It’s probably a story that you’ve heard a million times by now if you have any sports leanings, but it needs emphasizing. In the spring of 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks were the center of Chicago. Not just Chicago sports, but Chicago. It was a meteoric and shocking rise, simply because three years before that, most of Chicago didn’t even know the Hawks existed. That’s how far they’d fallen off the local sporting map, nevermind the national one.
It wasn’t just their quick ascension from the absolute ass-end of the NHL to championship contenders. They just happened to time it at the same time that the rest of Chicago sports went into the toilet. The Bears were years removed from the last playoff win or even playoff contention, and just beginning their Jay Cutler whiskey-dick era. The Cubs were still a couple years away from hiring Theo Epstein and quickly ascending. The White Sox were at the end of their barely-contending cycle of the late 2000s and quickly becoming old and decrepit. The Bulls had drafted Derrick Rose, but still hadn’t been relevant to the NBA in some time. For a city that defines itself through its sports teams, the Hawks were the only thing to cling to.
And the Hawks weren’t shy about telling everyone just how special they were, and how special they thought they were. They had two fresh-faced stars in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane who were everywhere (which led to its own problems, and we’ll get to those). But they had all the supporting characters fans could easily attach to. Like rapper-in-his-own-mind Kris Versteeg, or the lovable giant teddy bear Dustin Byfuglien, or relishing-in-his-deviousness Dave Bolland, or might-be-a-serial-killer Duncan Keith. Personality everywhere. And the Hawks plastered those guys wherever they could. Ads, billboards, web videos, and TV segments on any topic — you couldn’t escape them. And no one wanted to.
And no one exhibited this more than the team’s president, John McDonough, who pushed all these players out into the scene, but none more so than himself. If you had a camera and a microphone, McDonough would throw himself in front of it to tell you what a great job he’d done revitalizing the franchise.
The thing was, the Hawks hadn’t really done anything. Nothing that anyone else wouldn’t have figured out. When Rocky Wirtz inherited the team from his father, Bill, after he passed in 2007, they were in such disarray that even the weakest of movement looked like genius. Even splashing on free agents, as the Hawks did under its new ownership by signing Brian Campbell, Cristobal Huet, and Marián Hossa to bumper deals in the span of a year, that had kind of already started under The Old Man. Bill Wirtz had been famous for his frugality, but after the installation of the salary cap, he’d spent at a level just about equal to everybody else. While the names Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin are punchlines now, at the time they were big-ticket items signed right out of The Great Bettman Lockout II. The next summer the Hawks traded for Martin Havlát and signed him to a big three-year deal (at the time). This wasn’t really a departure.
So what was it the Hawks did that they thought was so brilliant? Put the home games on TV? Actually market their team and players? Show at least a willingness to care about the fans? Even the game presentation at the United Center was elevated, as McDonough spent his first year on the job traveling around to every other arena and copying what he liked. All of this was Sports Business 101, if not the remedial class. They certainly didn’t engineer the bottom falling out on every other Chicago team. It was only because of how archaic and boneheaded the franchise had been under Bill Wirtz that it looked revolutionary under Rocky.
Even the roster, the core of which would collect three Stanley Cups, was essentially handed to the younger Wirtz. All of the players were in the organization before Bill died. Years of trash on ice resulted in just enough top draft picks that even the Hawks’ GMs — Mike Smith and then Dale Tallon — could amass enough talent to build a juggernaut. They then hit on two consecutive top-three picks in Toews and Kane, which not everyone does, to be fair. But all that was done before Rocky and McDonough were calling the shots.
But that wasn’t going to stop them from exalting themselves. And there is nothing worse than arrogance built on sand, because the insecurity and imposter syndrome that is laced within that arrogance only makes it more sinister, and the urge to circle the wagons to protect that empty shell becomes stronger.
