The Chicago Blackhawks’ changes began as they shocked their loyal faithful on Monday afternoon with the news that President John McDonough had been released. As recently as a month ago, owner Rocky Wirtz was quoted as saying he had full confidence in the Blackhawks management staff.
While the news came as a shock to the media and fans everywhere, many more wondered what took so long? Far more people were wondering aloud on social media whether the next news would involve the release of beleaguered general manager Stan Bowman and/or coach Jeremy Colliton.
Many also wondered aloud why would they start with the top and not at the bottom or middle when reorganizing franchise management. How could general manager Bowman keep his job after basically running the storied franchise into the ground while on his watch since 2009? Coach Colliton had to also be on thin ice after almost two seasons of less than acceptable results behind the bench. There is, however, a famous phrase that certainly applies here. That would be, “The fish rots from the head down.”
Blackhawks Changes Begin
John McDonough’s Tenure
Blackhawks Owner Rocky Wirtz brought in John McDonough after taking over the team. His father, the infamous “Dollar” Bill Wirtz had passed away and Rocky assumed control of the Blackhawks. The Original Six franchise had become a laughing stock around the NHL under Bill Wirtz. Rocky’s ascension to the top ushered in a breath of fresh air to the stale Blackhawks franchise. The days of Bill Wirtz and Bob “Mumbles” Pulford being in control were over.
McDonough immediately did what any longtime fan of the team would have done. He had the Blackhawks make good with former superstars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. They were brought in as “Team Ambassadors” and shown the respect they had never seen before. The Bobby Hull WHA debacle under Bill’s father Arthur Wirtz left a black eye on Chicago fans everywhere. Hull & Mikita were legends in Chicago with fans and deserved to be part of the team. Them being brought back into the fold was an obvious public relations move and it worked.
The next move McDonough orchestrated was the broadcasting of the team’s home games on television. They started slowly but eventually, every Blackhawk game became televised. The move had to have Arthur and Bill Wirtz rolling over in their graves but the fans loved it. Especially the older fans who never saw a home game on TV when they were young.
Things used to be so bad under Arthur that he even refused to broadcast the team’s games on the radio until the middle of the first period. Yes, you read that right. Puck drop was 7:35 pm and the radio broadcast of the home games would begin at 8 pm. Arthur reasoned that he was protecting the rights of his paying season ticket holders versus those enjoying the games on the radio for free. Of course, back then the old Chicago Stadium was sold out with a nightly attendance of 16,666 screaming fans every game.
Then Arthur passed and Bill took over the Blackhawks taking them into what can only be called the “dead puck era” in Chicago. The fans took notice of the struggling team and began to stay away in droves. Attendance suffered so badly that the local minor league hockey team the Chicago Wolves often outdrew them for games on the same night. The coverage of the team in the newspapers became minimal and relegated to back pages of the sports sections. You would also have to beg bartenders at sports bars to put their road games on a TV while enjoying a beer. It would usually end up being one of the smaller TVs with the fuzzy picture too.
Blackhawks Changes In The Front Office
McDonough’s hiring in 2007 also brought in some serious changes to the Blackhawks’ front office. He upgraded the staff and developed a top marketing department in the NHL. He had come from the Chicago Cubs organization and was renowned for running things his way. His way was to demand complete professionalism and protection of the team’s image. This helped lead the Blackhawks into relevance again as a franchise and made them very marketable in town and around the NHL.
Blackhawks Cup Runs Over
Winning three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013, and 2015 were the culmination of years of tears for the Blackhawks’ faithful. The team was coming on when McDonough was hired and he had a hand in bringing in coach Joel Quenneville and replacing Dale Tallon with Stan Bowman.
As the team won three Cups in six seasons, McDonough was always there to remind everyone that the team was grateful to Tallon and Mike Smith for what they had done “but this is Stan’s team.” While that was true during the Cup-winning seasons, the Blackhawks were definitely blessed by the drafting of Tallon and Smith. When Bowman took over in 2009 the team was on the cusp of winning a Cup. Bowman managed the team to three Cups and should be applauded for that feat.
Unfortunately, Bowman reminds one of a spoiled teenage child given the keys to a restored classic car and told “take care of it” and it will last a long time. Under Bowman’s watch, taking care of the classic has not been very successful. His abysmal draft history, suspect trades, and free-agent signings have turned the classic beauty into a rusted out Ford Pinto. Alas, we will hold off on going further with Bowman’s failures until he gets his release.
The now-former team President’s legacy will live on for a long time. His ability to grab the spotlight and soak up the accolades while the Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups was legendary. What he did once the wheels started to come off the classic beauty thanks to Bowman is also legendary.
As the team lost two straight first-round playoff rounds followed by missing the playoffs entirely the next two seasons, McDonough began to be less visible. He was no longer front and center in the public eye. The dismal 2019-20 season was destined to be the third one in a row without a playoff appearance until the COVID pandemic sidelined all of the sports.
The man people called McGenius was no longer soaking up the spotlight. Frustrations began to boil over with the fans and he was nowhere to be found. They were often calling for Bowman’s head during the last two seasons and especially during free agency. The hashtag #FireBowman began trending on Twitter heavily due to fans’ anger throughout the past few seasons. Yet Bowman was allowed to keep his job.
Blackhawks Changes Summarized
Fans of the team do owe McDonough a huge thank you for helping turn around the ailing franchise. Despite being a “baseball guy” coming from the Cubs, he helped create a winning atmosphere. Without him, it is doubtful the team would have become so popular.
The problem with popularity in sports is that you have to keep winning. Losing in the playoffs and missing the playoffs brings scrutiny to the franchise. Scrutiny often brings decisions that are tough but have to be done. As stated earlier, “the fish rots from the head down” applies in some harsh ways.
Too bad McDonough didn’t take control of the general manager situation before now. That may have saved his career with the Blackhawks. Then again Bowman’s Guardian Angel would probably have intervened on his paying the ultimate price for wrecking the team. There is something to be said about nepotism in professional sports. Especially if it helps you keep a job you do not deserve to hold onto.