In the pantheon of owners of Chicago sports franchises, Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz is one of a kind.
Rather than earn a reputation as a penny-pincher like his late father Bill Wirtz did, tout his blue collar roots as a fan of the team he owns like Cubs owner Tom Ricketts or be a larger-than-life figure with big spheres of influence in the sports, Rocky has largely marched to the beat of his own drummer and has become beloved in the Chicago sports community.
That love and affection was on full display Friday night during the opening ceremony of the Blackhawks Convention at the Chicago Hilton. At that event, Wirtz got one of the biggest ovations of the night when he was announced and even got his own “ROCKY-ROCKY” chant in the packed ballroom.
Obviously, everyone following the Blackhawks’ resurgence from doormat to toast of the town over the past few years is familiar with Wirtz’s story. Taking over a struggling team from his father when he passed away, Rocky decreed that home games be televised, hired John McDonough away from the Cubs to be the team’s president and chief cheerleader, and poured money into payroll and scouting to make the team a competitive franchise both on and off the ice.
The results have been dramatic, with two Stanley Cup championships and five consecutive playoff appearances occurring over Wirtz’s tenure as controlling owner.
The Chicago Tribune, however, dove deeper than that surface narrative. In a series of features about the team owners in the city, the paper recounted in interesting detail how Rocky came to own the controlling stake in the Blackhawks:
“His brother, Peter, was the senior vice president of the team and seemingly groomed over two decades while Rocky managed the family’s wholesale wine, beer and spirits business, one of many assets held under the family’s billion-dollar-plus empire.
“Rocky’s grandfather, Arthur Wirtz, who founded Wirtz Corp, had spelled out in his 1965 trust that control over his businesses would transfer to his sons, Bill and Michael, and from there to Bill’s son Rocky, according to a Wirtz lawyer.
“So Rocky’s ascension to lead the family business upon Bill’s death was not a surprise. What happened next was. Within days of Bill’s funeral, Peter announced that he was leaving the family’s businesses, including the Blackhawks. Rocky would run the team.”
The piece also made an attempt to figure out the plan of succession for both the company and the hockey team:
“While ownership is shared among family members, Arthur insisted that authority over the family’s corporate assets –and the Blackhawks—sit with one person to reduce infighting. Arthur also made provisions to ensure the company remained in the family. When a family member wants to sell, any shares must be offered back to the company at a discount.”
The piece also goes into several other areas, including the assertion by the Wirtz family that despite all of the team’s success, it is not a profitable enterprise. It is a beautifully textured story, and one worthy of a read by all Blackhawks fans. It definitely provides a deeper look into an owner that is so beloved by the fanbase that they chant his name in praise instead of derision, and gives a fuller perspective of what is going on behind the scenes in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history.