So you don’t need the transcript of the May 2010 meeting with McDonough, GM Stan Bowman, assistant GM Al McIsaac, and skills coach James Gary, where allegations that video coach Brad Aldrich had sexually assaulted two Hawks players were brought to their attention. You know what essentially was said.
Nothing is going to get in the way of what we’ve done here. Nothing is going to dampen our spotlight, even if we haven’t really done anything. So the clamps were put down, these allegations were jammed into the trunk with the lid shut, and because of that we know a child would later be assaulted. And because we know how these things tend to go, he’s almost certainly not alone.
Arrogance had always been the order of the day for the Hawks under McDonough, and even after his firing last year. It’s been apparent in everything they’ve done, as they rode to another two Cups and then watched it all fall apart the last five years. It was obvious in the way they handled Kane’s assault of a cab driver in 2009. They assured us they would take care of it, because there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do. Hadn’t you seen what they’d turned this team into after all? Their lack of handling of that led to Kane’s drunk-a-palooza in Madison in 2012, where he reportedly choked one girl at a party and was accused of anti-semitic remarks later on. The Hawks assured us they could handle it. Three years later Kane was accused of rape.
It was their empty arrogance, and McDonough’s, that caused them to start their introductory press conference at training camp — with Kane still under investigation — by having McDonough first list all the team’s accomplishments over the past five years. Don’t you see what really matters? It was that arrogance that caused them to leak to E.J. Hradek that they didn’t want Kane at training camp while he was being investigated, and then claimed, after no charges were filed months later, that they knew he was innocent all along. They wanted you to believe that both of these things could be simultaneously true.
It was their arrogance that saw them allow Garret Ross back to their minor league team after he had beaten revenge porn charges on a technicality, not because he wasn’t guilty, a move that absolutely enraged the victim. It was arrogance that saw them not just decline to change their name and logo after the Washington Football Team and Cleveland had decided to, but to double down and say they could wield their name and logo as a force for good. Even though the actual history of Chief Black Hawk is pretty horrifying.
It was arrogance that led this to become a story now. While hardly the most galling aspect, it is mystifying how the Hawks could let two lawsuits that total $150,000 get this far and into this story. To a sports team, $150k is the change you find in various crevices of your car’s console. They could have settled these suits long ago, for five to ten times that amount, and never noticed. But their arrogance meant they needed complete exoneration. Anyone seeking to dent their armor must be stamped out. Look where it got them.
It turned out that all McDonough was actually good at was taking credit for things he didn’t really do, and bullying lower level employees. Which is clearly what he did here to keep the allegations against Aldrich quiet. And yet every player seemed to know.
His tentacles will stretch far. Marc Bergevin was director of player personnel on that 2010 team, though he’s claiming today he didn’t know. Seems hard to believe given how many others did. Kevin Chevyldayoff, Winnipeg’s GM, was an assistant GM at the time as well. Joel Quenneville is coaching in Florida.
But the NHL doesn’t want to know either. This is their showcase time, and much like McDonough wouldn’t let his time to shine be darkened, you can imagine Gary Bettman feels the same way now. There’s still this impression among sports execs with no vision that they can still control the narrative. The Hawks were the apple of the NHL’s eye, an example of how any team or market could become a hockey market with the right steps. They made the NHL more popular than it had been. Suddenly the league’s fourth-biggest market wasn’t a black hole or an embarrassment, but the league’s beacon on the hill. The NHL was almost certainly no less giddy when the Kings became a story a couple years later in its second-biggest market. Funny how you never hear about Drew Doughty’s rape case, isn’t it?
You feel like Adam Silver would force Wirtz to sell the team over something like this. Bettman won’t. Not after all they’ve gotten out of the Hawks. Rocky will claim he never knew, that McDonough kept it from him. Bowman and McIsaac might get fired. Maybe they can save themselves on the basis of just following orders from on high. How often has that been a refuge for evil? McDonough is already out of a job. Won’t cost anything to dump everything at his feet for the Hawks and the NHL.
But everyone will see them for what they are now. It’s what they’ve always been.
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