From No Televised Home Games to Hoisting the Cup: How Rocky Wirtz Transformed the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks were in a rough spot when Rocky Wirtz took over as Chairman of the organization. How did he transform the team into a three-time Stanley Cup winner?

2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six
2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

When Rocky Wirtz inherited the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 after the death of his father Bill Wirtz, he became the fifth Principal Owner and Chairman in the organization's history. Ready to embark on a new chapter of Blackhawks hockey, saying Wirtz had his work cut out for him would be an understatement.

Before taking the reins of the organization, the landscape of Hawks was in very rough shape. In the decade leading into the change in leadership, the Hawks had one winning record and playoff appearance which came during the 2001-02 season.

Previously coined as the "worst organization in professional sports" around that time, Wirtz knew a lot had to change in order to make it work and to keep the boat afloat, which led to him steering away from what was becoming the norm of Blackhawks hockey.

Financial issues were evident within the Blackhawks, as the organization needed to borrow money from other Wirtz Corporation companies in order to meet their payroll obligations that were set and to continue the effort to make the Blackhawks a functional organization.

In addition to that, the Blackhawks did not have any locally televised games and the only time fans could watch the team on TV was when they were a nationally televised game.

Watching the team on TV wasn't the only issue, however. From the 2000-01 season through the 2006-07 season, the Blackhawks total attendance numbers were absymal.

During that span, the team ranked 23rd or worse in total attendance for seven consecutive seasons. Not only were fans unable to watch the team on TV, but they also were not showing up to watch the team in person at the United Center.

While having the luxury of getting ahold of a roster that had two up and coming stars in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Wirtz made a handful of decisions that helped develop a remarkable transition from "the worst organization in professional sports," to a three-time Stanley Cup winning team.

Getting to work right away in changing the narrative of the Blackhawks, Wirtz negotiated a deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago in 2007 to get home games on local TV. In the 2007-08 season, the Blackhawks had seven home games on TV, giving fans a glimpse of what they were building if they couldn't make it to the rink.

The 2007-08 roster was littered with young talent, including 19-year-olds in Kane and Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook who were both 22-years-old at the time, a 26-year-old Patrick Sharp, and a 23-year-old Corey Crawford who was slowly starting to see time in net behind two veterans in Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime.

Aside from getting more eyes on the product with the TV deal, Wirtz decided to make a change at head coach early in the 2008-09 season by letting Denis Savard go and hiring Joel Quenneville to take over on the bench.

Making another hire early on during his tenure as Principal Owner, Wirtz brought over John McDonough in 2007 to be the team's president, who just before then spent time with the Cubs.

In the early stages as president of the Blackhawks, McDonough was quick to make an impact. He helped the Blackhawks land a Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2008-09 season, he welcomed back Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita as team ambassadors in 2008, and he was an integral part in helping the Blackhawks get all 82 regular-season games televised through a deal with WGN and Comcast SportsNet.

Thanks to the help of their core continuing to get better, the Blackhawks had a quick turnaround once they were readily available for more people to see, giving fans a reason to buy into the product again. In the 2007-08 season, the Hawks had an 88-point performance which was their most since 1995-96 (94 points) and 2001-02 (96 points).

This was just the beginning of what would be one of the most impressive turnarounds in professional sports. The next season, the Hawks finished with 104 points. This was their first time ecplising the triple-digit point mark since the 1992-93 season and the team made it to the Conference Finals where they fell to the Detroit Red Wings.

In an effort to not just cater to current fans, but to also make Blackhawks fandom reach multiple generations, Wirtz did little things like utilizing more prerecorded music at the United Center, making way for Chelsea Dagger to eventually be the team's goal song. Other teams hated to hear it, and they heard it a lot during the multiple cup runs.

A deep playoff run in 2008-09 and a team that looked ready to be consistent contenders gave the roster a ton of experience and helped set them up for the success that was about to come. During that season, the Blackhawks finished at the top of the league in yearly attendance and that also was the beginning of another run.

One year later, the Blackhawks finally broke through and took down the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, hositing their first cup in 48 years. On the cup-winning goal that only Kane saw go in, Wirtz and Co. were just getting a brief glimpse of the dynasty they helped create.

On the player acquisition side of things, Wirtz green lighted the signing of Marian Hossa to a 12-year, $62.8M deal heading into their first cup run and it proved to be not just one of the best signings in Blackhawks history, but arguably one of the best free agent signings in Chicago sports history.

The hall of famer appeared in 534 regular season games for the Hakws, totaling 415 points on 186 goals and 229 assists. In 107 playoff games, Hossa totaled 73 points on 21 goals and 52 assists. His game-winning goal in game five of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Nashville Predators might have saved the Blackhawks' playoff run that year.

Following consecutive years of losing in the Conference Quarterfinals, the Blackhawks managed to capture their second Stanley Cup in four years by defeating the Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals in six games.

Their aspirations for winning back-to-back cups fell just short, with the team losing to the Los Angeles Kings in game seven of the Conference Finals during the 2013-14 season.

Still, their efforts were rewarded with one more cup run in 2015, when they pulled off the trifecta by knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning for their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.

Going from a hardly visable team to a perennial contender and three-time Stanley Cup champion was a daunting task, and something that seemed almost impossible from the time Wirtz took over.

Just before Rocky Wirtz took over, the Hawks made one playoff appearance in 10 seasons. During the prime of his tenure, the team managed to make the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons and in 10 of 12 years during their run.

Attendance issues were long forgotten as well, as Wirtz helped the Blackhawks put together a run of being at the top of the NHL in yearly attendance for 12 consecutive seasons, and the team had an impressive 535-game sellout streak that lasted from 2008 to 2021.

Rocky Wirtz and his transformation of the Blackhawks was truly remarkable and the sustained success he helped the team achieve from where they were at before is almost hard to fathom, but the controversy and dark cloud that hung over the organization near the end of his tenure due to the Kyle Beach situation was rightfully fair.

Although it has been stated that Rocky was not fully aware of what was happening at that time, one could argue otherwise and it would be hard to dismiss it. His response to a question about the situation at a town hall was difficult to watch.

Taking the Blackhawks from a rough period of the team's history and transforming it into one of the best is a big part of the legacy that he leaves behind after tragically passing away earlier this summer.

With a new era of Blackhawks hockey set to take place, the team finds themselves in a bit of a similar spot with Connor Bedard looking to be the next young star that they can build around and to hopefully put themselves in a place of similar success on the ice.