When the stunning John McDonough firing came down last week, there were a few things to think about. What was his legacy with the Blackhawks? What did it mean for the team’s future? What was McDonough’s next move?
I wrote about all those issues that night, but I was also thinking about Bill Babiarz, one of my old high school classmates at Driscoll Catholic and a #frentofthenewsletter.
I knew Bill and his family knew a side of McDonough that was different from what most of the public saw. To many, McDonough was the serious deal-making Blackhawks president who did such a good job in selling the Hawks to the Chicago market that many thought he could eventually become the NHL’s next commissioner.
But to the Babiarz family, McDonough is just “John,” a stranger turned friend who took a real interest in a little girl named Cammy and started treating her cause like it was his own.
Now 11, Cammy Babiarz has the cognitive ability of someone her age and is able to communicate with her eyes. But she’s unable to walk or talk because of Rett Syndrome — a rare developmental disorder that affects only 1 out of every 10,000 girls.
It hasn’t stopped her from having a full host of experiences. Seven summers ago, she formed a lasting friendship with one of the most powerful people in Chicago.
“We will really miss John being with the Blackhawks,” Bill told me when I reached out to him late last week.
The friendship between Cammy Babiarz and John McDonough began in a parking lot in Edison Park on the city’s northwest side during a hot August day in 2013.
The Hawks were in the middle of their second summer with the Stanley Cup and John was about to embark on an event with the trophy in his home neighborhood.
Jackie Babiarz, meanwhile, had just made a 24-item list of things for her then four-year-old daughter Cammy to experience that summer. On the itinerary were things any one from the Chicago area would have wanted to do in the summer of 2013: Go to the beach, visit a library and … touch the Stanley Cup.
The last item was the most difficult, but one of Jackie’s childhood friends worked for the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce and worked with the team to make sure Cammy could get her time with the Cup on McDonough’s day.
On the day of the event, the family was brought to a parking lot behind the event stage and the Hawks president came over with the Cup. In the middle of a noisy scene, McDonough kissed Cammy on the head and got down to her level, talking to her and letting her touch the Stanley Cup with her younger sister Ryan.
Bill and Jackie, meanwhile, congratulated McDonough on the championship, but there wasn’t much time for conversation. The experience went quickly. Blackhawks media relations director Brandon Faber (now with the Bears) asked if the family wanted to do an interview for Blackhawks TV about Cammy’s day with the Cup and Rett Syndrome awareness. They eagerly agreed and then the day was over.
“I was blown away by everything that had happened at the Cup day,” Bill said. “But I kind of thought it was a PR move, one that we were really happy to be a part of.”
Bill’s belief would turn out to be wrong.
The following season, McDonough reached out and invited the family to a game as his guests. Once they arrived, he welcomed the Babiarzes to the Blackhawks suite and introduced them to Jay Blunk and Stan Bowman. The experience again went quickly, but there was plenty of time to get acquainted this time around.
As the family started to leave, McDonough brought out a large, wrapped gift.
It was a framed and double-matted picture of Cammy’s day with the Cup.
“To Cammy, you were the best part of my summer,” it was signed.
“The meeting was all done in private with no press or cameras around,” Bill said. “That day really opened my eyes to what a kind person John really is.”
(Photo courtesy of Babiarz family)
There would be more games and meetings.
In 2014, McDonough joined Cammy at her seats in the 200-level and held her for a period. Bill said McDonough was drawn to Cammy and her to him. He told Bill and Jackie they were welcome at the United Center for every single game if they wished.
“For me, the most telling thing about John is that not only did he make us feel like VIPS, but he helped us spread the word about Rett Syndrome without us even asking,” Bill said. “With it being such a rare disorder, it’s not easy to get people to learn about it or to raise money for research.”
They would soon learn what makes McDonough such a great marketer and the power of the Blackhawks brand he’d rebuilt from the ground up starting in 2007.
When the team started its popular #WhatsYourGoal campaign during the 2014-15 season, Jackie submitted Cammy’s goal to skate with a Blackhawks player through the regular social media channels with hundreds of other requests. They were soon contacted by the Blackhawks marketing department and told they had been picked.
Bill thinks either McDonough or Brandon Faber had something to do with making sure his daughter’s story was selected.
“But we’ll never know for sure,” he said.
What resulted was one of the most memorable feel-good viral videos of the last decade. Cammy’s skating date with her favorite player Duncan Keith has been viewed over 25 million times on Facebook and another two million times on YouTube.
There’s a good chance you’ve already seen it, but it really never gets old.
The video tugged on heartstrings and attracted attention from around the world. Donations to fund research for Rett Syndrome— which was reversed in mice in 2007 — poured in from all over. Cammy gained thousands of followers on her social media accounts and traffic to RettSyndrome.org increased.
Though Jackie is a one-woman marketing machine who draws plenty of awareness for Cammy on her own and Bill once ran 150 miles across the state of Illinois to help raise funds for Rett research, the Duncan Keith video unlocked a different level of exposure.
“It’s not something we could have done by ourselves,” Bill said at the 2016 Blackhawks convention when he and Cammy were invited to appear on a panel with Keith, Joel Quenneville and Corey Crawford.
McDonough and the Blackhawks helped in other ways. Each time Cammy’s video showed at the United Center that season, the logo for rettsyndrome.org spun around the stadium’s ribbon video boards. When the Hawks raised funds for the 2015 Cup-winning Beard-A-Thon, the entire take was donated to the International Rett Syndrome Foundation. The team regularly donates tickets, signed sticks and jerseys and is a platinum sponsor of the annual Rett Syndrome fundraiser that Jackie and Bill hold around Cammy’s birthday each year.
And it all came from that first meeting with John and the Cup back in 2013.
“Cammy loves John,” Bill said. “She loves going to see Hawks games live and she always smiles during our meetings with John. She’s been treated like a VIP by John and everyone that’s involved with the Blackhawks for many years and she loves it.”