The Blackhawks' secret to success

How Wirtz, McDonough executed the greatest sports turnaround story ever

  • Rocky Wirtz hoists the Cup at the Blackhawks Rally at Soldier Field Thursday. Wirtz and John McDonough are credited with executing the strategy that turned the Blackhawks from a dud team into a hockey dynasty.

      Rocky Wirtz hoists the Cup at the Blackhawks Rally at Soldier Field Thursday. Wirtz and John McDonough are credited with executing the strategy that turned the Blackhawks from a dud team into a hockey dynasty. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • John McDonough during Hawks Rally at Soldier Field. McDonough and Rocky Wirtz are credited with executing the strategy that turned the Blackhawks from a dud team into a hockey dynasty.

      John McDonough during Hawks Rally at Soldier Field. McDonough and Rocky Wirtz are credited with executing the strategy that turned the Blackhawks from a dud team into a hockey dynasty. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • There were a lot of empty seats at the United Center when the Chicago Blackhawks played  the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, March 6, 2007.

    There were a lot of empty seats at the United Center when the Chicago Blackhawks played the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, March 6, 2007. Daily Herald 2007

  • Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane talks with John McDonough and Rocky Wirtz after their news conference about their staying on the Blackhawks team for another 8 years at the United Center in Chicago on Wednesday. Wirtz and McDonough are credited with executing the strategy that turned the Blackhawks from a dud team into a hockey dynasty.

    Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane talks with John McDonough and Rocky Wirtz after their news conference about their staying on the Blackhawks team for another 8 years at the United Center in Chicago on Wednesday. Wirtz and McDonough are credited with executing the strategy that turned the Blackhawks from a dud team into a hockey dynasty. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Today, the stadium is packed with passionate fans. Here, fans go wile after Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith scores during the second period in Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final series on against the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday, June 15, 2015, in Chicago.

    Today, the stadium is packed with passionate fans. Here, fans go wile after Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith scores during the second period in Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final series on against the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday, June 15, 2015, in Chicago. Associated Press

  • Photo 2 caption: Jay Parsons of Chicago sits amidst a sea of empty seats in the 300 level of the United Center during the Blackhawks game against the L.A. Kings on March 23.

    Photo 2 caption: Jay Parsons of Chicago sits amidst a sea of empty seats in the 300 level of the United Center during the Blackhawks game against the L.A. Kings on March 23.

  • Steve Lundy/slundy@dailyherald.com ¬ The Blackhawks mob Brent Seabrook  after his overtime winning goal during game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday, May 29, at the United Center in Chicago. ¬

    Steve Lundy/slundy@dailyherald.com ¬ The Blackhawks mob Brent Seabrook after his overtime winning goal during game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday, May 29, at the United Center in Chicago. ¬

 
 
Updated 6/21/2015 4:09 PM

From one fan among a sea of empty seats … to a stadium full of Chelsea Dagger beats.

From catcalls and jeers … to overwhelming cheers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

From forgettable teams … to fulfilling every fan's wildest dreams.

From players with no names … to players headed to the Hall of Fame.

Ask a Blackhawks fan eight years ago if they thought the franchise could ever go from any of the Point A's listed above to those Point B's, and they would have laughed themselves silly. This was a team in such disarray that they were literally giving away prime seats just to put some warm bodies in the United Center.

Here is part of one letter our paper received in April 2007 after running a three-part series entitled "When Roar Turns to Snore":

"I get sick to my stomach when I think about what should and could be -- so sad and such a loss for a very devoted fan base. To you and the Daily Herald I give you a big 'thanks for the memories' you brought back to surface. But now, resurfaced is all the sorrow -- I am just sad all over again for what once was and never will be again."

For sure, turning it around just didn't seem possible.

Yet, in the span of two seasons, the Hawks crawled out of the lowest level of the sports abyss and were named "The Greatest Sports-Business Turnaround Ever" by Forbes Magazine in 2009.

"If you would have asked me this in 2007, I would have given you 1 million to 1 (odds)," owner Rocky Wirtz said of the Hawks making such an unbelievable turnaround. "And anything over 100 to 1 is impossible."

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How did it happen? And how will they stay on top? It wasn't and won't be easy, but it was and continues to be a team effort that all began with one phone call.

Recipe for success

Shortly after Wirtz's dad, Bill, passed away on Sept. 26, 2007, he contacted Cubs President John McDonough to gauge his interest in taking on the restoration of the Blackhawks. Once McDonough got to talking with Rocky and he realized their philosophies -- business and family -- meshed perfectly, it wasn't difficult to accept the offer to become president of the Blackhawks.

"I had a really good job with the Cubs," McDonough said, "but I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Rocky over a 10-day period. And it was just his integrity and his commitment that was the reason I joined the Blackhawks."

And from Day 1, McDonough set course on a challenge he said "was much more dire than I had imagined."

