Hawks follow GM's master plan

When John McDonough left the Cubs to assume the presidency of the Blackhawks in late 2007, no one would have blamed him if he cleaned house, starting with general manager Dale Tallon.

That's what sports executives typically do when they join a new team: sweep out the old and bring in their own support staff.

Their respective styles couldn't have been more different: McDonough the aggressive hard-charger, while Tallon is more the laid-back, easy-going type.

But McDonough, who won numerous awards for his forward thinking as a Cubs executive, felt that dichotomy of styles might just be what the Hawks needed to get back to success on the ice.

It's a decision McDonough has never regretted as this season's edition of the Hawks -- the youngest team in the NHL -- not only made the playoffs after a seven-year absence, but is also now in the second round after eliminating Calgary to claim the franchise's first playoff series victory since 1996.

McDonough credits all that to Tallon.

"Dale has such an easy, relaxed style that he sometimes flies under the radar, but he's the architect of this team," McDonough said firmly. "As much as we talk about the resurgence and renaissance of the Chicago Blackhawks, and how the fan base has come back and the games are on television, it has to be the product on the ice.

"You've seen that with the players he's acquired, the free agents he's brought in; he was responsible for bringing Joel [Quenneville, the Hawks' head coach] on board
and also for bringing [senior advisor] Scotty Bowman on board, perhaps the greatest hockey mind of all time.

"He also is responsible for drafting guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and also acquired Patrick Sharp for a guy who isn't even in the league any more. Dale deserves a great deal of credit for all the positive things that have happened with the Blackhawks."

Tallon assumed his role as the Hawks general manager in June 2005 following a long playing career in the NHL, as well as roles as a team broadcaster, assistant general manager, and even trying his hand as a pro golfer for a while. He excelled at all of those, but what he has done with the Hawks this year has been Tallon at his absolute best.

"He'd certainly be a strong candidate [for NHL Executive of the Year]," McDonough said. "Washington and Boston have had great turnarounds over the last couple years, but the job Dale has done has been eye-popping. I'm very, very proud of him."

The rebuilding job Tallon has done even has McDonough a bit giddy: with a few breaks here and there, the Hawks might even reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

"I think we could," he said. "When we beat Calgary in the first round, for this franchise, in some ways it was graduation day. They took that next step and it was kind of an exclamation point on all the things that have happened: the 47, 48 sellouts in a row, and there seems to be a strong interest in Chicago in the Blackhawks once again. It's been great to see the strides we've taken in the last two years."

Even with the current success, it's been a bittersweet year for Tallon, too, having had to fire longtime friend and former teammate Denis Savard as Hawks coach last October, to be followed a month later by the death of his father.

Tallon sat down Wednesday for an exclusive one-on-one talk with ESPNChicago.com about this season. While he demurs that he has been the one most responsible for the team's turnaround this year, it's hard to deny just how much of a stamp Tallon has put on it:

Q: How do you put this year in context both personally and professionally?

A: I've had my good days and bad. It's been a challenge. It's a challenging job, and I've tried to bring an approach where I separate the business side from the human side. I try to bring that across to my players. I try to be open and honest with them. I'm happy for these kids, for the organization and for our fans, that things have been able to happen this quickly. We've had some years where we never thought we'd get to this point. It's been tough, and then all of a sudden we have a little bit of success. Certainly, as I've been telling everyone, we're happy, but we're not satisfied. We haven't done anything yet. It's a step-by-step process.

Q: After a hard-fought game in Toronto the night before, the team voted unanimously to pay its respects to your late father the next day in your hometown in Quebec. You typically don't see something like that in pro sports. You've said that it was then that you really realized just how special this group of guys is. Can you talk about that?

A: Losing my father was tough, and then when the team came up, that gave a big boost to myself and our family, and it also gave me an indication what kind of team we had. And from there, we've been very good and solid. We had a nine-game winning streak, which was a team record; we had some lows going into March, we had a tough time, but the guys bounced back and were resilient. I'm happy for the guys who've been working at it a long time, glad to see them have some success and seeing some rewards here early. They went through some tough times. We have a lot of good people working for us that have gone through some stressful times. I'm happy for them that we're seeing some pluses here.

Q: Has this been one of the most satisfying years to you professionally?

A: It makes you feel like you at least have an idea of what you're doing, you're doing the right thing. It makes you feel that if you continue to work this way, keep having this attitude and approach, that eventually you'll have some success. It feels real good to have a little bit of success, but I'm also level and balanced and know how hard it's going to be from here on in to get to the goal we want to achieve.

Q: At the same time, it has been rough behind the scenes at times, too, hasn't it?

