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Chicago Blackhawks: Rocky Wirtz, An Inside Look

By Gail Kauchak
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I agree it’s pretty fun to learn about the Chicago Blackhawks players, but since I have done a post about coach Joel Quenneville, and also President John McDonough, as well as General Manager Stan Bowman, I feel we should give some credit to Rocky Wirtz. As owner and chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks since October 2007, Rocky has played an integral part in their success. Although he remains mostly behind the scenes to the casual fan, his story is pretty fascinating. Today we take a look at the man who brought the ’Hawks out of the dark ages.

William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz was born on Oct. 5, 1952. He is the son of former owner William Wirtz, and was only 2-years-old when his grandfather, Arthur Wirtz, purchased the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954.

Arthur Wirtz began the family empire during the Great Depression. He started buying up real estate at great prices. His holdings included insurance and liquor distributorships, as well as banks across the country.

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In the 1930s, Arthur partnered with James Norris, whose family had a grain brokerage in Chicago.  These two further acquired interests in arenas and convention centers, one of them being old Chicago Stadium. Arthur became known for hosting ice shows and championship prizefights. He bought the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954, and ran the team until 1966, when Rocky’s father Bill Wirtz took over.

Arthur was known as a hard-nosed and intimidating businessman, and his son Bill followed in his footsteps. At first the Chicago Blackhawks were very successful under Bill. In the following years the team had 13 division titles and a President’s Trophy. Bill was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976. But then things started to spiral, and Bill’s stubbornness got the best of him.

He allowed fan favorite Bobby Hull to leave for the World Hockey Association, supposedly over a dispute about money. He also let go of many other high-profile players, such as Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios. He fired ever-popular play-by-play announcer Pat Foley, and remained blindly loyal to coach and then-general-manager Bob Pulford (Pulford was blamed for Stan Mikita not wanting to return to the team).

When most of the rest of the NHL was already doing it, Bill Wirtz refused to televise home games, claiming that would be disloyal to season ticket holders. In 2006, ESPN called the Blackhawks the worst franchise in pro sports, and Bill Wirtz one of the top 10 greediest owners (he was nicknamed “Dollar Bill” Wirtz). The ’Hawks rarely made the playoffs, and hadn’t won a championship since 1961. They had the second-lowest home attendance in the NHL.

Needless to say, when Bill Wirtz died in September 2007, he was not a very popular man in Chicago. When the Blackhawks paid tribute to him before their season-opening game in October, he was loudly booed and cat-called. This is the challenge that Bill’s oldest son Rocky Wirtz stepped into when he took over.

Many thought that younger brother Peter would take over this portion of the family empire. He was the one who had spent much more time with the Chicago Blackhawks, including several years as vice president. But when Rocky started talking about some of the radical changes he wanted to implement, Peter decided instead to go in a different direction. He chose to step aside and run Bismarck Enterprises, a food service business he had created. His sister Gail feels he wasn’t ready to go against his father so soon after his death (courtesy of Bryan Smith, “The Breakaway: Chicago Blackhawks Owner Rocky Wirtz”).

So Rocky got to work. He realized the ’Hawks had almost no marketing plan, and he went out and recruited John McDonough from the Chicago Cubs to be President and CEO. He met with the leading Chicago area newspapers and was pleasant and approachable (unlike his father). He immediately worked out deals to get all 82 regular-season games televised.

Rocky reached out to disgruntled former players Hull, Mikita and Tony Esposito and convinced them to come back as team ambassadors. He re-hired broadcaster Foley. And he moved Pulford, his dad’s favorite, out of the United Center.

How does a man go against everything his father put into place and go in a completely different direction? Rocky claims he was just reacting to a dire situation. Chicago Blackhawks team historian Bob Verdi had an interesting take on it. “Beneath all of this marketing strategy and new enlightenment, there is an underlying storyline. And that is Rocky’s desire to win at all costs — a passion that his dad didn’t share.”

To win at all costs. That is the key. When he took over in 2007, the team had lost $191 million over 10 years. It couldn’t make payroll and was $6 million in the hole. Yet Rocky invested in the team as he saw fit. Eight years and three Stanley Cups later, a different story is being told. Forbes magazine wrote in June 2015: “Since its recent Cup run began, the value of the Blackhawks has increased to $825 million (fourth in the NHL) from $258 million (seventh). When Chicago’s cable deal is renewed (its current agreements with CSN Chicago and WGN both run through the 2018-19 season) to match its ratings and market, the Blackhawks will be a billion dollar team.”

Rocky Wirtz went against many of the principles that his father held dear. But I think the late Bill Wirtz would be hard-pressed to be unhappy about the outcome. That outcome is a highly successful, profitable and winning franchise in the Chicago Blackhawks!

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