Changing a culture isn't easy, of course. People are set in their ways. They're comfortable.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

McDonough saw all of that when he had a meeting with his staff. In it, he told them: " 'The pace is going to be swifter, the expectations are going to be higher and I need everybody to be on board.' …

"I read body language for a living and I could tell that a good percentage of people just checked out."

Then, the Hawks went to work.

• They got all of their games on television.

• They hired back estranged announcer Pat Foley.

• And they reached out to iconic players such as Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and others.

"For our fans to really understand the depth of our franchise, there had to be some link to the past," McDonough said. "And there was none. … And that was unacceptable."

Eventually, the fans started returning. Average home attendance during the 2006-07 season was at a 25-year low (12,727), but a year later it spiked to 16,814 and the next year it hit set a record (at the time) of 21,783.

Just win, baby

Of course, the seeds that were coming to fruition weren't just McDonough's doing. Plenty of credit must go to former general manager Dale Tallon and previous staffs for drafting, signing or trading for some of this era's biggest names: Duncan Keith in 2002, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford in 2003, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Patrick Sharp in 2005, Jonathan Toews in 2006 and Patrick Kane in 2007.

Compiling all of that talent, though, is one thing. Helping that talent reach its fullest potential is another.

And that's why the hiring of Joel Quenneville as coach four games into the 2008-09 season was so important.

"We had some younger players who were all kind of evolving into NHLers and had some raw talent," Sharp said. "He kind of put it all together and gave us some structure.

"We could go on and on about what he brings to the team. He's one of the best coaches. History shows that, his record shows that and we're lucky to have him behind the bench."

They sure are. It took Quenneville just two seasons to guide his young Hawks to a Stanley Cup title in 2010 when they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games to end a 49-year title drought.

"When I came in I was very fortunate to walk into a team that looked like they were ready to take off," said Quenneville, one of only three coaches to participate in 200 or more NHL postseason games. "The prior year they had a little bit of a run to make the playoffs, and I think that was good for them.

"We probably got a great lesson the first year (2009) when we went to the conference finals against a team in Detroit that won the prior year. It was only five games, but I think there was a lot to learn over that whole playoff run -- and getting beat as well.

"Those young guys were only getting better each and every day and every game, and that experience took us to that level to get over the top the following year."

Three years later they won it again in 2013 against the Boston Bruins. Monday night at the United Center, they eliminated a young and dangerous Tampa Bay Lightning team to lift Lord Stanley's Cup for the third time in six seasons.

"It's been an amazing, amazing, amazing ride with this core group and it's a group that it just seems like anything that's thrown at us, we seem to answer the bell every time," Kane said. "It's been a blast. These eight years have been everything I've dreamed of.

The defense-first mentality that Quenneville preaches has been huge in the team's continued success, according to Sharp.

"We were more of a bunch of young players that were just happy to go out there and play around, freewheel, score goals," Sharp said. "And now I think there's a lot more systematic play.

"There's more structure to our style of play and that's a credit to Joel."

Bright future

Just like after the Hawks won the Cup in 2013, there is a lot of concern the salary cap will adversely affect the team this off-season. While it's expected that one or two big names will likely be moved, when you combine a nucleus of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith and Seabrook with the up-and-coming Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen, Chicago fans should be able to look forward to playoff hockey for the foreseeable future.

"I've been with the Hawks through some of those tough years. I started in 2000 and in the beginning it was tough," said Stan Bowman, who supplanted Tallon as GM on July 1, 2009 and is now also the team's vice president. "Our team struggled and there wasn't a lot of exciting hockey being played.

"Then Rocky took over and instilled a new mindset, and the same thing with John. That kind of stuff starts at the top (on) down. They set the tone for everything else."

That winning tone will continue if McDonough has anything to say about it because he certainly won't let anybody rest on their laurels.

"If you stop and admire what you've accomplished, it's really hard to get started again," McDonough said.

Behind the scenes, McDonough, Bowman, Wirtz, Jay Blunk (executive VP), Al MacIsaac (VP), Norm Maciver (assistant GM), Mark Kelley (senior director of amateur scouting), and others will continue to make the decisions together to shape the franchise.

They may not always agree on the best course of action, and that's OK.

"We win together and we lose together," Wirtz said. "There's no finger pointing, there's no egos. Everyone checks their egos at the door.

"I think all I do is to help give a little direction and get the heck out of the way so I can't screw something up."

Of course, that's not to say some heated conversations aren't taking place behind closed doors.

"Sometimes people think we're the Camelot Blackhawks or the Stepford Blackhawks," McDonough said. " 'Wow, within their organization that every day must be Nirvana.' And it's not.

"There's elbows thrown and we don't agree. … I need unvarnished opinions from people. I don't like to lead one way or the other because I don't want to see people lead with me; I want people that are really independent thinkers that will challenge me because I'll certainly challenge them.

"There's a lot at stake. We're not going to be measured in years. We're going to be measured in decades and decades and decades of excellence.

"I mean, this is just the start."

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