McDonough the Hawks' biggest long-shot story

Determination, powerful mentors, love of Chicago sports keys to unlikely rise of team president

John McDonough Talks about Winning the Stanley Cup

During a commercial break in the middle of Chicago's only nightly sports-talk show on WCFL-AM 1000 in November 1979, host Chuck Swirsky took a personal phone call.

"The guy says, 'I don't know if you recognize the voice,' " Swirsky said. "Of course, I did.''

It belonged to John McDonough, a frequent caller to Swirsky's program who was an ambitious 26-year-old sports nut selling corporate sponsorships for Avis. Hi, it's John from Edison Park He asked a favor.

As a teenager growing up a Sox fan, McDonough scoured box scores like so many kids of his generation but was the only one he knew who was fascinated by attendance figures. He struggled athletically at Notre Dame High School in Niles, kidding that he never bothered checking the list of players who survived tryouts because, "I was so confident I didn't make it.'' McDonough developed other dreams.

"I had an insatiable desire to get into sports,'' the Blackhawks president recalled last week. "I knew this was what I wanted to do.''

One night, McDonough shared that goal over the phone with Swirsky, who invited the passionate listener to the WCFL studios to hear the advice he sought. When McDonough showed up during an Illinois basketball broadcast that freed up Swirsky, the two men spent several hours fattening McDonough's first Rolodex.

"We took out every press guide, laid it flat on a Xerox machine, and copied all the numbers and addresses,'' said Swirsky, now the voice of the Bulls for WMVP-AM 1000. "John walked out of there with a stack thicker than the Chicago white pages.''

Never having shared this part of his professional story publicly before, McDonough chuckled recalling how, over three decades, dialing a radio show as a Chicago sports fan ultimately contributed to establishing a legacy as a Chicago sports executive.

"It was a rather ignominious beginning but true,'' said McDonough, 60.

From nettlesome fifth-round draft pick Andrew Shaw to newly minted $4 million-a-year forward Bryan Bickell, a Blackhawks organization celebrating its second Stanley Cup title in four years contains numerous examples of people who rose from obscurity. None defied longer odds than McDonough, an inspiration to youths lacking direction who relishes pointing out he graduated 311th out of 356 students in high school.

"There was a rumor Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame heard I was contemplating applying to their institutions so they sent me rejection letters,'' the self-deprecating McDonough said.

Acceptance came at St. Mary's College in Winona, Minn., where McDonough encountered a speech teacher named Brother Raymond Long. After class one day, Long helped restore a sagging inner confidence McDonough's parents always nurtured.

"I didn't realize how insulting it was till years later, but he said, 'John, you have a very limited skill set with a good vocabulary and a good voice that I think we can work with,' '' McDonough said. "That was first time someone imparted that to me. I built off that.''

A foundation of fortitude always supported whatever McDonough envisioned building.

McDonough kept his first rejection letter from the Pirates, which he interpreted as encouraging. His wife, Karen, who at the time was McDonough's girlfriend, carefully typed every letter and mailed them to the addresses McDonough tracked down with Swirsky's help.

"It was real incentive that somebody responded back,'' McDonough said.

Just before the 1980 North American Soccer League season, Chicago Sting founder Lee Stern responded by calling Swirsky, a reference on McDonough's resume. Stern wanted an energetic young executive to help sell tickets and, buoyed by Swirsky's recommendation, hired McDonough. In 1981, the Sting won their first championship and once drew 39,600 to old Comiskey Park. Working for the bombastic Stern prepared McDonough for the city's sports culture in which he immersed himself.

"By the time I went to the Cubs I was fully broken in,'' McDonough said.

That came in 1983, after the late Jim Finks left the Bears to become president of the Cubs, who were owned by Tribune Co. Finks called Swirsky, then at WGN-AM 720, at home.

"I'll never forget it, he said, 'Charlie, I've got a question: Would you hire John McDonough?' '' Swirsky recalled. "It was an eight-second conversation.''

It led to a 24-year tenure with the Cubs for McDonough, a proud Finks protege. McDonough lists his mentors as Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz, Brian McIntyre, the former NBA executive who as Bulls PR boss interviewed McDonough after receiving one of his letters, Stern and Finks.

"The ultimate big-picture guy,'' McDonough said of Finks. "He took a liking to me and I couldn't always understand it.''

The memory of Finks walking into meetings with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and an ashtray still makes McDonough smile. When Finks left Chicago in 1986 to run the Saints, he asked McDonough to follow him to New Orleans. Tempted, McDonough chose to stay in his hometown and raise his three children as he pursued his professional path — one that originally opened after a quick detour to a Chicago radio station when a dear friend picked up the phone.

"I always felt like I belonged here,'' McDonough said.

Good call.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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