Breaking Down Rocky Wirtz's Game-Changing Impact on the Chicago Blackhawks

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Breaking Down Rocky Wirtz's Game-Changing Impact on the Chicago Blackhawks
Bill Smith/Getty Images
Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz celebrates in 2013.

Rocky Wirtz knew that the Chicago Blackhawks were a sleeping giant when he took over the team in 2007.

Wirtz gained control of the franchise following the death of his father, Bill. While the elder Wirtz had been a dominant businessman who had built a thriving liquor business, his theories in the hockey business had not been as successful.

In addition to using outmoded and failing principles when it came to running his hockey franchise, (Bill) Wirtz's stubbornness was an even bigger factor in the Blackhawks' struggles. The Blackhawks had been in the Wirtz family since the 1940s, and Bill Wirtz was not about to listen to any outsiders when it came to running the Blackhawks. That included his inner circle.

One of those in Wirtz's group of advisers was his son Rocky. He knew his father was not going to change his ways, so he sat by patiently, knowing he couldn't do anything about it.

Rocky Wirtz's key moves
Event What it meant
Put home games on TV Ended long-time policy that had turned fans off.
Hired John McDonough as team president Blackhawks wanted to improve public perception.
Hired Joel Quenneville as head coach Fired former Blackhawks star Denis Savard, but hired coach with proven track record.
Hired Stan Bowman as general manager Gave Blackhawks sharp, rational leadership
Aligned franchise with corporate partners Brought new revenue stream to franchise

Chicago Tribune, Sports Business Daily

But when William died in 2007, Rocky was ready at the controls to change the way the Blackhawks did business.

He had been thinking about what he would do with the team for years, and he finally had his opportunity.

The Blackhawks were not an organization that catered to its fans in any meaningful way. That changed as soon as Rocky took over. He knew the Blackhawks had to honor their fans and respect them with every decision that they made.

One of the first and most recognizable moves was putting Blackhawks' home games on television. His father had steadfastly refused to do it, saying it would be an insult to season-ticket holders—he called them "season reservationists"—and that move had branded his ownership.

Rocky didn't just want to get the good will from putting his team's home game on television, he wanted to win new fans for his team and his sport. 

The Blackhawks had become a team with a cult following. Season-ticket sales were down, and new customers were not coming in with enough frequency to take up the slack. Putting home games on television would be seen as a welcoming gesture, and that's just what Wirtz wanted to provide.

Wirtz knew that he had to change the culture surrounding the franchise, and he wanted to bring a vibrancy to the organization that was almost non-existent. Wirtz hired former Chicago Cubs executive John McDonough to help accomplish that. 

McDonough had been an innovator with the Cubs and had helped win them a new generation of fans. He saw quite a bit of work to do with the Chicago Blackhawks.

McDonough told Melissa Isaacson of ESPN.com in 2011,

The first two years were a blur. We changed out a good percentage of our staff—hockey operations and business operations. There had to be a seismic culture change. We had to have people think differently about themselves and about the Blackhawks. There had to be a really strong sense of urgency too. This wasn't sit back and assess the terrain and see where we are in a couple of years.

Suddenly, the Blackhawks became a business that was trying to change the way it did everything. In addition to the way it dealt with the public, it assessed the way it found talent, hired coaches and recruited sponsors. 

Everything needed to change.

Since Wirtz and McDonough were in charge of making things change and they were in lock-step with one another, the organization started moving swiftly into the 21st century.

The team, itself, started to make improvements prior to Bill Wirtz's death. The two most important moves took place in the 2006 and 2007 drafts. Jonathan Toews was selected in the first round in 2006, and the Blackhawks picked Patrick Kane with the first overall pick a year later.

General manager Dale Tallon clearly had an eye for talent, and he was not shy about signing his best players to long-term contracts.

However, the administrative details on running a team were often lost on Tallon, and the Blackhawks were penalized when he did not properly file qualifying offers to eight players. Tallon had built a brilliant team that would win the Stanley Cup in 2009-10, but the teams's salary commitments had placed it well over the cap.

McDonough was able to go about the delicate business of firing Tallon, a beloved broadcaster and player for the team before he became general manager, and hiring Stan Bowman.

The Blackhawks were forced to get rid of a number of key players and go into a retooling mode after they won the Stanley Cup.

While the Blackhawks could not match their Stanley Cup success in 2011 and 2012, they maintained a high profile as Bowman brought in a strong supporting cast to assist Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.

New players like Corey Crawford, Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad and Michal Rozsival helped the Blackhawks get back to the top. They had a brilliant 2013 season that saw them set a record at the start of the season by going 24 straight games without a regulation loss. 

They culminated the year with a six-game triumph over the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blackhawks have grown dramatically. In 2004, ESPN Magazine ranked the Blackhawks No. 119 among the 120 MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL franchises. In Forbes Magazine's recent valuation of the 30 NHL franchises, the Blackhawks were ranked No.5 at $625 million. They are the second-ranked U.S.-based franchise behind the New York Rangers.

Much of that improvement is due to the team's success on the ice. However, Wirtz takes nothing for granted and is working to upgrade the experience of the sponsors, advertisers, fans and players.

That attitude plays a huge role in Chicago's rise to the top and should help keep the Blackhawks at or near the top for years.

 

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