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John McDonough’s dismissal gives Blackhawks’ front office clean slate, for better or worse

The stubbornness and stability McDonough brought to the Blackhawks are now gone, leaving the search for a “new mindset” full of possibilities and pitfalls.

Chairman Rocky Wirtz (second from left), general manager Stan Bowman (second from right) and coach Jeremy Colliton (far right) will now lead the Blackhawks without fired president John McDonough (middle).
Chairman Rocky Wirtz (second from left), general manager Stan Bowman (second from right) and coach Jeremy Colliton (far right) will now lead the Blackhawks without fired president John McDonough (middle).
Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

The Blackhawks’ franchise, for the first time in 13 years, is a ship unmoored.

John McDonough’s abrupt firing Monday leaves the Hawks without a president and CEO for the time being.

That in itself isn’t so unusual or distressing. NHL teams often cycle through managers and executives faster than a boutique store and the summer’s latest fashion.

But it’s the stability that McDonough in particular provided that will be noticeably missed, for better or worse.

The hard-nosed 66-year-old had plenty of pros: he showed that he knew how to take a team to the top, claiming three Stanley Cup rings and 531 consecutive sellouts to prove it, and rivaled perhaps any president in the league in terms of experience, authority and political capital.

He also had plenty of cons: he was known as an inflexible, sometimes authoritarian leader, and that rigidness didn’t seem able to quickly adapt to the Hawks’ post-Cup era or the modern media age.

With McDonough, though, everyone — players, employees, fellow front office members, other teams, contracted partners — at least knew exactly what they were dealing with.

The Hawks boasted an extremely well-established identity, both within the Chicago sports market and around the hockey world, and that identity hadn’t cracked even once the on-ice success began to lag. The fan base had grown increasingly unsatisfied, but still hadn’t fled or revolted. The sponsorships rolled in year after year, and the team thrived financially in 2019: their $208 million in revenue, according to Forbes, ranked fifth in the league.

Even the team, to its credit, hadn’t completely self-destructed such as the post-playoff streak of the Red Wings.

Now, the Hawks have all the same pieces as they did a month ago, but they don’t have McDonough.

John McDonough won’t be the man leading the Blackhawks forward into the 2020s.
AP Photos

Chairman Rocky Wirtz, in his Monday statement, said “it will take a new mindset to successfully transition the organization.”

The endless possibilities of that new mindset are exciting, and it’s clear to see why Wirtz wanted to find a new one — 2020 has indisputably become a chapter-turning point for the franchise.

Yet the endless possibilities are also risky. It’s easy to want a new mindset; it’s harder to settle on one, then make it work.

The first priority is to identify and hire a new president — or two.

McDonough’s unique and all-encompassing job description, which gave him great power over all sectors of the franchise, rarely exists elsewhere. Many teams now split those responsibilities into two positions. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Hawks follow that pattern, hiring one person to oversee the marketing, sales and business realms and another to oversee hockey operations.

Then again, McDonough made the president role work reasonably well, and perhaps preserving that role will provide some welcome stability.

Moving on, if the Hawks look to hire from or restructure within, they fortunately have no shortage of qualified candidates.

Beloved player and TV commentator Eddie Olczyk has been mentioned often for all sorts of roles, and his hiring would thrill the fan base.

Al MacIsaac, current vice president of hockey operations, and Pete Hassen, current VP of marketing, both already have vast amounts of experience in their respective departments.

General manager Stan Bowman, whose own boat is taking on water fast right now, might also be repurposed if not fired later this summer (although he theoretically could remain GM, too). If Wirtz splits McDonough’s job into two halves, Bowman could become the hockey operations president, with a new GM brought in beneath him.

Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz is looking for a “new mindset” in his next president.
Maria Cardona/Sun-Times File Photo

Conversely, if Wirtz seeks to bring in a truly fresh attitude, the Hawks should have their pick of available executives.

Former Canucks GM Mike Gillis has been mentioned as one notable candidate; Ron Hextall and Ray Shero may also be worth a look.

And then there’s the matter of 43-year-old interim president Danny Wirtz, Rocky’s son and a man who had become increasingly involved in the franchise’s day-to-day processes. The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg wrote Monday that a power struggle between Danny Wirtz and McDonough might have prompted the unceremonious dismissal of the latter — although if so, McDonough took the high road in the effusively positive statement he published Tuesday.

Interim president for now, Danny Wirtz may eventually shed the “interim” adjective. The challenges of conducting a thorough job search during the coronavirus pandemic will work in his favor.

The only seemingly clear thing is that the new president(s) will be given, at least in theory, the leash to instill a new attitude throughout the organization.

This is a philosophical change, not a nuts-and-bolts change. “Mindset” is the big keyword right now, and it surely will remain such once a hiring is eventually made.

So yes, the unmoored Hawks will inevitably drop anchor again before long, regardless of the unfamiliar uncertainty that will dominate in the meantime. But it might be in a new harbor.