It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overstate what a joke the Chicago Blackhawks were when John McDonough arrived on the scene in 2007. The same would go for the success the Blackhawks have had on and off the ice since then. In fact, aside from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings, name a team in the NHL that wouldn’t trade its lot with the Blackhawks over the past decade-and-a-half. We’ll wait.
Think of it this way, the Blackhawks have been members of the NHL for the past 93 years. The teams John McDonough ran won as many Stanley Cups (three) in 13 years as all the others did in the previous 80. Think about that. And that’s only on the ice. It was off the ice where McDonough did his best work and for all the problems that plagued the Blackhawks, the business side was still one of the most robust in the NHL, with the Blackhawks leading the league in attendance every season since 2008-09 and among the league leaders in producing revenues. They’ve sold out more than 500 straight games and they trail only the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in terms of franchise value.
But that was not enough for McDonough to keep his job. The Blackhawks announced Monday they had “released” their president and CEO. Assuming the decision was based solely on the hockey and business aspects of McDonough’s performance, it was a shocker. And it also brings into question whether or not anyone in this organization is safe right now. Certainly Stan Bowman, who has been the man primarily responsible for both the overwhelming success and precipitous fall of the Blackhawks on the ice, has to be looking over his shoulder at the moment.
“That was the first thing I thought of when I heard about it,” said a former Blackhawks player who played for McDonough’s teams. “If they can fire him, who is the next to go? I know John is an extremely hard worker and he holds people accountable. I was definitely caught off guard with this one.”
(I spoke with the president of another NHL team who was stunned to hear the news. He talks with McDonough regularly and said there was no indication from McDonough that anything was afoot. In fact, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz gave McDonough a vote of confidence less than a month ago. He was also on the weekly call between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the 31 team presidents last Wednesday.)
“Thirteen years ago, I recruited John to the Blackhawks because of his leadership, direction and vision,” Wirtz said in a statement Monday. “John brought all of that to the table and more. His contributions went well beyond leading the team to three Stanley Cup championships. He rebuilt the front office and helped guide the organization toward a winning vision. As difficult as this is, we believe it was the right decision for the future of the organization and its fans.”
When McDonough arrived, the Blackhawks were a doormat both on and off the ice. They were chronically understaffed. Players were given wads of free tickets to give out to people they met around town. McDonough, who came over after two wildly successful decades with the Chicago Cubs, brought a sense of professionalism and accountability to the front office that had never been seen prior to that. He recruited sponsors, all the while convincing Blackhawk fans to dust off their sweaters and support the team. He helped fill the building, established a summer fan convention that was the envy of the league and repatriated former Blackhawk icons such as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito.
Yes, the Blackhawks have fallen on hard times on the ice. And yes, mistakes have been made. But it’s hard to avoid that boom-bust cycle when you’re as good as the Blackhawks have been for as long as they have been. Wirtz’s 43-year-old son Daniel, who was an executive vice-president of the team, has been named interim president and the release said a search for a new president will be conducted immediately. That came as a surprise to one NHL executive. “Danny has been the heir apparent for a while now,” he said. “That’s been pretty well-known.”
Perhaps after the search is complete, Daniel Wirtz will indeed be given the job on a permanent basis. With their fall in the standings over the past couple of years, there has been speculation that Bowman might be elevated to the role and be replaced as GM. Or they might go with someone with more of a hockey background. Ed Olczyk perhaps?
Whatever happens, one thing is fairly clear. The culture that John McDonough helped establish in Chicago is what led to his undoing. Losing is no longer accepted by a franchise that spent decades doing it. And when that happens, people are going to pay with their jobs.
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