Blackhawks built winning team by changing culture

Patrick Sharp took advantage of an evening off between the Chicago Blackhawks’ playoff series and went with his family to a Chicago Cubs game.

Sharp has been to Wrigley Field plenty over the years, and he’s witnessed mixed results like every other Cubs fan. He noticed something different this time around.

"Looking at the lineup, looking at their players, looking at the atmosphere at the park -- I think changes to Wrigley are going to help a lot -- it’s a cool place to be right now," Sharp said. "It’s only going to get better. I’m excited to be a Cubs fan. I’m also a Sox fan, so I don’t want to offend too many people on the South Side. It’s a fun time for the Cubs, for sure."

What’s happening at Wrigley Field these days has the sort of feel to what was happening at the United Center with the Blackhawks not that long ago. The Blackhawks were once bad, got better and eventually developed into a championship-winning team.

The Cubs are still working through that process. But for the Blackhawks, as they enter their fifth Western Conference finals in seven seasons and strive for their third Stanley Cup during that span, the progression from loser to winner can be tracked back to obtaining quality players through the draft, free agency and trade market, and pinpointing the right president, general manager and coach to guide them. But the Blackhawks also credit developing a winning culture to why they have had continued success.

The phrase “winning culture” is often heard from the mouths of new coaches and general managers. Basically, it’s the idea of departing from a losing mentality and exchanging it for a winning one.

It’s something Stan Bowman believed in when he became the Blackhawks' general manager and still believes in.

"I do," Bowman said. "You hear that thrown around a lot, especially when there’s changes and new people brought in, but I think what they’re getting at is a mentality and approach which becomes the norm."

The norm for the Blackhawks was losing when Bowman was first hired as a special assistant to the general manager in 2000. The Blackhawks had one winning season from 2000-2006.

Sharp’s first experience with the Blackhawks after being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005 was of the losing nature. Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook endured a 26-43-13 record in the 2005-06 season, their first season in Chicago.

Back then, as Sharp recalled, losing didn’t feel all that awful, especially for a group of young players.

"I think in those early years a lot of the players in Chicago were just happy to be in the NHL, happy to be putting the jersey on, going out there playing," Sharp said.

The feeling of being content began being overhauled soon after that season. Rocky Wirtz became the team’s chairman in 2007, and John McDonough was then named the team president. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, both top-five draft picks, made their NHL debuts in 2007. Joel Quenneville was hired as coach in October 2008. Bowman was promoted to general manager in July 2009.

From there, things changed quickly.

"Every season it seemed like weeding people out, whether it’s the lineup or the locker room, whatever," Sharp said. "We wanted to build that winning atmosphere. Drafting Kane and Toews, they were good right away as young players. Signing some good free agents, making some good trades, everybody who came through the door and put the jersey on we wanted to make sure that we’re heading in the right direction. John McDonough and what they’ve done in the front office, that’s definitely filtered down to the locker room. We’re trying to build a tradition of winning here as opposed to what it was like back in 2005 and 2006."

When Quenneville entered the picture, he saw a team on the verge of something. They had a good mixture of proven and emerging talent. They had been close to reaching the playoffs in 2007-08.

The Blackhawks exceeded Quenneville’s expectations in his first season as they reached the Western Conference finals, where they were eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings. Quenneville believed that step was necessary before they could come back the following season and win the Stanley Cup.

"Nothing was proven at that time," Quenneville said. "Nobody had won and nobody had gotten there. But it was a trial and error type of thing. I just think continual trying for improvement and trying to be your best."

Keith doesn’t necessarily buy the idea of a winning culture, but he does buy into actually winning. That’s what he thought began to be the difference for the Blackhawks.

"I think we just got a little bit better as a team," Keith said. "When you got competitive players and good players, usually you just become a good team. What’s a winning culture? Winning culture’s winning hockey games. How you do that is you get good players and good coaches. That’s how you win."

Coincidentally, the Red Wings were also the franchise Bowman wanted the Blackhawks to be. Bowman got an up-close look at how the Red Wings ran their organization inside and out with his father, Scotty Bowman, coaching in Detroit from 1993-2002.

Bowman admired the Red Wings because they won consistently. They didn’t go through all the ups and downs most other teams around the league endured.

"They’ve been a real good team for 20 years now," Bowman said. "The same elements that made them good, I wanted to try to bring to the Blackhawks, which is stability. They’ve had a lot of stability in their ownership down to management down to coaches and then they found players and they’ve sort of perfected that mentoring system there. That was what you were hoping to build in Chicago."

The Blackhawks have established stability throughout much of their organization. Wirtz, McDonough, Bowman and Quenneville all have been in place for some time. On the ice, the Blackhawks have seven players -- Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa and Niklas Hjalmarsson -- still on the team from the 2010 Stanley Cup run and others who came on board just after that.

The other important piece to Bowman was cultivating a mentoring system. The Blackhawks began shaping their style in those first seasons under Quenneville, and they now have a very definitive way of doing things, whether it’s how they practice, play in games or the expectations they have every season. Bowman’s vision is for that to continue rolling from one group to the next.

"Even though Toews and Kane and Seabrook and Keith are 25-30 years old, they’re still veteran guys," Bowman said. "They’re now the guys that these young guys are looking up to whether it’s [Brandon] Saad or [Teuvo] Teravainen. Some of these young players, they’re now the ones learning this is how we do it here. If the system works right, five, six years from now, they’re going to be the guys showing the next wave and then you can build this system of excellence and of performance and the consistency and continuity is hopefully what you can bring."

Sharp threw in accountability as also being an important factor for that.

"It’s being held accountable whether it’s from a coaching staff, whether it’s from the president of the team, whether it’s from the captain of the team or just another teammate," Sharp said. "You want to come to the rink every day not only play your best individually, but you don’t want to let your teammates down."

Quenneville acknowledged that as well.

"Expectations have certainly changed with our team and our organization and probably individually from one another as well," Quenneville said. "From the coaches to the players, I think the expectations of having certain standards, certain way of how we compete."

Andrew Shaw joined the Blackhawks for the first time in 2011 as a 20-year-old and closely watched what those veterans were doing. He followed their lead and now tries to pass that on to the newest players.

"Coming in and playing for the Blackhawks, you know one of the best teams out there, you expect to win," Shaw said. "While you’re expecting to win, you kind of push yourself to keep that trait going. Great team, great organization, so that winning atmosphere keeps the locker room going. Guys did it for me and Saader. They helped us learn the way quickly. I’m willing to help guys who are coming into this team and this organization to do the same thing."

As far as the Blackhawks have come in the past eight years, Bowman still doesn’t see them as completely possessing a winning culture. It’s something Bowman believes is attainable, but will take more proven success.

"I think we’re in the stages of it," Bowman said. "I wouldn’t say it’s a finished product because we want to sustain it over time. But I think we’ve had some continuity, which is the biggest thing from ownership to management to coaches to key players and they can help guide those young players and build that winning tradition."