Hawks exec John McDonough shares his knowledge with Leo students

SHARE Hawks exec John McDonough shares his knowledge with Leo students
SHARE Hawks exec John McDonough shares his knowledge with Leo students

BY DAN McGRATH

Patrick Kane and Blackhawks executive Jay Blunk had just returned from the 2008 NHL awards ceremony in Toronto, where Kane received the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year.

Eight months earlier, Blunk and his boss, John McDonough, had come to the Hawks from the Cubs, which at the time was like trading in a Cadillac for a used Gremlin. The Cubs represented sellout crowds, absurdly loyal fans and a media profile second only to the Bears among local outlets.

The Hawks? Remember when home games weren’t televised and a United Center “crowd” was a misnomer?

As he and Kane moved through O’Hare in anonymity and stood at the baggage carousel unrecognized, Blunk realized the enormity of the task at hand. That one of the bright young stars in hockey was a virtual unknown in the city where he played spoke grimly of how irrelevant the Hawks had become to the Chicago sports scene.

“My job,” Blunk remembers telling Kane, “is to make sure this never happens again.”

Be careful what you wish for. The Hawks have won two Stanley Cup championships in the six subsequent years, with Kane and captain Jonathan Toews as front men for a young, dynamic core that has elevated hockey interest to unprecedented heights locally while restoring the team’s Original Six luster.

The Hawks, it’s safe to say, are not only the most successful team in town, they’re the coolest. And with that stature has come a level of media interest Blunk could not have envisioned as he and Kane moved undisturbed through O’Hare’s bustling maze of terminals 6½ years ago.

Much of that is McDonough’s doing — he’s as adroit handling reporters as anyone I’ve encountered over my time in this business. Moreover, repairing the sorry state of Hawks’ media relations was a top priority when he took over as team president.

McDonough also is extremely image-conscious. That side of him recognizes that media interest can be a two-edged sword, which he acknowledged in a chat with our students Friday at Leo High School.

It’s a sign of the times, as well as of the Hawks’ rock-star status, that media scrutiny now routinely crosses the line into the very personal, with one desperate-for-attention website regurgitating every rumor it can get its ears around and talk radio raising the ante with a typically reckless disdain for accountability.

Unless it involves conduct that could get him jailed or, perhaps, traded, an athlete’s personal life is nobody’s business. But that fading newspaper standard has gone the way of movie listings and the classified ads in an age when anyone with a laptop and Internet access can pose as a journalist.

That’s me ranting, not McDonough.

A less confident executive might have begged off from the Leo appearance until the nonsense recedes and the noise dies down, but McDonough showed up as promised, explaining that facing the music goes with his job and offers an opportunity to get his side of the story told. He answered every question, though the students were less interested in who’s sleeping with whom among the Hawks than in how a working-class kid born two neighborhoods southeast of Leo becomes one of the most powerful sports figures in Chicago.

It made for a good story. The kids ate it up.

As I listened to the conversation, I found myself thinking about how sports coverage has changed during the time I’ve been involved with it, and not for the better, I fear. I always kind of hoped that the athletes I was writing about would be good people, as well as good performers, and quite a few of them truly were. But I never expected it, especially not after writing a glowing feature about a young star’s renewed commitment to family and seeing, on the first trip of the season, the young star leaving his hotel room with a woman who was not his wife.

He cornered me at the ballpark that night and insisted I hear an explanation that was lamer than the act that prompted it. But I never gave a thought to writing about his dalliance — not my concern. These days, somebody probably would.

Becoming great at anything requires a single-minded self-absorption that might leave an athlete unaware of, or unconcerned with, the qualities that go into being a good person. It’s always best to let the performance speak for itself. I wouldn’t care to have a beer with Barry Bonds, but I’d pay to watch him hit.

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