A: There are 30 guys in this business [team GMs] that are stressed out on a daily basis. Some of them are my friends, some are my teammates or guys I played against with and are not friends with. You just stay the course, you go day-to-day. You don't go too far ahead, you don't look too far back, just keep moving forward, keep drafting well, keep training well and hopefully making the right deals. You keep adding pieces to the puzzle and hope it all meshes. It's one thing to draft, it's one thing to sign and it's one thing to trade, but to get them to mesh, putting the same 23 guys together and have them respond together in critical situations, you never know if you can get that right. You don't know if you can do that. Now, at least we're seeing that we have that. Like maybe four or five years ago, we felt we needed 14 players, then we needed nine, and then we thought we needed five, and now maybe we need only two. You see some gradual steps being made into the process that we're improving upon on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

Q: You took a lot of hits from the media a year ago. Many predicted you would be fired, that Scotty Bowman was brought in to replace you, [and] that you wouldn't finish out the final year of your contract. And now you're being hailed as a hero. Were you treated unfairly by the media back then?

A: I don't even think of that. All I'm concerned with is I want to surround myself with smarter and more intelligent people so I can look smarter [laughs]. That's why we added [front office and coaching staff] Rick Dudley, Mark Kelley, Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, John Torchetti, Mike Haviland and Stan Bowman. We have a tremendous staff and support system here that's incredible with Rocky [Wirtz, the team's owner], John [McDonough] and Jay [Blunk, senior vice president of business operations] and everybody involved. They're all very supportive and they know that it's not going to be easy. We're going to have some hiccups and some down times. I believe in what we're doing, I believe we're going to get better and I believe we're headed in the right direction. Listen, I took a lot more hits as a player than I am now. I'm used to it. I learned that early. You just have to keep one step in front of the other and keep working toward your goal.

Q: Is it safe to say you have a tough skin?

A: Now I do [laughs]. It makes you stronger. Otherwise, if you let it bother you, you fall back and you never achieve.

Q: Was firing former Hawks coach Denis Savard one of the hardest things you've ever had to do?

A: Without a doubt, it was. I love Savvy. He's a great guy and is like a brother to me. That's the thing you have to separate, the business side with the human side, and it's hard to do sometimes. Because I'm very in touch with my players and my staff, I have good relationships with them; I'm a relationship guy, and it's hard to make that decision to get rid of somebody you like and care for.

Q: Have Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough let you do your job more than late owner Bill Wirtz?

A: But I learned a lot the other way [from Bill Wirtz], too. There were a lot of positives [from Bill Wirtz] so I could move on, take that information and get better. You take incremental stages where you improve and get better and take the good and you get rid of the bad. I wouldn't have been able to get [Nikolai] Khabibulin in free agency, or have been able to make the [Martin] Havlat deal and sign him. It was tough, but we were able to get it done, and that started the process. I always turn negatives into positives. As things went on, it made me a better person and manager. So I take all those things, look at the positive, get rid of the negative and move forward. I wouldn't have gotten the job if it wasn't for Bill. I knew him a long time, and he was great to me and my family. I learned a lot from him, Pully [Bob Pulford, the Hawks' former general manager], from Mike Smith and Bob Murray. Everybody I've worked for in this business, I've taken the good, utilized it and try to put it in the arsenal here.

Q: Where do the Hawks go from here?

A: We just have to keep building the farm system, keep drafting well, keep trading well and just keep moving up the ladder. We haven't accomplished anything. We're happy with the development and the stage we're in, but we're looking at the long-term here. This is a big-picture approach and attitude. We just want to keep doing the right thing and get better every day. That's my approach and attitude about this.

Q: I don't want to jinx things, but could this team become a Cinderella story and reach the Stanley Cup Finals in a few weeks?

A: That would be phenomenal, but I'm looking at just the next game. That's what you have to do. I learned during my days as a professional golfer and [hockey] player that it's one shot at a time and one shift at a time. If you get ahead of yourself, you never get there. I'm hoping all good things happen to these kids and organization and fans. This is the greatest group of kids I've ever been with. I'm hoping they have all the success in the world, and [reaching the Cup] would be fantastic. But we're looking long-term, the stages of improvement and maturity and all of that stuff. It's going to be tough.

Q: Do you want everyone back next year?

A: Of course I do. I love every one of these players. I don't want any of them to go anywhere. I'm going to do everything I possibly can to help us get better, keep this team together; we have a plan in place. We have a strong nucleus and a good young team, good leadership with Rocky and John. We want to continue to get better and keep the best team possible. We're happy with their development.

Q: It's likely few could have anticipated this team's success this year. Is it a surprise to you, as well?

A: I saw what happened last year in the second half of the year and how these guys matured and how close they were to making the playoffs, only to just miss it. The last six weeks of the season, we felt we had a really good young team. We felt we had good momentum, a good offseason and we made our team a lot better, and the fact that they were hungry to make the playoffs after missing them by just three points last year, we felt we had a good chance at it, and with Joel's leadership we've been able to achieve that. The first goal was to make the playoffs, the next one was to get home ice in the first round and now the next goal is to win this round. That's the way we're looking at it. And Joel has done a great job keeping these kids focused and level-headed.

Q: How good does it feel to be Dale Tallon right now?

A: You have to keep your feet firmly on the ground and take one step at a time. I've been a perfectionist all my life, and I try to get better every day. Just to be part of this process and to work for the Chicago Blackhawks has been phenomenal. I love what I'm doing, I love who I'm working for, I love our staff and all our fans, I love this city; it's the greatest city in the world. I'm happy for those people, I'm happy for the people that have struggled through this for such a long time.

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.