Rozner: 10 years later, Blackhawks' McDonough just getting started

Updated 11/22/2017 1:55 PM
  • John McDonough, president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks, says owner Rocky Wirtz deserves all the credit for changing the culture of the organization and helping it become a model franchise in sports.

      John McDonough, president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks, says owner Rocky Wirtz deserves all the credit for changing the culture of the organization and helping it become a model franchise in sports. BARRY ROZNER | Staff Photographer

It had to feel something akin to crashing on Mars -- in a '68 Volkswagen Beetle.

No supplies, no companions, no crew and no way to get off the planet.

What do you do first?

Hope it's just a bad dream, probably.

Maybe scream, "Taxi!!!"

Or try not to wonder why the elephants and clowns are parading single file down Madison -- when the circus isn't even in town.

Instead of running for the nearest padded room, 10 years later John McDonough is still the president of the Blackhawks and the surface of the rock looks a little different.

When he arrived, the Hawks possessed a hockey organization built for the 1970s and a business operation appropriate for the 1950s. The small scouting staff was still wearing checkered pants and penny loafers, and carrying pencil and paper.

Bill Wirtz had missed the TV generation entirely and the franchise was unaware of that whole internet thing.

Monday marked 10 years since McDonough orbited the city and landed on the West Side, during which the Hawks have gone from laughingstock to a state-of-the-art NHL franchise.

The years have flown by, but McDonough remembers vividly the first few days.

"It was chaotic because I really didn't know what to expect," McDonough said while sitting in a sparkling corner office of the team's new structure adjoining the United Center. "It was a flurry of activity and there wasn't a lot of time to ease into this.

"From the moment I accepted the job, there was a great sense of urgency."

It was only 10 days after first sitting down to lunch with Rocky Wirtz. During that quick meal that turned into a five-hour conversation, McDonough recalls mostly that it was very loud in a Schaumburg tavern as Illinois took down No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.

Between Illini roars, they discussed honestly the size, scale and speed of a potential transformation.

"This wasn't Rocky giving us two years to assess the terrain and, 'Tell me what you think,' " McDonough said. "This was extremely urgent."

When you're a half century behind, there's an Everest to climb and no days off for acclimatization. Start moving up the mountain and don't look down, crevasse or not.

"I had just said goodbye that morning to the Chicago Cubs and came over here, having hired a lot of the people on the business side with the Cubs. It was very emotional," McDonough said. "After the press conference here, I met the staff for the first time and said two things:

"The pace is going to be swifter and the expectation higher.

"We all read body language for a living, right? I could just see in people's eyes, 'I'm out. I want no part of this. I've heard of this guy and I want no part of it.'

"I didn't want to make knee-jerk assessments on anyone, but I knew there had to be a new approach.

"People talk all the time about 'changing the culture' in sports. I think it's the single-hardest thing I've ever had to deal with."

McDonough is careful not to cast aspersions on whom and what preceded him, but he does not shy from recognizing what was there and what needed to change.

"Rocky gave me a mandate and my name was on it," McDonough says matter-of-factly. "Rocky deserves all of the credit for the last 10 years, and I mean all of it.

"My role was micro-fractional. Rocky took a nonfamily member and put him in a position that was always occupied by a family member.

"Rocky didn't want the job. He has too many other responsibilities. But to take someone from a different sport? Are you kidding me?

"So all of the people that were dubious about my coming over here -- 'What would a baseball guy know about hockey?' -- I got that. I would have been the same way.

"The one thing that surprised me the most -- that blindsided me at 54 years old -- was when you walk into an organization and they know you're coming in to change everything, that a large percentage of people simply did not get on board with the program.

"That shocked me.

"It had been a certain way and they knew you were not coming in to be a custodian. You're coming in and you're going to change everything.

"I got the sense that it would take a while for me to inspire people."

Revolution is what Rocky Wirtz wanted and he never blinked.

