The Hockey News - Money & Power
FOR BETTER OR Wirtz, the Chicago Blackhawks have been strictly a family enterprise since 1954. Since William Rockwell ‘Rocky’ Wirtz – the third generation of the clan to own the team – has been chairman, things have been mostly better for the Original Six member.
Chicago missed the playoffs in 2017-18, but in making the post-season the nine previous years, the Blackhawks captured three of their six total Stanley Cups and reclaimed a position as one of the league’s flagship franchises.
Had the Wirtz family not had deep pockets from assets including real estate and liquor distribution, the team might not have enjoyed its recent run led by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews & Co. Years of questionable management by Rocky Wirtz’s father, William ‘Bill’ Wirtz, left the Blackhawks bleeding money and teetering on financial collapse when Rocky took over following Bill’s death in September 2007.
Rocky Wirtz’s role as chairman of the team and the parent Wirtz Corporation had been determined in a succession plan by his grandfather, Arthur Wirtz, a tycoon who had amassed a portfolio of debt-free real estate, cash and gold. That allowed Arthur, nicknamed the ‘Baron of the Bottom Line,’ to buy more buildings, including the Chicago Stadium, at bargain prices during the Great Depression.
Arthur Wirtz’s No. 1 business partner was Canadian James ‘Pop’ Norris, heir to a family fortune. (In 1933, Norris and Arthur Wirtz teamed to buy the Detroit Olympia and the Detroit Falcons, renamed the Red Wings.) The Norrises and Arthur Wirtz bankrolled a syndicate that bought the Black Hawks in 1945 following the death of owner Major Frederic McLaughlin. Arthur Wirtz gained complete control of the Hawks nine years later.
In 2007, Rocky Wirtz channeled money from other Wirtz Corporation holdings into the team, rather than dump a franchise that had become a bottom-feeder. “You wanted to do the family justice and not just throw in the towel,” he said.
He also changed the team’s business practices and culture. Bill Wirtz had grown increasingly bitter, combative, irrational and cheap as his health declined. Rather than invest in the Blackhawks, ‘Dollar Bill’ kept trying to cut costs and warred with fans over, among other things, refusing to televise home games.
Rocky Wirtz, who now sits cordially among fans in the United Center’s lower bowl, brought in former Chicago Cubs boss John McDonough as team president in 2007. Wirtz let McDonough, Jay Blunk and other managers rebuild the organization from the top down. “I didn’t tell John everything,” Wirtz said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to find out about half.’ Actually, I probably didn’t tell him about 90 percent. He would have jumped out a window if I had.”
Entering 2018-19, the Blackhawks had sold out 457 straight home games. Their season-ticket base had grown from 3,400 in 2007 to more than 14,000. According to Forbes, they’re the fourth NHL team to be worth at least $1 billion.
Rocky Wirtz, who grew up and lives in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, oversees the team and the privately held Wirtz Corporation from his grandfather’s office in the fortress-like Furniture Mart building downtown on Lake Shore Drive. The Wirtz Corporation claims more than $2 billion in annual revenues and has 3,000 employees.
Besides commercial and residential properties and two banks, the Wirtz Corporation owns an insurance agency, a farm and nursery, and a video production house. The splashiest portfolio piece is Breakthru Beverage Group, the wine and spirits distribution partnership that operates in 14 states as well as Canada. Rocky Wirtz has led the family’s beverage business, formerly called Judge & Dolph, since 1980.
When it comes to the Blackhawks, Rocky Wirtz is engaged but says he doesn’t dictate to the team’s hockey or business executives. “You want to let people do their jobs, but you want to have boundaries,” he said. “I want to know what their thinking is. The good news is, I don’t get in their way.” – MATT CARLSON