Rocky Wirtz, Chairman of Chicago Blackhawks NHL Team, Dies at 70

Rocky Wirtz, Chairman of Chicago Blackhawks NHL Team, Dies at 70

Rocky Wirtz, who after taking over as the principal owner of the Chicago Blackhawks from his father won three Stanley Cup championships in the 2010s — a stellar run that lost its glimmer several years later after an investigation into the sexual assault of one of the franchise’s minor league players by a coach — died on Tuesday in Evanston, Ill. He was 70.

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed by John Steinmiller, a spokesman for the team.

Under Mr. Wirtz’s father, William, the Blackhawks, one of the original six franchises in the National Hockey League, had become a downtrodden, money-losing franchise. The team had not won the Stanley Cup since 1961. Attendance at the United Center was among the worst in the league. And home games were not being televised.

“I’d say, ‘Dad, we’re losing generations of fans by not televising home games,’” Mr. Wirtz said in an interview with The New York Times in 2010. “He said it wouldn’t be fair to our fans with season tickets. But we’d gotten down to 3,400 season tickets, which meant maybe 1,500 to 1,700 fans. So we weren’t televising home games for 1,700 people? Why bang your head against the wall?”

Soon after his father died in 2007, Mr. Wirtz, who became the team’s chairman, made a deal to televise its home games (seven at first, but a full season’s worth in the 2008-9 season) and changed its ticketing policy to one that was more dynamic, and more lucrative. Under his father, all seats on one level, regardless of their location, sold for the same price, a policy that diminished revenue.

Mr. Wirtz also hired an experienced marketer, John McDonough, from the Chicago Cubs as the team’s president; lured back as team ambassadors former Blackhawks superstars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita; and, unlike his penurious father, pursued free agents like Marian Hossa, who in 2009 signed for $62.8 million over 12 years, the biggest contract in team history.

Mr. Wirtz made it clear that his team’s priority was to win the Stanley Cup.

“I think maybe the fans didn’t hear enough about what our goal was,” Mr. Wirtz told Chicago magazine in 2008.

The 2008-9 season — with young stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the roster — started a nearly decade-long playoff run that resulted in Stanley Cup titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

“I’ve never felt this exhilaration in my life,” Mr. Wirtz told The Chicago Tribune after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in six games over the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. “We put the right people in place, and anything can happen if you dream big.”

William Rockwell Wirtz was born on Oct. 5, 1952. His father, William Wadsworth Wirtz, oversaw the Wirtz Corporation’s beverage distribution, banking, insurance and real estate interests. Rocky’s grandfather, Arthur, had gained control of the Blackhawks in 1954. Both his father and his grandfather are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

His mother, Joan (Roney) Wirtz, was active in philanthropies, including one that raised money for a home for underprivileged children in Des Plaines, Ill.

Rocky attended Boston University for two years and then transferred to Northwestern University. He graduated in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and soon entered the family business, focusing on the liquor operation.

“Working on the docks and coming to know the rank and file — and taking field trips with Bill when he was younger — fed his love of building relationships,” Bryan Smith wrote in “The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks” (2018).

When his father died, Mr. Wirtz became president of the Wirtz Corporation.

The Blackhawks began to stumble after they won the Stanley Cup in 2015 — they have been in the playoffs only once in the past six seasons — then became the subject of an independent investigation commissioned by the team, which found that several of its executives had failed to report an accusation that a minor league player had been sexually assaulted by the team’s video coach during the 2010 playoffs.

The investigation found that executives had been worried about distracting the team and had not conducted a thorough inquiry or adequately punished the coach, Brad Aldrich, who later made a sexual advance toward a team intern. Mr. Aldrich later worked in several other jobs in hockey and pleaded guilty to sexual contact with a minor while he was a high school coach in Michigan, where he had to register as a sex offender.

During a town hall event in 2022, Rocky Wirtz brusquely confronted reporters and declined to answer questions about the player who had brought the 2010 accusation, Kyle Beach, or about what the team would do to protect players in the future.

He later apologized, saying that “my response to two questions crossed the line.” He added, “I regret that my responses overshadowed the great work this organization is doing to move forward.”

The N.H.L. fined the team $2 million, and two executives who had been among those made aware of the accusation in 2010 resigned from their posts. Fans and members of the news media have criticized the league for not levying stiffer punishment. Chicago did not lose its 2023 first-round draft pick and won the lottery, giving it the ability to select Connor Bedard, a prospect regarded as a generational talent.

In addition to his son Danny, who is the Blackhawks’ chief executive, Mr. Wirtz’s survivors include his wife, Marilyn (Queen) Wirtz; two daughters, Kendall Murphy and Hillary Wirtz; a stepdaughter, Elizabeth Queen; and six grandchildren. His marriage to Kathleen Whiston ended in divorce.

Well before he ran the Blackhawks, Mr. Wirtz regularly attended home games, but left what he called the “lousy” ones after the second period.

“My father had a private office off the rotunda, and he’d have his door shut,” he told The Times, “so I’d sneak out and he wouldn’t know.”

Source Link

You may also like

Leave a Comment