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Rocky Wirtz had a vision - and it all began in Schaumburg
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff

Legend Bobby Hull shakes John McDonough's hand during Friday's Stanley Cup victory celebration for the Blackhawks in downtown Chicago.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/12/2010 8:36 PM | Updated: 6/12/2010 8:38 PM

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The Blackhawks' road to the Stanley Cup championship began, of all places, in Schaumburg.

That's where Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough met for what might best be described as a blind date on Nov. 10, 2007, at Champps near Woodfield Shopping Center.

"I didn't know what he looked like," McDonough said. "He didn't know what I looked like. When he walked into the restaurant - we met at noon - I just guessed that it was him (because) he got out of a Cadillac."

As savvy as McDonough happens to be, he swears he never anticipated Wirtz's ulterior motive for the meeting.

Wirtz had just assumed control of the Blackhawks after the death of his father, Bill, so the then-Cubs president assumed Wirtz wanted to pick the brain of a peer who had been working the market for 24 years.

"I believed it was a 'Can you tell me about the sports landscape' kind of thing," McDonough said. "And about an hour into it, he said, 'I'm going to lose all my leverage when I tell you this: I want you to run the Blackhawks.'

"And I said, 'Well, there's a process you need to go through. Call the Tribune Co. and all these other things. I'm very flattered.' But he won me over with that candor.

"Not only did he not lose all of his leverage, he gained all my respect. I like people that are straight with you. Some people give it to you right between the eyes. That's Rocky."

And so the hourlong blind date blossomed into 41/2-hour affair.

While the TVs in the upscale sports bar broadcast Illinois' football upset of top-ranked Ohio State, the pair sat and talked. The waiter brought the check. They kept talking. The waiter kept refilling their water glasses. They shared more ideas.

In the midst of the Blackhawks' celebration Wednesday night on the Wachovia Center ice, Wirtz revealed why he set his sights on McDonough.

"Because I was a White Sox fan, and he kicked my (butt) all the time," Wirtz said. "I couldn't find anyone else on the North Shore that was a Sox fan. Everyone was a Cub fan. I admired him so much.

"I knew he was the guy and I wasn't going to leave (Champps) with a 'No.' I said, 'John, my job is to make you look good. And if I do that, we're going to win something special.'

"And he believed me."

'Not an organization'

When McDonough and Jay Blunk, his right-hand man with the Cubs who joined the Blackhawks shortly after McDonough, moved into their spacious, window-laden United Center offices, they had a terrific view of the Michael Jordan statue and the Chicago skyline.

The view within their new organization looked dismal.

"Quite frankly, when I walked into the situation here, it was harder than I thought," McDonough said. "The image of the Blackhawks was not good. The perception was not good. They were not drawing. It was not an organization, in my opinion."

"We had to go re-engage the sponsorship base," said Blunk, the team's senior vice president for business operations. "We had to build credibility with sponsors. We didn't have any TV or radio ratings to speak of. You had to explain to people why they should invest into something that didn't have a good record."

The Blackhawks forged a relationship with the Chevrolet auto dealers, thanks in large part to another suburban connection, Woodfield Chevy owner Tom Gollinger, who was president of the Chicagoland auto group.

The Hawks then wrangled a radio deal with WGN 720-AM. They started televising home games. They forged reciprocal deals with the Cubs and the White Sox to further broaden the fan base.

"We figured if you're a baseball fan, chances are you can be a sports fan," Blunk said.

Within the United Center offices, McDonough merged the business and hockey departments to forge a seamless organization.

When there are hockey decisions to be made, McDonough and Blunk sit at the same boardroom table with general manager Stan Bowman, assistant GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and senior director of hockey operations Al MacIsaac.

"We're there to make sure we can assist in any way with resources," Blunk said.

At the same time, McDonough and Blunk made it known the players must do their part to make the business go.

In addition to all of the personal appearances they make and their PR-savvy postgame interviews on the ice, many players pop up into the business office to offer "attaboys" to the young employees who work long hours on the franchise's behalf.

After the Olympics, Brent Seabrook climbed the stairs to share his gold medal. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane - virtually everyone on the roster takes the time to hang out.

"I've been up there many times," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "(McDonough) wants us to be up there, and we're no different than anybody that works in the office.

"I try to learn everybody's name, so when you do see them you can talk with them and be personable even if you don't see them every day. It's an open door."

Lonely at the top

On some occasions, though, McDonough's door is closed. When coach Denis Savard was fired in favor of Joel Quenneville four games into the 2008-09 season, McDonough handled the decision.

When longtime Hawks employee Dale Tallon was moved out of the general manager's office last July in favor of Bowman, McDonough made the call.

"One word that I would use to depict this job is it's very lonely," McDonough said. "You make decisions based on what you believe are in the best interests of the organization, and it's not personal.

"You twist and turn with those decisions. There were other people who were consulted on these decisions. Denis was different. Certainly a lot of people weighed in on that. But they weren't easy."

As the Blackhawks kept creeping closer to the Cup, long-suffering fans spoke up to ensure Tallon received more than his perceived share of credit for building the franchise's talent base.

McDonough understands that viewpoint and willingly acknowledges the Stanley Cup wouldn't have been won without having the NHL's best players, but he couldn't be deterred from his duty.

"In your mind, if you have a good feel for this business or don't - whichever that might be - you're making your decision based on what you believe is going to be the long-term interest," McDonough said.

"If you make a decision based on what the fan reaction might be, or how they're going to treat you, you're not going to last long here."

The Legend returns

During Bill Wirtz's long tenure as the czar of the Hawks, the franchise's great players of the past felt they weren't welcome, and that increased the fans' disconnect to the franchise.

McDonough and Rocky Wirtz went out of their way to reel Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito back into the fold as ambassadors.

Hull's initial meeting with McDonough was particularly memorable.

"I got a lot off my chest - and I used a lot of four-letter words," Hull said with a laugh. "I never thought I'd be associated with the Blackhawks again. The job that these two guys have done is miraculous. It's amazing is what it is. It's all because they have the right attitude."

But if the Hawks legends thought they'd get to coast in their new roles, they soon learned they'd be no different from the players and the front-office staff.

"When we came back, I think it was Stan who asked, 'How many times will you need us?' " Hull said. "John said, 'Maybe a half-dozen times a year.'

"Well, we put in six appearances the first month and haven't stopped. But we want to make as many appearances as they want us to."

'No. 1 place to play'

During Wednesday's postgame celebration, Rocky Wirtz declared his intent to make the Blackhawks one of the premier franchises in sports.

Judging by the massive turnout of 2 million fans for the Stanley Cup parade and rally Friday, the Hawks are well on their way.

And if fans are worried the Cup might not return until 2059, they shouldn't be. It's cool to be a Hawk again.

Campbell, who signed with the Hawks as a free agent before the 2008-09 season, admits Chicago wasn't the top destination before Wirtz and McDonough joined forces.

"No, probably not. (When I signed) the word was out where to go, where to play," Campbell said. "If you want to play in a great sports city where you can do so many different things, it's just a great place.

"I think this is probably going to be the No. 1 place for guys to play now. They provide everything you need to make you a better hockey player, to make you a better person. It's just first class all the way."