REMEMBERING ROCKY WIRTZ
By Bill McLean
By Bill McLean
Fans chanting “Rock-y! Rock-y! Rock-y” at Chicago Blackhawks home games at the United Center had nothing to do with celebrating a certain cinematic boxer and everything to do with acknowledging the presence of an avid, real-life hockey fan—W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz, the Blackhawks’ principal owner and chairman.
“Rocky liked to sit in the stands during games,” says Lake Forest resident David Sweet, an author, journalist, and hockey dad. “That’s unusual for an owner, in any professional sport, and his seat wasn’t the best in the house. Fans loved shouting his name as soon as they saw him. Fans also loved and respected the likable Rocky because he was approachable and engaging.”
“Rocky Wirtz was as popular to Blackhawks fans as the team’s star players were,” says former Daily Herald Lake County High School Sports Editor Joe Aguilar, who also covered the Blackhawks, including games during the franchise’s Stanley Cup-winning seasons in 2010, 2013, and 2015. “He connected with fans. Rocky was beloved, a man of the people.”
Countless people in all walks of life—family, friends, blue- and white-collar hockey fans, business associates, fellow philanthropists, employees (past and present) of Chicago’s Original Six franchise and other National Hockey League organizations—mourned the passing of Wirtz last week. The Winnetka resident died at NorthShore Evanston Hospital on July 25 after a brief illness.
He was 70.
Mr. Wirtz was surrounded by his wife, Marilyn, and his four children—Danny, Hillary, Kendall, and Elizabeth—at the time of his death.
“Our hearts are very heavy today,” Danny Wirtz, the Blackhawks’ CEO, said in a statement on July 25. “Our dad was a passionate businessman committed to making Chicago a great place to live, work and visit, but his true love was for his family and close friends.
“He was a loving father, a devoted husband to Marilyn, a brother, a nephew, an uncle and a doting grandfather to six remarkable grandchildren,” the son continued. “His passing leaves a huge hole in the hearts of many, and we will miss him terribly.”
Rocky Wirtz, a North Shore Country Day (1971) and Northwestern University (1975) graduate, became the Blackhawks’ fifth principal owner after his father, Bill Wirtz, died in 2007; Rocky’s grandfather Arthur Wirtz owned the team from 1966-1983. Rocky also ran the liquor distributor Breakthru Beverage Group. Holdings in his Wirtz Corp. included banking, real estate, and entertainment entities.
The Chicago Blackhawks Foundation, the official charity of the franchise, meant the world to him. It works to create a healthier, smarter, and more secure world for children and families in Chicago and the suburbs. The foundation’s First Stride program introduces ice skating and hockey to students throughout the Chicago area.
“It was a vision of Rocky Wirtz from the first day,” Annie Camins, then the Blackhawks’ senior executive director of fan development, told Fred Mitchell of chicagoblackhawks.com in 2018. “He wanted it for the community.”
Wirtz served as a Field Museum board chair and belonged to the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, which works with business leaders, public officials, and other civic and community initiatives to promote the social and economic wellbeing of the region.
The Chicago Blackhawks made only one playoff appearance from 1998-2008. In 2004, ESPN selected the franchise as the worst in professional sports. Sweet, in an article he wrote for nbcnews.com in 2008, noted the season-ticket base in the 2007-2008 season was a meager 3,400.
“Bad product, bad rosters,” Aguilar says of the Blackhawks’ bleak stretch of seasons. “The Blackhawks were irrelevant to Chicago sports fans for too many years. That ESPN distinction was earned. Bill Wirtz’s refusal to air home games upset a fan base that used to be such a passionate one. Rocky then took over, hired (former Chicago Cubs President) John Mc- Donough, who was known for his excellence in marketing, and decided to air all Hawks home games (beginning in 2008-2009, when the number of season-ticket holders soared to 13,500).
“Home games, suddenly, became sellouts,” Aguilar adds. “Rocky Wirtz’s popular decisions coincided with the return to winning—everybody loves a winner, right?—and introduced hockey to a new generation of Blackhawks fans. He also brought back (radio/TV play-byplay announcer) Pat Foley and named icons and fan favorites Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita team ambassadors.”
Chicago’s turnaround in the NHL was stunningly fast and wonderful. The Blackhawks reached the Western Conference Final in Rocky’s second season as principal owner in 2008-2009. Blackhawks superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews emerged as versions of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in skates.
And then the organization needed only six seasons to notch a hat trick of Stanley Cup championships. Chicago halted a 49-year Cup drought when it beat Philadelphia in 2010.
“The hottest ticket in town was a Blackhawks ticket, just like it was in the 1970s,” recalls Sweet, whose son David Jr. earned team MVP honors in hockey as a senior at Lake Forest Academy in 2022. “It was amazing what Rocky did to revitalize the Blackhawks in such a short period of time.”
Sweet’s son Ford, another hockey player, will be a junior at LFA this fall.
Lake Forest Academy Athletic Director Darrin Madeley doubles as the school’s boys hockey coach. He considers Kane and former Blackhawk Alex DeBrincat (LFA, 2016) good friends. Madeley served as a U.S. National Team coach in 2004, the year before he arrived at the academy.
Kane skated for that national squad.
“I grew up outside Toronto, and the Hawks were rivals, so I was not a Chicago fan,” Madeley says. “I was worried when the Blackhawks drafted Pat because that was a bad period for the franchise and Pat was a generational talent. Mr. (Rocky) Wirtz then showed how an owner can make a difference, and he brought the fans back.
“Once they arrived,” he adds, “they saw how good Pat was and watched the organization build a dynasty. That only happens if the owner is about winning and (establishing) a champion’s mentality.”
Sustained hockey success at the professional level in Chicago expanded and enlivened youth hockey leagues in the city and suburbs. Every late autumn, boys and girls asked moms and dads, “Will you build an ice rink in our back yard?” Adults who had never been interested in hockey before 2010 boned up on the sport’s rules and penalties, like icing, offside, and boarding.
A Blackhawks playoff hockey game wasn’t just a game after Rocky ascended to principal owner—it was a major event. Sports bars packed with Blackhawks sweater-wearing patrons throbbed and nearly burst. Fans couldn’t get “Chelsea Dagger,” the lively, catchy song that blared after each Hawks goal, out of their minds but didn’t mind the earworm in the least.
Maybe chanting “Rock-y! Rock-y! Rock-y” at home games was another way of shouting “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Funeral arrangements are pending.