Blackhawk down: Rocky Wirtz goes from universal approval to widespread disdain

Owner’s embarrassing outburst further tarnishes a franchise still reeling from a sexual-assault scandal.

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Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz hoists the Stanley Cup after his team beat the Flyers in 2010.

Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz hoists the Stanley Cup after his team beat the Flyers in 2010.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I keep coming back to all the goodwill Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz engendered when he brought the franchise in from the cold in 2007. It didn’t take much to begin the thaw of his father’s 24-year deep freeze, but he did it. That’s the point. To fans who had been beaten down by the old man’s mulishness and stinginess, it was as though someone had offered them a beach, a daiquiri and a pair of sunglasses.

Rocky Wirtz ended the blackouts that had kept Hawks fans from watching most home games on TV. He brought back popular broadcaster Pat Foley. He made some of the stars of the past part of the family again after years of acrimony. Obvious stuff but nice stuff.

And Chicago loved him for it.

When the Hawks won three Stanley Cups in six seasons, Wirtz was the closest thing the city had to a knight in shining armor.

And where is all that goodwill now? Gone, done in by a sexual-assault scandal that too many people in the organization turned a blind eye to and then, almost unbelievably, by Wirtz’s own words on the topic at a town hall meeting Wednesday.

What we have here are two studies in human behavior: one in group dynamics and the other in a rich man’s sense of privilege. When Kyle Beach, a Hawks prospect, told the team in May 2010 that video coach Brad Aldrich had sexually assaulted him, key members of the organization decided to delay action because the team was making a run for a Stanley Cup, which it ended up winning. Aldrich resigned after the season, and the Hawks allowed Beach’s allegations to slip away quietly. This is what people do when they think an institution is more important than any individual.

It wasn’t until last year that the darkness met the light, thanks to Beach’s lawsuit against the club. It led to general manager Stan Bowman’s resignation. Joel Quenneville, who had been the Hawks’ coach in 2010, resigned as the coach of the Panthers.

The Hawks had hired a law firm to investigate Beach’s allegations, promised transparency throughout the process and eventually apologized for their sins. Wirtz said the club hadn’t done the right thing but would going forward.

Then came Wednesday, when his imperiousness finished off whatever wisps of goodwill that were left after the scandal.

A reporter asked him at the town-hall meeting at the United Center what the Hawks were doing to ensure that another sexual assault or another mishandled organizational response wouldn’t happen again.

‘‘We’re not going to talk about Kyle Beach,’’ Wirtz said angrily. ‘‘We’re not going to talk about anything that happened. We’re moving on. What we’re going to do today is our business. I don’t think it’s any of your business. You don’t work for the company. If somebody in the company asks that question, we’ll answer it.’’

Then, after being asked the same question later, Wirtz showed more anger.

‘‘I told you to get off the subject,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not going to bring up the [Jenner & Block report]. I know you’re talking about what the report was talking about, and I told you we’re moving on. It’s out of line to ask this line of questions. Why don’t you ask about something else? Why don’t you ask about the [general manager] search? Why do you bring up old business?’’

Wirtz issued an apology hours after the town-hall meeting, but, like a puck crossing the goal line after the buzzer, it was too late.

You can’t hide who you are. Or, at least, it’s hard to hide what’s really hacking you off, especially if you’re someone who is used to people leaping when you give the command to jump. Wirtz’s response was the outraged reaction of a wealthy man who thinks one flickering light bulb has reduced his skyscraper to rubble. His words were not those of a man remorseful about what happened to a 20-year-old hockey player or his company’s response to a kid’s cry for help; they were the words of a man furious that a decade-old incident involving a player who never played in the NHL had brought down his mighty franchise.

The people who have asked why Beach, a strapping hockey player, couldn’t fend off Aldrich’s advances are ignorant of the place that power has in many sexual-assault cases. He wanted to fulfill his dream of making it to the NHL. A video coach, a person in power, took advantage of that. Too many people don’t understand the dynamic. His outburst Wednesday makes me wonder whether Wirtz truly does.

It’s hard to ruin all the goodwill he had built up, yet he has done it. Astonishing. And sickening.

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