Q&A: Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz on the future of his team
In 2004, ESPN named the Chicago Blackhawks the worst franchise in all of pro sports. They were losing some $20 million per year while alienating a fan base by refusing to play games on television (not to mention the humiliating attendance figures). And the on-ice product? Let’s just say it was a sad state of affairs for a prestigious, Original Six franchise.
Everything changed when owner Bill Wirtz died in 2007. The team was passed down to one of his sons, Rocky, and the team transformed into a model franchise, winning three Stanley Cups, maxing out with capacity crowds and yes, lifting the long outdated local television ban. The Blackhawks became Chicago’s hottest sports team. When the team had a down year in 2017-18, it marked the first time it missed the playoffs in a decade.
The turnaround isn’t so simple. Rooted in the transition is a drama of some Shakespearean proportions. There was Bill’s ailing health, which the family tried to shield from the media. There was infighting among siblings; the tension got so bad that at points, they were only speaking through attorneys. All of this is detailed in a new book, “The Breakaway,” by Chicago-area author Bryan Smith. Rocky Wirtz gave his full participation for the book, which details the warts as much as the success. In a conversation for the ESPN on Ice podcast, Wirtz explains why he thought his family’s story was important to tell and looks forward to the next era of the NHL.
ESPN: Perhaps I didn’t know what to expect when I got the book, but I was blown away by some of the vivid and frankly candid details about dysfunction and drama in your family, especially as it pertained to the end of your father’s life and the succession plan for the Blackhawks. Why did you feel it was important to help share that story?
Rocky Wirtz: Well, Bryan Smith is the author. He was bugging me to write something. He had written an article in 2008 for a local, Chicago Magazine. It was before the Hawks had won anything. At that point, we hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961. No one knew what to expect. So he wrote the article, and then in 2010, when the Hawks won the first time, he again came back, and then the same in ’13 and in ’15. So finally, I thought, ‘Well, if he’s going to write something, I’ll collaborate with him.’
But two things had to be done: First of all, it couldn’t be a puff piece. No one wants to read about how great the owner is, especially if they have two nickels rubbed together. So I said, you can’t do that, it has to be honest, it has to be candid. The second thing is, I’d like the proceeds to go to the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation. Wherever I can take expenses off the top, we’ll do that. So Brian then agreed to do that. That’s how it kind of evolved. If that’s the case, you might as well tell the story — what’s true and what’s not. You can’t tell a story unless you tell the whole story. I think people can relate to it because I don’t know of a family that doesn’t have some sort of dysfunction. If they say they don’t, then you know they’re lying.
ESPN: I don’t know if a lot of people outside Chicago knew of your father’s dementia and how difficult that relationship became. Was it hard revisiting that or have you made your peace?
Wirtz: It was fine. I think the important thing was, it was kind of sad because he was holding on, and some of the behavior that you saw with the combination of the early stages of dementia — and he wasn’t the same after he had a stroke 12 years before, so some of that stuff we knew about, but you wanted to try to shield the public from some of the behavior and stuff. So some of the erratic behavior was that.
I think, if you realize he was my boss, I respect him and work for him. If he told you what to do, you did it, and you might not agree with it. I’d stand up and say I don’t agree with you, but I’ll do it because you’re my boss, I’ll do what you tell me to do. You just kind of had to work around it and with it. And hopefully not have the wheels fall off of not only the Blackhawks, but any of the other businesses that Wirtz Corporations was in.
ESPN: One of the big things you did when you got the team was reverse your father’s media policies. You saw the importance of getting the team on TV and how that would grow awareness and a fan base. When you look at the NHL, what’s the ideal situation for TV rights?
Wirtz: Well, I think it’s moving so quickly, so back in ’07, putting the Hawks on TV — it sounds ridiculous — it’s not only putting them on TV, it was like you might lose a generation or two. Now, the thing is moving so quickly, and people are getting their information on so many different areas, I think the important thing that the league does is make sure that people have access, especially the younger people who are not using the same means that their parents used. Whatever means that is, I think it’s important for the public to be able to view the games in whatever, however they want to view them.
ESPN: Do you think there needs to be more than one network provider?
