. The Star Spangled Banner is that for Blackhawks games at the United Center.
As Jim Cornelison belts out the anthem, the fans, who have filled the United Center to capacity every game so far this season, build into a raucous and boisterous tizzy, cheering louder and louder as Cornelison builds to the crescendo.
"I hear it every night now with 22,000 at the United Center, but what this event has done, it is has brought together Cubs fans and White Sox fans, Bulls fans even have come to the Blackhawks and Bears fans to the Blackhawks. It has united everybody and I'm excited because that really is our signature, and on an international stage for everybody to see that will be quite impressive."
Come New Year's Day, McDonough will become one of the few Chicagoans to witness what he calls "the trifecta" of the modern day at Wrigley Field. The hockey game will mark the third sport he has seen played live at Wrigley Field.
He worked for the Chicago Sting of the old North American Soccer League when they played some games in Wrigley Field. He vividly remembers June 28, 1981, the day the Sting beat the New York Cosmos, 6-5 in a shootout, in front of 35,501. He also worked for the Cubs for 24 years, from 1983 until taking over as Blackhawks president on Nov. 20, 2007.
McDonough is largely responsible for the Cubs' massive growth over the past two decades, including lights at Wrigley Field, the annual Cubs convention, which was the first of its kind for any professional sports franchise, and celebrities singing "Take Me Out to The Ball Game."
"I have been able to participate in soccer, baseball and hockey," he said. "That's a fun trifecta."
McDonough said there is talk right now of a celebrity singing "Take Me Out to The Ball Game" during the Winter Classic. If it happens, it would likely occur at the 10-minute mark of the third period, when the team's are slated to switch goals.
"We're talking about that right now," McDonough said. "We have suggested a few people. I would love to see it happen."
McDonough would also love to see his Hawks make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this coming spring, but even though the Hawks had tied a franchise record with eight-straight victories heading into Sunday's game at Minnesota, he is still using the term "measured optimism" to describe the team and the fascination the city has with it.
"We have come a long way but we still have a long way to go," McDonough said. "I think the hiring of (coach) Joel Quenneville
was a pivotal point in all of this. (General Manager) Dale Tallon
has done a tremendous job in assembling this talent. These are all steps and I think playing in this Winter Classic is actually a stride. I'm very proud of them, but we said that 'E' word prior to the season when we talked about expectations. We said we think it's time to make the playoffs and we still feel that way. That's step one for us."
McDonough hasn't had to calm down any member of his staff either. They are all operating under the same "measured optimism" philosophy despite the overwhelming success the Hawks have had on the ice and at the box office this season.
The 22,712 fans who attended Friday's game against Philadelphia comprised the largest crowd for a Hawks home game in franchise history. That record, of course, will be shattered on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field.
"Nobody at the United Center is gushing over any of this. Nobody is getting carried away. We're all putting this into perspective," McDonough said. "We are going to have to earn every single thing we get. You know, coming from an organization (the Cubs) that didn't have an empty seat for 24 years, it's what I'm accustomed to.
"I'm just very impressed with the operation. It's a much larger task than I had imagined, but I think the city of Chicago is going to embrace this maybe unlike any other regular season event the city has ever seen." -- John McDonough
"We need to keep winning," he added. "This is all about winning. This is not about marketing or promotions. From the business side we have to make sure we have the best supporting cast as we possibly can, but what matters most is what happens on the ice."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com