Like much of his team’s young fan base, Rocky Wirtz had only known giddiness and rampant success during his tenure as the Blackhawks’ owner. Stars were born, Stanley Cups were hoisted, banners were raised — it all happened so quickly, in such dizzying fashion, that a precipitous plummet like last season’s seemed almost unthinkable.
Unlike some of those newer fans, however, Wirtz is better equipped to handle the sudden adversity. After all, you don’t stand atop a $4 billion-plus family business by panicking at the first sign of trouble.
“We’re in the beverage/alcohol business,” Wirtz told the Sun-Times. “If you have a bad month, you don’t go out and fire everyone.”
But this is hockey, not booze. And the NHL has always been a knee-jerk league, with coaches as disposable as hockey sticks and general managers under constant scrutiny.
So, when Wirtz told Crain’s Chicago Business last month that “nothing lasts forever” and that major changes could be on the horizon if the Hawks are again at the bottom of the standings by the holidays, the seats under coach Joel Quenneville and GM Stan Bowman naturally appeared hotter than ever. (Both men’s positions had to be reaffirmed by team president John McDonough during the last week of the regular season.)
Wirtz on Thursday cooled that talk down considerably, professing his belief in both Quenneville and Bowman. He insisted he wasn’t sending a message and that people simply overreacted. He also made it clear that any firing would not come from him applying pressure on management. McDonough would have to come to him with such an idea, not the other way around.
“You have to allow yourself to be a businessman and not let your ego get out of control on you,” he said. “It’s not all about you — it’s about the company and what can make it better. You’re right, you see a lot of these decisions [around the league] are made at the spur of the moment. It’s something that I hope we never get to. As long as I’m around, we’re never going to allow ourselves to be that way. That said, the Hawks are easily at their lowest point in the Rocky Wirtz era, at least from an on-ice standpoint. With goalie Corey Crawford missing the last 47 games of last season with a head injury, and with much of the remaining core starting to show its age, the Hawks finished dead last in the Central Division, 19 points out of a playoff spot and a whopping 41 points behind the first-place Predators. An underwhelming offseason of minor moves has done little to shrink those gaps. Tickets were available on the secondary market for as low as $10 by the end of the season, and only about 85 percent of season ticket-holders renewed this offseason, putting the Hawks’ remarkable 457-game sellout streak in jeopardy.
But as he prepares for the annual Blackhawks Convention this weekend at the downtown Hilton, Wirtz doesn’t sound terribly concerned about the state of the franchise. Ask him about the aging core, and he says, “I think we’re going to be fine as a team. I’m not worried about it.”
Ask him about those $10 seats on StubHub, and he’ll point out that he sold more than 400 standing-room-only seats for those same games and that they “certainly were more than 10 bucks.”
Ask him about the drop in ticket renewals, and he spins it as a positive that fans who have been on the waiting list since 2010 can finally get seats.
Ask him about the dramatic loss in revenue from ticket sales (and, more important, concessions and parking) after hosting only five playoff games in three years, and he’ll note that the Hawks made so much during the regular season that they’re still among the top 10 teams forced to pay into the revenue-sharing pool for the bottom 10 teams. He’ll note that Bowman still has carte blanche to spend to the $79.5 million salary cap if he sees fit. Oh, and, “We were still able to outdraw Montreal.”
Ask him if he’s worried about losing relevance among the dominant Cubs, the rising Bears and the intriguing Bulls, well, this weekend’s festivities are his answer.
“It’s a reflection of how great the fans are,” Wirtz said. “If you’re up, if you’re down, they’re with you. And there’s nothing better than seeing, on a hot day, people walking up and down Michigan Avenue with their red Blackhawks sweaters on. It’s really something.”
Wirtz is still more concerned about the city’s onerous amusement tax, a windmill against which he’s been tilting for some time now (his companies recently donated $200,000 to Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral challenger, Paul Vallas). He said the tax plays a role in the constantly rising price of tickets for Hawks fans. When asked if he’s concerned that fans are being priced out of the United Center, he replied, “Twelve percent off the top doesn’t help it at all.”
He’s also promoting a new book — “The Breakaway” — about the Wirtz family’s rise to prominence, a warts-and-all portrayal written by local author Bryan Smith that includes the significant family tension and animosity that arose from Rocky taking over the team from his father, Bill Wirtz.
As for the Hawks, Wirtz still believes in Bowman, he still believes in Quenneville, and he still believes in the process. More than anything, though, he still believes in McDonough, to whom he defers much of the credit for the franchise’s turnaround from laughingstock to powerhouse.
McDonough, naturally, returns the favor.
“I’ve been around sports 39 years,” he said in April, after noting the significant financial hit the Hawks were taking from missing the playoffs. “This is the best owner I’ve ever seen. His ‘get-it’ factor is through the roof. He wants to win, he understands what it takes. But he’s empowered me to make these difficult decisions, these twist-and-turn-in-the-middle-of-the-night decisions, the wake-up-at-3:10-and-try-to-get-this-right decisions. He understands it.”
Or, as Wirtz put it: “You want to be in the money every race, but you’re not always going to do it. Once in a while, you’re going to have an off race.”
That 30,000-foot perspective comes from a lifetime in business, but the 2017-18 season was a severe test of that patience, just as it has severely tested a less experienced, more impatient fan base. If the 2018-19 season goes awry, anything is on the table. After all, even McDonough and Wirtz fired Denis Savard just four games into the 2008 season, though Wirtz noted it was something that had been building since the start of training camp, and that having Quenneville waiting in the wings factored in.
But the meek offseason, the focus on defensive prospects, the apparent organizational lack of urgency — does it all mean the notion of the team’s ubiquitous “One Goal” marketing campaign has changed? McDonough told WGN Radio this week that making the playoffs was the priority. Bowman said pretty much the same thing last week at prospect camp.
It used to be about winning the Stanley Cup. Anything less was a failure.
Wirtz, once again, had a quick response.
“You can’t win the Cup unless you’re in the playoffs,” Wirtz said. “The goal is, yeah, you want to be in the playoffs. Then, of course, you want to reach for the brass ring. That’s the whole thing.”