Author: Tony Rea

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Tony Rea is managing principal of 20/20 HR LLC bas

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Leadership Lessons From the Chicago Blackhawks By Tony Rea

  in Leadership | Published 2011-11-29 07:31:22 | 386 Reads | Unrated


There has been much written about the turnaround of the Chicago National Hockey League franchise – from being almost dead last in attendance to winning the Stanley Cup in June of 2010 In 2004, ESPN had named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports

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There has been much written about the turnaround of the Chicago National Hockey League franchise – from being almost dead last in attendance to winning the Stanley Cup in June of 2010. In 2004, ESPN had named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports. Most recently, Forbes highlighted the team’s success and called it the greatest turnaround ever in sport’s history.

A great deal can be learned about leadership from the recent history of the Blackhawks and their drive to become the best team in professional hockey. For those who follow the team closely, you probably know
that they have recently traded and released a number of players who made key contributions to the championship season. Despite these trades, the leadership lessons still hold true.

The team’s turning point has been linked to the ascent of Rocky Wirtz to the chairman’s role. But it actually began with the drafting of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane by Dale Tallon, the former general manager, prior to Rocky Wirtz’s taking over the team. These two players make up the core nucleus on which the team has been built.

Rocky Wirtz succeeded his father, William (Bill) Wirtz, who ran the team for 41 years. Bill was a very astute businessman but had been stuck in a 1990’s strategy of pay-per-view television and keeping player salaries under tight control. The financial situation was desperate at the time of Bill Wirtz’s death in September of 2007. Rocky Wirtz was in the unenviable position of having to quickly reverse almost every one of his father’s major decisions.

One of his first decisions was moving into his grandfather’s old office. Arthur Wirtz had been a major contributor to the growth of the original NHL. His office was left virtually untouched since his 1983 death. Bill Wirtz had refused to allow the office to be occupied by anyone else for almost 25 years. This move symbolized the forward movement of the team and emphasized the goal of returning the team to prominence.

Forbes magazine reported that under Bill Wirtz, the fans and other key stakeholders had grown estranged from the team. The Blackhawks had alienated its players, fans and key stakeholders. Think of the parallels to disengaged employees, unhappy customers and frustrated stakeholders.

Over the years, various disagreements had created a riff between management and its former Hall of Fame Players. This included famous names such as Bobby Hall, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito. In fact, Bill Wirtz was blamed for allowing Bobby Hull to leave the team and join the World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1972.

These former star players were welcomed back by the new Blackhawks. Each was given their own recognition day and each became an important link to the past glory of the team. More importantly, they helped reinforced the winning culture that the new management had embraced.

The team also reached out to the fan base in other ways. By switching the radio broadcasts to mega-station WGN and broadcasting all home games on free television, they actually were able to increase attendance at the United Center. This was in direct conflict with Bill Wirtz’s philosophy that broadcasting home games was a disservice to season ticket holders.

Management also changed their philosophy toward the players. Like a typical sports team, they needed to spend more money to sign quality players. But they also focused on building esprit de corps (a sense of loyalty and belonging) amongst the players. By building strong relationships between management, players, player’s families and fans, they created a powerful force that enabled players to fully commit to the team and fans to embrace them.

In his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins talks about “getting the right people on the bus”. I think this correctly describes the Blackhawk’s personnel moves. It initially started at the management level. Rocky Wirtz hired John McDonough as president very early in his tenure. McDonough, the Chicago Cub’s former president, was only hired when Wirtz was convinced that he had the fortitude to make equally tough decisions.

The team added former coaches Joel Quenneville and Scotty Bowman as senior advisors. Joel Quenneville was soon elevated to head coach. Stan Bowman, who is the son of Scotty Bowman eventually, took over the general manager position. These moves put experienced leaders and coaches in place that had previous experience in winning a Stanley Cup.

This thinking also applied to the players. They had the raw talent in Kane & Toews, but they lacked experience. They brought in veteran players like Cristobal Huet at goal & Brian Campbell at defense. But even after winning the Western Conference semi-finals in 2009, they continued to add talent like Marian Hossa, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky.

Let’s correlate this to teambuilding. Each team members was chosen for their ability to contribute to the team’s goals. The team included acquired veterans, players who moved up through the minor league, recent draftees and former Stanley Cup winners. There was one common denominator and that was the team’s goal to win the Stanley Cup. Katzenbach and Smith cited in their book “The Wisdom of Teams” that “a common, meaningful purpose sets the tone and aspiration” for team success.

When an organization gets focused on its strategic goals, then great things can happen. There were good decisions made by the team’s chairman, president, general manager and head coach. The team played exceptionally well with everyone contributing to the playoff victories. Jonathan Toews won the most valuable player award. There was outstanding goal tending, great defense and timely offensive scoring. The Blackhawks successfully demonstrated how to build a team and teamwork itself.

But would we be writing this article if they had not won the championship? Typically, no one sings the praises of the general who lost the war or the coach who lost the big game. No one usually remembers the team that came in second.

There is no questioning the results. Attendance has grown from 522,000 (second lowest in the NHL) to almost one million (highest in the NHL). Season ticket holders have grown from a low of 3,400 to over 14,000. There are also more than 4,000 on the waiting list. The franchise has achieved financial success after almost not being able to make the payroll in late 2007. And most importantly, they have achieved the ultimate reward – the 2010 Championship of the NHL.

Now the question is “Can they repeat in 2011?”



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About the Author

Tony Rea is managing principal of 20/20 HR LLC based in suburban Chicago, IL. For more information visit