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Friday, June 4, 2010
'He is the reason for all of this'

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- The distance between Rocky Wirtz's private office/lounge and his seats at Gate 119 in the United Center might be 60 yards, but to walk it with him is to deconstruct 50 years of Chicago Blackhawks history.

As he makes his way to his seat, Wirtz is besieged by well-wishers. A television camera crew stops him for a brief interview.

"Thanks, Mr. Wirtz," a fan says.

One man stops Wirtz and tells his young son, "He's the reason for all of this."

At his seat along the corner behind the opposing net, Wirtz poses for pictures. A fan presents a puck. "Will you sign this, Mr. Wirtz?"

"Please, Rocky," he says with a smile.

Rocky Wirtz's father, Bill Wirtz, the polarizing patriarch of the Blackhawks for decades, rarely -- if ever -- sat in these seats. He and son Peter, Rocky's younger brother, would sit in the office/lounge and watch the games on television.

"I used to sit out here by myself," Rocky says. "No one would come and sit with me unless we were entertaining business clients."


A graduate of Northwestern University, Wirtz immersed himself in the family's myriad business interests, including being president of the Wirtz Beverage Group, which is a leading liquor, beer and wine distributor in a number of states. But not the hockey team, which was the domain of Bill and Peter.

Yet, when his father died in the fall of 2007 after presiding as president of the team for 41 years, it was Rocky who took over. He and his father shared the same birth date, and there remains an unwavering respect for his father. "We're not that much different," he said.

They both believed steadfastly in having a vision and pursuing that vision.

His father's vision, however, had in part led the team into a long period of decay. While it might have been painful to begin making changes that highlighted that decay literally days after his father's death, Wirtz knew he had to move swiftly if he was going to reshape the team in his own vision.

When he took over the team, the Blackhawks had the second-lowest attendance in the NHL, the second-lowest ticket prices and a season-ticket base of about 3,400. It was not, Wirtz said with a wry grin, the best hand with which to start play as an NHL owner.

A week after his father's death, Wirtz went to Comcast, the local cable provider of Blackhawks games, and said he wanted to get to work on getting home games on television.

Rocky Wirtz
Rocky Wirtz took over as president of the Hawks after his father's death in 2007.

"They thought I was talking about next season," he said.

He wasn't. By the end of the season, home games were on television for the first time. When he took over, Comcast was selling 30-second commercial spots during Hawks broadcasts for $400. Now they go for $12,000. He hired former Chicago Cubs president John McDonough, who implemented an aggressive, innovative restructuring of the front office.

"My idea is bring in good people and then get out of their way," Wirtz said.

If you just looked at "before" and "after" pictures of this franchise from when Wirtz took over, you would assume it's a relatively easy thing to revive a moribund franchise. It's not, of course.

There were tough decisions, like the firing of coach Denis Savard and the squeezing out of loyal GM Dale Tallon.

"The last two years were almost a blur because there was just so much to do," McDonough told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "There were just things that had to get done. It's been the most challenging time in my life. It's been anything but seamless. If it appears that way, I guess that's good."

Good?

The Hawks now have sold out 101 straight games, with season-ticket holders numbering 14,000. The waiting list for season tickets stands at about 8,000. Sales of Blackhawks merchandise have gone up 325 percent since 2008 (and that's just to the end of this regular season). Blackhawks games have regularly broken local ratings records this spring.

Neither Wirtz nor McDonough is a "hockey guy," per se, but both men are skilled at the art of selling and making connections.

The hockey operations department has worked closely with the business office so both sides can understand what the other is doing, to help bridge the gap that usually exists between the twin solitudes within sports franchises.

"You go up and down the hallway in this building, and you're going to hear a lot of laughter," McDonough said.

When a team is on the cusp of something extraordinary, as the Blackhawks are here in the Stanley Cup finals, there is a temptation to treat it all as though it were a snapshot, as though this is the end of the journey.

It might be on some level, but Wirtz points out that even with the sellouts and the corporate sponsorships and the ratings, the team still isn't making money as a stand-alone enterprise and won't for a couple of more years.

"Nobody's going to get a herniated disc taking bows here," McDonough said.

Still, having been involved with five postseason runs with the Cubs and other seminal events like the first night game at Wrigley Field, McDonough said none of it compares to what is going on now with the Blackhawks.

"This is bigger than any of those, and I never thought I would say that," McDonough said.


Inside the lounge area next to Gate 119 are Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn, state Sen. Bill Brady (Quinn's challenger), a collection of Wirtz's childhood friends, and his wife and daughters. During the first intermission, actor John Cusack drops in to say hello and marvel at the emotion inside the United Center.

Bob Jordan threatens to tell stories of their teenage years, while he and Wirtz laugh at a long-ago trip to the Caribbean. Jordan is a psychologist who also runs a longtime rafting company in Montana. He grew up with Wirtz.

"He was always the social hub of our high school gang," Jordan says.

And the Wirtz home was the gathering place for that group of friends.

A year ago during the playoffs, Jordan saw firsthand what his childhood friend had become in Chicago. "The most common two words are 'Thank you,'" he says.

Not that any of this comes as a surprise to Wirtz's old friend.

"That's how he's always been. He's always been very polite, very sincere," he says. "Whether you're the guy sweeping up the stadium or you're [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman, you're going to get the same Rocky."


Even now, Wirtz admits the whole adoration thing is startling.

"Owners are made to be hated," Wirtz says. "We're the guys that trade away your favorite player."

Not in Chicago these days.

When McDonough called Wirtz to ask him to attend the Blackhawks' fan event this past summer, "I said, 'You've got to be [kidding] me.' Who in their right mind wants an owner's signature?" Wirtz says.

But, sure enough, people waited in line 45 minutes to get a chance to meet Wirtz. It is a stark and shocking departure from the scene that played out at the United Center on the night of Oct. 7, 2007.

The Blackhawks paid tribute to Bill Wirtz as then-GM Tallon gave a eulogy. When Bill's name was mentioned, the crowd unleashed a torrent of boos and catcalls. Rocky knew what to expect.

"I was cringing, waiting for the boos," he said. "They didn't believe ownership was committed to winning."

Whether it was true or not, the perception became the reality. Now, the perception is that this isn't just a team that's all about making money, but rather a team concerned with the fans' feelings, and their experience and connection to the team.

"We don't own the team; we just rent it," Wirtz said. "The fans own it, and a lot of times, they haven't been happy with the renter."

He sells tickets to hockey games, but more than that, he sells tickets to an experience that seemed unlikely, if not downright impossible, just four years ago. Wirtz didn't just rescue the franchise; he reinvented it and gave it new life.

"People don't expect you to be accessible, but it's a game of relationships, and you can't do it by being aloof," Wirtz said.


The first intermission is nearly over. Time to head back to his seat. His team is three wins from a Stanley Cup and a chance to erase half a century of disappointment, a chance to put the crowning touch on a remarkable story of renaissance and rebirth.

"You want to win it so badly," he says. But he doesn't want that "want" to lessen the joy of the experience, so he happily stops for another autograph, another picture.

"Go get 'em, Rocky."

"Three more, Rocky."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.