Wirtz: I don’t know. That’s certainly something for the league to decide and look at. But I think they’ll certainly look at all options and what can be provided and what cannot. And like I said, technology is moving so quickly, we haven’t even gotten to 4K [for NHL broadcasts], and we’re already talking about the next iteration on top of that. I think we’re going to get down, you’re going to be like you’re sitting right on the ice for these games. I’ll tell you what: If you think you know today, by tomorrow it’s going to be completely different.
ESPN: There are a lot of turning points for the franchise, like the hiring of John McDonough, drafting the right players and so on. But I don’t think you win three Stanley Cups without Joel Quenneville. Can you take us back to his hiring? People forget that there was some presumed risk involved?
Wirtz: Well you know Joel; it was one of the things, he was there, he wasn’t going to be in Colorado, and at the time, we all thought that it would just be … you want to get the best people you can. And Joel is certainly, in our opinion, the best person just to have there. And everything kind of unfolded. It wasn’t really fair for Dennis Savard, because he didn’t have the experience that the other coaches in that division had. It’s not his fault. He was kind of thrown in that position, and it made it very awkward for him. But you wanted someone who had experience and had been on winning organizations. Joel obviously had in St. Louis and won the Presidents’ Trophy and won a Cup in Colorado. You didn’t know really that he’d have the success but he’s certainly done a terrific job, and he’s a great coach and the record speaks for itself.
ESPN: The book mentions several times how ESPN ranked the Blackhawks as the worst organization in all of professional sports. You’ve made great strides since then. I’m really curious about your current challenge. You’ve reached success with this group, but now you are at the point where you have to sustain it. You’ve built this huge fan base but you need them to keep coming, even if the team isn’t contending. We’ve seen other prestige teams struggle to stay relevant and even fill seats as they transition. How do you avoid that? How creative will you be?
Wirtz: You have to look at it like a consumer product; you have to re-invent yourself every five years. I think that with the Hawks, the important thing is for the organization to keep being relevant and connecting with the fans, and also, as far as the players, the players that have taken a terrific role in being relevant to the fans and the base, too. And obviously you want to win the Cup every year, but you’re not going to do that. But you can try to position yourselves to do that.
Winning solves a lot of problems, and obviously last year wasn’t a good year for that. But again, our job is to keep trying and keep plugging away and keep seeing what you can do. Many times, the public doesn’t know what is going on. Probably what you read or hear, it’s probably about 10 percent of what’s going on. I have great faith in the organization. [Team president] John McDonough is a terrific executive in both hockey and the business side. The good thing is, they’re working together. That’s the big thing. There’s not a “we” and “they” kind of approach. You win together and you lose together. But when you win together, it’s a lot more fun. I think they’re going to continue to reinvent themselves. This is not the worst thing that happens. I think it’s good because you take a step back and realize how long that summer is, and nobody wants to do that.
ESPN: I think a lot of fans are concerned about the potential for a work stoppage in the NHL, especially as things seem to be pretty good right now from a growth and revenue front. Is there anything you can say to calm those fears, an owner?
Wirtz: No, I mean I think it’s a fair system. The players get the same get as the owners get. You see the success of Las Vegas and certainly what might be going on in Seattle going forward — certainly the fans out there are excited about it. Just like the fans, I hope there’s not a work stoppage. I would hate to see that. So we’ll just keep our fingers crossed not to see it because the game has grown so much, and the excitement — it’s gotten so fast and so young, I think it would be a shame for any kind of work stoppage that would happen.
ESPN: You mentioned Seattle. You were in the executive committee meeting when the Seattle group presented. What can you share about that presentation? Am I right in saying Seattle feels like an inevitability for the NHL?
Wirtz: Well, the owners will have to vote on it in the December meeting. Certainly they did a terrific job in the presentation. It’s going to be very interesting to see what they’re going to do in that building in keeping the roof and going down [the renovation calls for lowering the floor 15 feet], which should be quite a feat. I think it will be great for hockey. It’s certainly great for Vancouver and the West, and I think it would just be good for everyone. Hopefully, the owners will feel comfortable about it and vote on it in December. But I think it would be a terrific thing for the league and for the players.