What's next for Blackhawks as McDonough exits?

  • John McDonough, in a 2015 Stanley Cup rally at Soldier Field, was fired Monday by the Blackhawks.

    John McDonough, in a 2015 Stanley Cup rally at Soldier Field, was fired Monday by the Blackhawks. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 4/27/2020 6:31 PM

It was business as usual late Monday afternoon.

Or unusual, if you will, given the circumstances of an NHL shutdown, but the Blackhawks were going about their business during the busiest time of the year.

 

For those in hockey operations, it's a critical period as they prepare for the draft and try to determine a roster for next season depending on so many factors, not the least of which is a salary cap that could take any form and change based on many factors.

In business and marketing, the time for setting up next season occurs now, so working remotely did not mean working any less diligently.

This was the picture painted by Hawks employees who were as stunned as anyone when they learned team president John McDonough had been fired Monday.

McDonough "was completely caught off guard," said a team source, and had no inkling that owner Rocky Wirtz was of a mind to make a change.

Wirtz expressed nothing but support for McDonough these last few years as the Hawks struggled on the ice, and praised McDonough endlessly over 13 years for his leadership and for bringing the Hawks into the modern era of sports business.

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Son Danny Wirtz has been around more over the last couple of years and takes over as acting president, which calls into question the future of general manager Stan Bowman and much of the hockey ops staff, which had the backing of McDonough.

Rocky Wirtz has been strictly hands off in every aspect of the organization, so it's highly unlikely there was a dispute in terms of the GM position while Bowman tried to win and rebuild at the same time, a nearly impossible task.

That also doesn't mean that Wirtz didn't disagree with the direction of the program, even if he never voiced it.

In his statement Monday, Wirtz wrote, "What we do know is that it will take a new mindset to successfully transition the organization to win both on and off the ice."

One surprising but logical replacement atop the organization is broadcaster and former Hawk Eddie Olczyk, whose name has been quietly bandied about in rumors among NHL types for years and in several NHL cities as a team president, including Philadelphia and Seattle.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Olczyk has the hockey knowledge and personality to run an organization, and he's widely popular in Chicago. That would give him the time necessary if he chose to rebuild.

McDonough, meanwhile, was always the first to admit that he is difficult to work for and incredibly demanding, but he also took over an organization that was stuck in the 1950s on the business side and in the 1970s on the hockey side.

A complete structural rebuild was necessary and that meant a serious approach that never existed on the West Side.

"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,' " McDonough told me in 2017 of his first day on the job with the Hawks. "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.' I think it's the single-hardest thing I've ever had to deal with."

There were rumors in 2016 that the Bears might try to pry McDonough loose, and he would be a perfect fit for that organization, also stuck decades behind the times.

And then there's the White Sox, just about to hit full stride on the baseball side after a rebuild. McDonough is close with Jerry Reinsdorf and putting McDonough in charge of filling up that ballpark would be a natural for a former baseball executive.

McDonough has never been in the business of making friends or holding hands, which is what most people want these days. He was all about winning and filling the arena, two things he did better than just about any executive in the history of Chicago sports.

All you need to remember is that if Wirtz hadn't hired McDonough when he did, and McDonough hadn't hired Joel Quenneville when he did, the Hawks would not have won three Stanley Cups in six seasons, and the decade of brilliant hockey that you saw in Chicago would not have occurred.

"Rocky gave me a mandate and my name was on it," McDonough said in 2017 as we spoke about his 10-year anniversary. "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 -- and '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.

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

The changes included new buildings and rinks and divisions and departments, and the Hawks went from a staff of about 50 to more than 200.

What was before a philosophy of self-preservation for those in charge, where backstabbing became an art in the most dysfunctional organization in professional sports, evolved into a championship organization in every way.

Even those who did not like McDonough or any of his hirings or firings have to admit he was successful in revolutionizing an archaic and broken franchise.

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

"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."

Like him or not, John McDonough brought the Hawks into the 21st century and three Cups later the team has sold out 531 straight games.

The man did what he promised he would do -- and then some.

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