Three months after becoming the Blackhawks’ interim president and initiating a thorough review of the organization, Danny Wirtz internally unveiled a new vision for the franchise’s future last week.
On Thursday, Wirtz described that vision in an interview with the Sun-Times.
“The new vision for the Blackhawks is to reimagine the potential of hockey,” Wirtz said. “Embedded in that vision is a real focus around inclusion, growth, engaging new audiences, ensuring that our internal culture is an inclusive culture and — at the end of the day — [making sure] that we’re delivering elite hockey on a consistent basis, year after year.
“Now, the challenge for us is to take those words and ideas and put them into practice.”
Wirtz, the son of team chairman Rocky Wirtz, admitted the philosophy is vague, but it is intentionally. It’s intended to provide a general framework, not a step-by-step plan, for the Hawks moving forward.
But he did describe in detail several key components of the team’s long-term goals, which are designed to move the franchise beyond its Stanley Cup dynasty period and into the rapidly changing 2020 sports universe.
“It really does go into knowing our fans better,” he said. “We’ve got fans that come to us from very different starting points. Generationally, geographically, racially, there’s just so many ways in which we can think about the growth of our fan base, from those that are on board with us today and then all of the many potential fans that are out there.”
“And then there’s a lot of reimagination of some of the components of our business model. How will tickets be sold in the future? What will a game experience be like? Not just from the impacts of COVID, but just [because] we’re living in a digitally connected world. The idea [is] that experiences can be more personalized.
“This intersection of change in the world, with sports and entertainment, opens up a lot more opportunity.”
The Hawks have already made several structural changes this summer.
Most notably, longtime president John McDonough was fired on April 27, allowing Danny Wirtz to move into the interim presidency role and head the search for a new president. Wirtz had previously operated on the periphery of the hockey franchise and worked more directly with his family’s beverage and realty companies.
Rocky Wirtz said at the time that the Hawks needed a “new mindset to successfully transition the organization to win.” Danny Wirtz briefly expanded upon that decision Thursday.
“Everything that we said, we obviously stand behind,” Danny Wirtz said. “Rocky’s desire to look forward and reset ourselves for the future, that’s really the spirit of it. We’re not looking back.”
He also implied that the presidency search remains in relative infancy. Hiring a new president will serve as the “end result” of the vision-building process.
“Until you have that road map, you can end up just poking different holes in different things instead of getting to the root of the type of change you want to drive,” he said.
In the hockey operations department, assistant general manager Norm Maciver was moved to the head of a new scouting team and Mark Eaton, Ryan Stewart and Kyle Davidson were promoted to assistant general managers to divvy up Maciver’s duties, among other changes.
Wirtz said those changes were planned and executed by general manager Stan Bowman, who discussed the rationale behind them earlier this month, and were already in motion before he assumed the role as interim president.
They nonetheless are “in line with the type of mindset we want to have as an organization, taking some of his emerging leaders and putting them in a position to grow their careers,” Wirtz said.
Wirtz offered “words for support” for Bowman and coach Jeremy Colliton, suggesting their positions are secure.
“Being here in Edmonton, I’ve had a chance to spend more time with Stan, [vice president] Al MacIsaac and Jeremy Colliton and just get a deeper understanding of the thinking around the hockey-operations system, the current state of our team and the direction we’re going,” he said. “And I’m quite encouraged and excited.”
Additionally, the Hawks merged their community-relations department — previously under their marketing umbrella — with the Blackhawks Foundation, which was also reimagined after director Sara Guderyahn’s hiring last November.
“[Sara has] done a terrific job resetting the objectives and strategy for the foundation,” Wirtz said. “Under her direction, we’re now also going to include community relations, which is very much tied to a lot of the efforts that fall under the foundation work.”
The Hawks’ summer of change comes during a watershed moment for the NHL, with the coronavirus pandemic halting the 2019-20 season for 140 days — costing the Hawks their final seven scheduled home games — and delaying the planned start of the 2020-21 season until December at the earliest.
Economically, the pandemic created what was largely a “no-revenue environment” for the Hawks, Wirtz said.
“We’re in the business of putting people in seats and the revenue that comes from that,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not in that situation right now.”
The Hawks finally returned to television Wednesday with an exhibition win over the Blues, and they’ll start the playoffs Saturday against the Oilers.
Wirtz credited the league’s return-to-play plan for allowing the Hawks to start following through again on some of their sponsorships.
“But overall, it has been a very significant impact to our financial situation,” he said. “That being said, we will mitigate this time . . . [and], as we always have as a family, we play the long game. Whether it was my great-grandfather, my grandfather or my dad, they’ve gone through recessions before, they’ve gone through other crises, and the Blackhawks have come back out the other end.”
There’s no timeline yet for the implementation of the newly announced vision, even though the “work has started” to identify more specific goals.
And personally, Wirtz said he hasn’t yet determined or contemplated his own long-term role with the Hawks. But he plans to be around, in some capacity, for good.
“It’s been an amazing experience getting closer to the organization and really helping co-create this vision,” he said. “Formally, how it all pans out, we’ll figure that out. But in the meantime and absolutely going forward, the Wirtz family will continue to lead this organization and to help establish its goals.”