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Blackhawks chairman in the business to win

Tuesday, 01.17.2012 / 1:00 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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Blackhawks chairman in the business to win

Ice cream. Rocky Wirtz is talking ice cream. As chairman of the Blackhawks, he is well aware that adult beverages and thick sandwiches are staples when perpetual capacity crowds gather for hockey games in the United Center. But at this moment, Wirtz moves on to the dessert menu, and his mood is far from vanilla.

“I don’t have exact numbers,” he says, “but we’re selling a tremendous amount of ice cream. We expect to sell beer and hot dogs. But the ice cream, that must be kids, which is exciting because that’s our next generation of fans. Very exciting.”

Wirtz is well into his fifth year since inheriting the franchise, which is not to be confused with the final lap of a professed five-year plan to resurrect it. When he took over in October 2007, Rocky neither felt inclined to preach patience nor could he afford it. The team’s bottom line was “hemorrhaging”—his word—to such an extent that all revenue from a skeleton crew of season ticket subscribers was exhausted by the second payroll call for uniformed personnel.

THE VERDICT

Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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“That was early October… the schedule goes until at least April,” says Rocky, who secured $40 million internally from the family empire: real estate, liquor, banks. “But our hockey team had become irrelevant. We were the fifth team in the city. If we announced 12,000 fans for a game, the attendance was probably 6,000. We had the second lowest ticket prices in the league, which surprised me.  We didn’t have the luxury of time. We had to move quickly. Maybe the $40 million we needed right away could be $30 million the next season.

“The most important thing, though, is that we’ve connected with our fans again and made good on our mission statement: to bring them a Stanley Cup.”

On Oct. 26, 2005, Rocky stayed home, glued to the television. He was the only Chicago White Sox fan on his block, or the next block. The White Sox completed a sweep of the Astros in Houston to capture their first World Series since 1917. He had no idea how his life soon would be altered, but he imagined one proposition was off the charts.

“If you had told me then that the Blackhawks would be the next team in Chicago to win a championship, I would have given you 100-1 odds,” he says. “And the only reason I would stop at 100 is because anything above that might as well be a million to one.”

In September 2007, his father, Bill, passed away. The next Wirtz in line to run the family business and the Blackhawks was Rocky.

“I was the heir apparent,” he says. “I had been involved in other parts of the Wirtz Corporation, so I would show up for the team picture and go to games as a fan. If it wasn’t a good game, I could leave early. Nobody noticed and I didn’t have to worry about traffic. But when Dad died, I had to hit the ground running. And I needed help. Right away.”

As a White Sox booster, Rocky duly noted how the Cubs had seized the city’s imagination.

“People forget that the White Sox used to outdraw the Cubs,” he says. “They used to close off the upper deck at Wrigley Field on weekdays. It wasn’t that long ago. I attributed a lot of that to one man.”

Rocky wasn’t quite sure what John McDonough looked like, so he Googled pictures of the Cubs’ much-decorated president. McDonough admittedly knew nothing about Rocky. Indeed, in an exhaustive 1992 Chicago magazine profile of Bill Wirtz, Rocky is mentioned only twice and isn't quoted or shown. McDonough, who agreed to a meeting at a suburban restaurant, waited for a luxury automobile with vanity plates. Rocky doesn’t operate that way, but he was driven to put the Blackhawks back in the fast lane. 

“I wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” says Rocky. McDonough joined the organization in November, and thus a complete and drastic U-turn took place.  “John was instrumental in making the Cubs a lifestyle, turning a mediocre team owned by a large monolithic company into a lovable, immensely popular entity.

“I wanted to know only if John shared my commitment to winning. We had to let it all hang out. We didn’t have time for Powerpoint presentations. We were in a deep hole. What fan wants to buy a ticket to watch a team that isn’t in business to win? You can talk all you want about how to connect with your fans or how to try to bring back fans you once had. The best way is to state your goal—to win—and then back it up.”

Throughout this entire transformation of the Blackhawks, Rocky has been respectful. His father, Rocky allows, “was probably less flexible than I am – but that was his style.”

Bill did not believe in televising home games; on Rocky’s ready and extensive checklist, ending blackouts was paramount. Rocky’s reasoning was sound: “If Dad were here, I think he would say that I was trying to enhance the family business.”

It helps to understand the landscape. Bill’s father, Arthur, built the company during the Depression. He was as tough as the times and did not shy away from his nickname, “The Baron of the Bottom Line.” Home games on TV? When Arthur ran the Blackhawks, radio broadcasts began with the second period. He felt that to air all 60 minutes was to give away the product.

“My dad wanted to win,” says Rocky. “I know he did. He might not have articulated it as often or as clearly as he wanted. Do you go home every night and tell your wife you love her? No. Dad had the same goal: to win. I’m not sure everyone around him was as unconditional in that regard, but I do know everyone in our organization now is.

“My belief is that you put the right people in place, give them every bit of support you can financially and emotionally and hold their feet to the fire, then get out of the way. If you have to drop by every day and micromanage, you haven’t got much of an organization. It costs maybe 10 percent more to do things right, but still you can’t buy commitment. We have commitment.”

Rocky has been in the locker room with players present only once: June 9, 2010, in Philadelphia. Otherwise, he says, “That’s not my office.” But at the United Center, he sits in Section 119, among the thousands who have contributed to serial sellouts. His dad volunteered that owners aren’t supposed to be liked, but Rocky is beloved. Why? He tells you he doesn’t really know, but it beats being booed. The subject of popularity is not his favorite, but he cannot deny a certain sense of pride that he and members of the organization are now consulted and sought after, in National Hockey League committee meetings or through conversations with other teams in other endeavors.

"We are one organization," says Wirtz. "The hockey side and the business side and all our other businesses. All committed."

What would the Blackhawks do in this situation? How are the Blackhawks handling that? Is there a way we can do it “The Blackhawks Way”? These questions were not exactly relevant circa 2004, when ESPN Magazine branded the Blackhawks as the worst franchise in professional sports. What has ensued during the current regime represents the quintessential “culture change,” a chic term that does not accurately convey how far the Blackhawks had fallen, on ice and on radar, and what Rocky/McDonough inherited.  Their fans, or what was left of them, were angry, alienated, apathetic or some toxic combination thereof.    

“We should never take them for granted or our pedigree for granted,” says Rocky. “This is an Original Six franchise with great history. If people ask me for my autograph, well, hopefully it’s because they believe us, trust us. I don’t know any other city, but I know Chicago, and you don’t BS people around here. You make a mistake, you admit it and move on. Same as you don’t dwell on the past, you move on. If you don’t want to win, which is what your fans want, you shouldn’t be around. You shouldn’t own the team. It’s not good for the company, and the company comes first.

“Did I ever consider selling this team? No, because I was confident we would turn it around. We are one organization. The hockey side and the business side and all our other businesses. All one. All committed. We have great sponsors, terrific employees, players who get out in the community.  It’s about relationships. Everybody got Stanley Cup rings. Not one ring for the players and a different ring for interns. The same ring.

“We didn’t win the Cup last year, but that doesn’t mean our goal has changed. People, by nature, distrust authority, but if people believe us, then that’s nice to know.  Because we want what they want: a winner. Our job is to entertain and reward fans for their loyalty, and when you see so many people wearing Blackhawks jerseys at the games or on the street in the middle of the summer, that means they feel good about our team, whether they’ve been fans forever or casual fans. You care about the whole triangle, not just the top.”

And once those kids see a game and taste the ice cream, they’ll be back for more.