"I said to Rocky that the changes we talked about are going to come faster and be more bountiful," McDonough recalls. "But everything he talked about that day at lunch, autonomy and independence and the ability to make decisions, 10 years later he's been true to the letter on all of it."

The list of changes could fill an arena, but with new buildings and rinks and divisions and departments, the Hawks went from a staff of about 50 to more than 200.

There are only a handful left from the Dark Ages, but those who stayed have earned it.

"We were able to find people that might not have been utilized that are now department heads because they were put in a position to succeed," McDonough said. "We've put a premium on finding young, hungry, humble, enthusiastic people that want to be part of something that has never been done before.

"We didn't pitch a tent in the Ivy League. There is a certain type of person that I'm looking for."

What made the Hawks the Hawks -- translated: a joke -- in the 50 years before Rocky Wirtz took over is that it was every man for himself.

Self-preservation was an ideology for those in charge and a necessity for all those serving their lords. Backstabbing became an art and he with the sharpest knife lived to carve another day. It was the hallmark and absolute constant of the most dysfunctional organization in professional sports.

"There had to be a system. We had to implement a system that was collaborative between hockey ops and business ops," McDonough said. "Everyone has to work together."

You have to laugh when hearing that this concept had to be taught and learned.

"The most important executive skill is hiring," McDonough said. "You can have the greatest blueprint in the world, but if you don't have the right people running it out, you have no chance."

Running it out. Yeah, there's still plenty of baseball on McDonough's brain.

"From 1997 to 2007, the Blackhawks had five general managers and seven head coaches," McDonough said, never once mentioning Bob Pulford's name. "If you do that every 14 months, you're changing the blueprint, changing personnel, changing philosophies. You're changing everything.

"You have no chance.

"You have to hire someone you're committed to. It's not continuity for the sake of it. It's continuity tethered to success and buying into the process.

"This isn't Camelot here. I think people sometimes think that everything's perfect. This can be a pretty intense place on any given day."

McDonough is not always easy to work for and he's probably responsible for much of that intensity, but stability -- integral to the Hawks' success -- has reigned.

"I'm very grateful that (GM) Stan Bowman has been here nine years," McDonough said. "(Vice president) Jay Blunk has been here nine years. (Hockey ops veep) Al MacIsaac has been here nine years. (Head coach) Joel Quenneville has been here nine years.

"We've had highs and lows, but this is an organization that will be defined by decades, not years, because we have a lot of ground to make up."

Over more than two decades on the North Side, McDonough manufactured and fine-tuned a monster marketing machine. In the Wirtz world, prior to Rocky's arrival, marketing and advertising was a waste of money and manpower, and television was an abomination.

"Hockey's exposure is strong and growing, but it's little different when you're with the Chicago Cubs and your games are going into 80 million homes every day on the superstation," McDonough said. "When we first got here the games weren't on TV. That's a bit of a culture shock.

"I feel like we're in the early stages of this. But if you would have said to me 10 years ago that the Blackhawks will lead the league in attendance nine years, make the playoffs nine years in a row, win three Stanley Cups and go to five conference finals, I don't know …

"Personally, it's been a challenge, because the cultures of baseball and hockey are so completely different, and there wasn't a manual."

In the past decade, the Hawks have become a powerhouse on and off the ice, but McDonough is still trying to find his skating legs.

"Observing, listening and knowing what I don't know has been really important," McDonough said. "Make sure you're curious and ask a lot of questions, and know when to feather a decision or when to make a tough one and weigh in heavy.

"It's been a challenge, but also the most rewarding 10 years of my career. I loved my time with the Cubs. I had the chance to develop relationships that will last a lifetime. I still follow baseball closely.

"But I've only gone back to Wrigley Field about four times in 10 years. I never wanted to be that guy, where people said, 'What's he doing here?'

"I wanted to be the guy who left respectfully. It's someone else's turn. And look what they've done. They have Theo Epstein and a World Series title and all those great people.

"Everything turned out well for both."

Easy to say when you're stranded on a planet, 100 million miles from home.

At least now, John McDonough is not alone.

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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