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TELANDER: Rocky lured McDonough away from Cubs — rest is history

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz (left) president CEO John McDonough flank Stanley Cup during its stop Tuesday restaurant 437 Rush. |

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz (left) and president and CEO John McDonough flank the Stanley Cup during its stop Tuesday at the restaurant 437 Rush. | Kevin Tanaka~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 2, 2013 7:08AM



John McDonough is a little edgy.

No, not because he partied like, oh, formerly bland Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, the wallflower who transformed into an R-rated lunatic at the Grant Park victory celebration Friday.

No, McDonough, the president and chief executive officer of the Blackhawks, had to fly back Thursday from a hockey meeting in New York, and his plane was six hours late. He didn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. Then he was up and at ’em early on this Stanley Cup Friday. Sleep deprivation is what it’s called.

It’s not like he’s grumpy.

My God, did you see all those trophies gleaming on the stage at the Grant Park fest? The Stanley Cup, Patrick Kane’s Conn Smythe Trophy, Jonathan Toews’ Frank J. Selke Trophy.

The thing is, as he sits here with Hawks owner Rocky Wirtz in a back room at the Hyatt Regency, away from the wild team partying in the private bar in front, McDonough already is thinking ahead. Twitching.

‘‘Relax?’’ he says. ‘‘Never.’’

Wirtz, clad in the same red championship golf shirt as McDonough, listens and nods.

‘‘Tomorrow we start,’’ McDonough says. ‘‘We don’t want to get a little better; we want to get a lot better.’’

Interesting.

Didn’t the Hawks just win their second NHL championship in four seasons? Aren’t they the only team to win two Stanley Cups in the salary-cap era?

Isn’t this the franchise ESPN called the worst in all of professional sports just nine years ago? The organization Sports Illustrated called ‘‘irrelevant’’ that same year?

Lord, back in 2001, Hawks winger Tony Amonte proclaimed: ‘‘With all the negative stuff and all the frustration, it . . . takes the life out of you.’’

The team was, like, dead.

Last thing: Anybody remember the Sunday afternoon when the minor-league Wolves actually outdrew the supposedly major-league Hawks?

Just asking.

Still, the Hawks rose from the crypt and are arguably the best, most powerful organization in the 30-team NHL.

Can we get a little happiness, John? Can we, you know, rest on our laurels for a spell?

‘‘No,’’ he replies. ‘‘The Red Wings have gone to the playoffs 22 straight years. Deep into the playoffs. We have a long way to go.’’

‘‘When I went after [McDonough] when he was with the Cubs,’’ Wirtz says, ‘‘I was surprised the Cubs or WGN or the Tribune or somebody didn’t have golden handcuffs on him.’’

Switching over

They didn’t. But so what? Former Cubs president McDonough would have had to be delusional even to think about leaving that storied, if cursed, franchise and moving to a sport that was so marginalized it almost didn’t register.

‘‘The landscape was so bad in ’07 that the Shopping Network had more viewers than us,’’ Wirtz says. ‘‘There was a time when we got a 0.6 TV rating, which I think is less than 10,000 people.’’

Estimates for fans at the parade and rally Friday have come in at more than 2 million.

Wirtz’s father, William, died that same year. Wirtz immediately became the head man and started the change. He put home games on TV, he catered to fans and he was aware of what he didn’t know. He would hire the right man — McDonough — and he would stand back.

It happened. It was like dice cast out with a prayer and coming up large.

‘‘Rocky might be the greatest salesman on earth,’’ McDonough says. ‘‘I told my four or five best friends what I was thinking of doing, that I needed perspective on this, and there would be deafening silence on the other end of the line. Then they would say, ‘Mac, are you crazy?’ ’’

But McDonough, a marketing madman, was promised autonomy. He liked the odds. He liked the juice.

‘‘There would be no sacred cows,’’ Wirtz says.

‘‘There were too many old grudges,’’ McDonough says. ‘‘Something had to be done. Now.’’

So folks throughout the organization — from general manager Dale Tallon to coach and revered former player Denis Savard to longtime PR man Jim DeMaria — bit the dust. McDonough wielded the ax. Blood flew.

‘‘They were very popular people,’’ Wirtz says.

McDonough was seen as ruthless by many fans.

‘‘But if that’s a byproduct of winning, of ‘One Goal,’ then when it’s all said and done, that’s the way it has to be,’’ he states. ‘‘This job is not for the faint of heart.’’

And the success has led to a kind of love in the public arena.

Owners are detested everywhere — even winners — but Wirtz is cheered whenever he is introduced at the United Center. Fans cheered lustily when he was introduced at Grant Park. They cheered the restless, aggressive McDonough, too.

And not just because of the Cup. They cheered because the Hawks, under these men’s direction, have become a restless, edgy franchise, one that likes money but likes winning more. Funny how a lot of pro teams — some right here in town — don’t.

A new fan base

It’s crazy, but McDonough had the organization take out a full-page ad Friday in the Boston Globe to thank the Bruins for their brotherhood and competition in a thrilling Stanley Cup race. Maybe such a bouquet has been thrown before, but this scribe doesn’t recall it.

For McDonough, it’s all about controlling the message, building the brand, bringing in new fans, winning the game of competition that he himself is in, which means being the best.

‘‘One advantage we have, I think, is that Chicago is now a destination,’’ he says. ‘‘Like Michal Rozsival [one of GM Stan Bowman’s valuable pickups last offseason]. He could have gotten more money elsewhere, but he wanted to come to Chicago.’’

Jerry Reinsdorf, the chairman of the White Sox and Bulls, comes into the room and congratulates Wirtz and McDonough. Reinsdorf is the man who, with William Wirtz, built the United Center without public money 20 years ago. He leaves, and the pair are reflective again.

McDonough has been accused of being a bit of a tyrant, but that, he says, is because he feels blessed to have this job and has no idea how to take his foot off the gas pedal.

‘‘I’m so proud of this man,’’ he says, gesturing at Wirtz. ‘‘It all changed when he took over.’’

And he praises Bowman. A little praise goes to coach Joel Quenneville, too.

But then he admits, ‘‘I want an environment that is comfortably uncomfortable.’’

Never stop to breathe. Always go for more. Until it’s over. Which it never is.

McDonough and Wirtz talk about the new fan base the Hawks have built, a huge one.

‘‘Twenty-somethings,’’ Wirtz says. ‘‘Forty percent female.’’

‘‘I think that’s right,’’ McDonough says. ‘‘Seventy-five percent new.’’

‘‘Ask any business professor at Kellogg [the business school at Northwestern], and he’ll tell you millennials don’t want to be marketed to, talked down to, told what to do. They want to discover things on their own. Then they use social media to share the experience.’’

‘‘There’s an alliance between our players and the fans,’’ McDonough says. ‘‘They look like their buddies from college.’’

‘‘You see them without jerseys,’’ Wirtz says, ‘‘they’re the same people.’’

Indeed, a fellow like Kane, sans mullet, could blend into any Lincoln Park bar crowd at any time. Which could be — and was — a problem. McDonough gave the young party creature a talking-to about growing up, ‘‘a respectful conversation.’’

It had to be done. No team can afford to lose such a talent for so frivolous a reason.

And there was another reason for the talk.

‘‘If you look the other way,’’ McDonough says, ‘‘people in your organization look at you looking the other way.’’

That won’t happen on his watch.

You can’t screw up. Starting now.



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