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Book details team, family dysfunction late in Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz’s life

Former Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz in 2000. He died in 2005. (Sun-Times photo)

We talk about memory loss and dementia and the way those issues are a sad part of too many football and hockey players’ futures, the result of head-banging and chronic traumatic encephalopathy that can develop in their brains.

But what if, say, an iron-fisted owner of a pro team is afflicted with memory loss and dementia? Not from CTE but from aging, illness or causes unknown?

In his book ‘‘The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks,’’ former Sun-Times writer Bryan Smith — now a senior writer at Chicago magazine — suggests late Hawks owner and emperor Bill Wirtz was mentally incapacitated toward the end of his reign.

‘‘Dollar Bill,’’ as he sometimes was known because of his cheapskate ways, ruled the Hawks with authority for four decades until his death in 2007, making every move — or no move — with little interference from underlings. Lackeys, know-nothings and old-time hockey cronies in the Hawks’ organization kept the façade rolling.

Though successful at the start of his tenure after taking over for his gigantic father — the imperial ‘‘King’’ Arthur Wirtz, who was 6-4 and 340 pounds — Wirtz allowed the once-proud Hawks to degenerate into a sorry mess, a franchise losing at least $20 million a year for years on end. By 2004, things were so bad that ESPN named the Hawks the worst-run franchise in pro sports.

The irrelevance in which the Hawks wallowed reached absurd mass the year Wirtz died when, in a case of mistaken identity, ‘‘star’’ forward Tuomo Ruutu, who had been jogging near the team’s practice facility in Bensenville, was stopped by police and taken into custody because they thought he was an armed robber.

Wirtz seemingly did a lot of things just to stick it to his critics, such as refusing to put home games on TV, regardless of logic. Obstinacy was rooted in his nature. The empty seats and hemorrhaging coffers couldn’t change him. More and more, however, he appeared to be doing things that couldn’t be explained by arrogance or frugality.

Elder son Rocky, who worked in the family’s liquor company, was deeply concerned. Younger son Peter seemed to notice less.

‘‘It was becoming clear to Rocky that his father was having problems with dementia,’’ Smith said when we met to discuss the book. ‘‘Or, at the very least, seriously debilitating memory issues.


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‘‘He was supposed to be at a board meeting in the Loop, and he called to say that he’d be late, that he had driven to some place like Joliet or a suburb at least an hour away. And he knew Chicago like a cab driver. Other times, he’d call his secretary and tell her, ‘I’m lost.’ ’’

But when Peter told his father that Rocky suspected he had dementia, Wirtz exploded.

‘‘Bill went totally nuclear ballistic,’’ Smith said. ‘‘He excommunicated Rocky.’’

After that came heartrending letters from Wirtz to Rocky’s children — his own grandkids — that told them not to show up for Thanksgiving dinner and that he’d drop off their Christmas presents. Father and son stopped talking. The brothers separated.

In the book, Smith describes how Wirtz held a morning meeting with a friend at his house and burned their breakfast several times. The friend heard Wirtz trying to buy Walmart stock for ‘‘the sole purpose of protesting plans by the retailing giant to put a store across from the family farm in Fremont, outside Wauconda.’’

Hawks fans, sadly, were waiting for Wirtz to die, crazy or not, so the team could enter the 21st century. But matters degenerated more at the end because Wirtz wanted Peter to take over the team, not Rocky, the man Arthur’s succession plan demanded.

‘‘Bill went insane that he was being controlled from the grave by his father,’’ Smith said. ‘‘But the succession plan was binding.’’

The book again makes it clear how close the Hawks were to bankruptcy. Rocky took over as chairman at the start of the Great Recession, when simply getting fans out of their houses to do anything that cost money was hard.

Then came the hirings of president John McDonough and coach Joel Quenneville and three Stanley Cup titles in six seasons. Wirtz always was booed at games. Rocky is cheered, even on the street.

‘‘Sometimes people have tears in their eyes,’’ said Smith, who tailed Rocky and has his full backing for this tell-all. ‘‘They always just say, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ ’’

Yet the book haunts its author.

‘‘As I dug deeper into the family story, I was stunned,’’ he said. ‘‘The dysfunction was of Shakespearean proportions — father and son, son and son . . . ’’

Nothing’s ever as easy as dropping the puck.