Sports fans forgive all sorts of indignities that local owners dish out to their clientele. Fans can wrap their brains around realistic financial limitations. They understand the results of incompetence. Stadiums will always be packed full of enthusiastic crowds when they know their local heroes are playing hard. But there are some things fans will never forgive. Just ask old school Chicago Blackhawks devotees.
For 41 years Blackhawks owner “Dollar” Bill Wirtz refused to televise home games. He thought it was unfair to season ticket holders. From 1966 to his death in 2007 he shipped off star after star and cried poor despite sellout after sellout. Wirtz and his perennial henchman Bob Pulford were content to keep their heads above playoff waters and collect the extra gates. Worst, and most unforgiveable, he held on to the belief that if the Blackhawks actually won a Stanley Cup, he would have to pay his players market value.
The years passed after the Blackhawks last Stanley Cup championship of 1961. The closest Chicago came to bringing the Cup home was 1971 during a seven-game series loss to Montreal. They went back in 1973 and lost to Montreal in six. The years passed. They reached the Final in 1992 and were swept by Pittsburgh. Wirtz would never see another Chicago team play for the Stanley Cup again. The years passed.
Wirtz summed up his organizational philosophy in the prelude to the 2004-2005 lockout, “The players keep wanting more and more. Pretty soon they’ll want the key to my door. I love them all. But I love my door even more.” The doors to United Center were open. As the years passed, fewer and fewer fans were walking through them.
Bill Wirtz died on September 26, 2007. His relationship with Chicago fans reached a posthumous low point at the October 6th opening of the new season. GM Dale Tallon gave a speech in memoriam and then asked for a moment of silence. Bryan Smith from Chicago Magazine brilliantly described the scene:
Grumbles grew into jeers, jeers into hisses and catcalls. Then, at the first mention of Bill Wirtz’s name, a rolling thunder of boos—loud, sustained, and angry—swept the stands like a moving curtain of dark rain.
One member of the audience that night would not forget the mood – Bill’s son Rocky Wirtz. Bill died in September of 2007. Rocky muscled his way to chairman in October, and hired John McDonough as team president in November. John McDonough had spent the previous 24 years cutting his teeth while making the Chicago Cubs a merchandising monster. The United Center ice and Blackhawks brand went from mushy to slick in a span of two months.
Whether he knew it or not, Chicago’s hockey ice had been moving beneath Bill Wirtz’s feet for several years. Tallon, hired as GM in 2005, replaced Pulford and began assembling a formidable cast that would eventually bring home three Stanley Cups. Tallon helped oversee the following draft picks:
- 2002 2nd-round pick Duncan Keith
- 2003 1st-round pick Brent Seabrook and 2nd-round pick Corey Crawford
- 2004 2nd-round picks Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell
- 2005 4th-round pick Niklas Hjalmarsson
- 2006 1st-round pick Jonathan Toews
- 2007 1st-round pick Patrick Kane
Tallon traded for Patrick Sharp and signed Marian Hossa to a massive 12-year contract. Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa have all been major parts of the Blackhawks’ three Stanley Cups in six years. He also hired Joel Quenneville. Stan Bowman replaced Tallon in 2009 and continued to recharge the roster to championship levels.
Armed with the zeal of “new” ownership, a young and explosive roster, and a legendary logo John McDonough cleaned house. The efforts of Rocky Wirtz, McDonough, Tallon, and Bowman launched the Chicago Blackhawks into the stratosphere of professional sports success. Drive from the United Center to any Chicago suburb and you will be inundated with bumper stickers, license plate holders, t-shirts, sweaters, and hats that all bear the unmistakable feathers and tomahawks. The black and red merchandising boom is backed by Stanley Cup currency in silver. “Beneath all of this marketing strategy and new enlightenment, there is an underlying story line,” says Blackhawk historian Bob Verdi. “And that is Rocky’s desire to win at all costs – a passion that his dad didn’t share.”
In eight short years Rocky Wirtz rescued the Blackhawks from the dregs of professional sports. He transformed the organization into the pride of Chicago. The glaring success of the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty is reflected by millions of flashbulbs off the chiseled names on the Stanley Cup. Three times in six years the city will hold a parade with hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. It is a hard thing to remember when the 22,000-seat United Center opened its doors to 7,000 paying customers.