Rocky’s road: Wirtz remembered as fans’ friend in the stands, fierce fighter in the boardroom

As Blackhawks owner, Rocky Wirtz mingled with fans grateful for the three Stanley Cups the team brought home. He also built and ran a real estate and beverage empire.

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Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, at the United Center in 2010.

Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, at the United Center in 2010.

Jean Lachat/Sun-Times file

Formally, he was W. Rockwell Wirtz.

But he was always just Rocky, a name that fit both for its common-man connotation and the sense that he could be tough when the occasion demanded it.

Rocky Wirtz was the third-generation leader of his family’s businesses. Most Chicagoans knew Mr. Wirtz as the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, and he enjoyed the role to the hilt, often chatting with fans in the stands instead of sequestering himself in a skybox.

But he also ran a wide-ranging group of private businesses, notably including the liquor distributor Breakthru Beverage Group and real estate. Breakthru grew from the former Wirtz Beverage Group via a merger with a New York-based distributor in 2015 and Mr. Wirtz stayed on as co-chairman of the company.

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Rocky Wirtz joins in singing the national anthem at a Blackhawks game in 2009.

Mr. Wirtz, 70, died Tuesday at NorthShore Evanston Hospital following a brief illness. He was surrounded by his wife, Marilyn, and his four children, according to a statement from Wirtz Corp. Friends say he had been experiencing stomach pains for a while, but he thought the symptoms would resolve themselves.

“Our hearts are very heavy today,” son Daniel said. “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.”

Along with his businesses, Mr. Wirtz leaves a long legacy of support for Chicago, including the activities of the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation. He also won city support in recent weeks for a land deal that allowed the Blackhawks to build a community ice arena and practice facility on the West Side.

Chicago Blackhawks owner and chairman Rocky Wirtz visits the site of the new Blackhawks practice facility and community hockey complex on the Near West Side in 2016. 

Chicago Blackhawks owner and chairman Rocky Wirtz visits the site of the new Blackhawks practice facility and community hockey complex on the Near West Side in 2016.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Colleagues remembered Mr. Wirtz for his humility, wit and enduring loyalty. Some recalled his tough-mindedness and willingness to make hard business decisions. And he sometimes didn’t shrink from battling the powers that be.

“He was honest, even about himself,” said Bryan Smith, author of a book about the Wirtz family called “The Breakaway.” Among its stories is an account of how Mr. Wirtz assumed control of the Blackhawks after his father, Bill, died in 2007, taking over a role that could have gone to another family member.

“I think Rocky as a businessperson was so confident in his ‘rightness.’ He was so clear-eyed and absolutely sure he saw what was needed to be done with the club,” Smith said.

That certainty led to three Stanley Cup titles in the NHL.

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz hoists the Stanley Cup at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Driver in 2010.

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz hoists the Stanley Cup at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Driver in 2010.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Wirtz Realty owns vintage and modern apartment buildings and the 333 N. Michigan Ave. office tower, an Art Deco landmark. The business owns more than 20 properties in all. Other interests include First Security Trust and Savings Bank in Elmwood Park, First National Bank of South Miami and Ivanhoe Nursery & Farms, a wholesale nursery on land in Mundelein that the family has owned for more than 150 years. Last year, Mr. Wirtz unveiled a plan to develop 700 acres on the site into more than 3,000 homes.

He also had a crucial role as an investor in the Chicago Sun-Times. His support helped to stabilize the paper during years when traditional revenue sources for media wilted.

Mr. Wirtz was part of an investment group that owned the paper from 2011 to 2017. With businessman Michael Sacks, Mr. Wirtz returned to the Sun-Times’ fold in 2019. At the time, he said, “I believe now, more than ever, we need multiple viewpoints with respect to local coverage, and the Sun-Times plays a key role in that space.”

In 2022, he and Sacks relinquished their Sun-Times ownership when the paper became a nonprofit under the umbrella of Chicago Public Media.

Rocky Wirtz hoists the Stanley Cup in the Sun-Times newsroom in 2013.

Rocky Wirtz hoists the Stanley Cup in the Sun-Times newsroom in 2013.

Sun-Times Media

Mayor Brandon Johnson issued a statement saying Mr. Wirtz “exemplified class and excellence at every turn” while also showing as much respect to a parking lot attendant as to a fellow magnate.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent years at loggerheads with Mr. Wirtz.

But, the former mayor chose to remember his adversary fondly as a “true believer in the city of Chicago who moved the training facility into the city for the first time and ensure kids and families in surrounding neighborhoods participated in the future of the city.”

“He will be missed,” Emanuel wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

Emanuel’s political battles with Mr. Wirtz started with Emanuel’s 2015 refusal to extend an expiring United Center property tax break, killing plans for a $95 million retail-and-entertainment complex in the shadows of the stadium.

After forcing the Cubs to renovate Wrigley Field at their own expense with an influx of outfield-sign revenue, Emanuel was not about to extend the property tax break granted to the United Center at a time when the Bulls and Blackhawks were “pioneers” on the Near West Side.

Emanuel also took a political beating from Mr. Wirtz for his proposal to use $55 million in tax-increment-financing money to build a DePaul basketball arena near McCormick Place that doubles as an “event center.” Mr. Wirtz strongly opposed Wintrust Arena because it competes for concerts against the United Center.

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz in his office with portraint of his grandfather Arthur Wirtz in 2010.

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz in 2010 in his office with a portrait of his grandfather, Arthur Wirtz, who founded the family’s holding company.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The financing was subsequently rearranged to use TIF money to acquire land for a hotel.

Reflecting on his fight with Emanuel, Mr. Wirtz said, “Sometimes I’m watching the Hawks game, and I envision what it would be like to be checked by one of the Blackhawks. After the last few meetings with the mayor, I found out what it feels like to be checked.”

The always sarcastic Emanuel parried: “You may have thought that was a check. In the Emanuel home, that’s the way we say, ‘I love you. Welcome home.’ At family dinners, we’re a contact sport.”

In 2018, Mr. Wirtz got even by signing $200,000 in checks to then-mayoral challenger Paul Vallas, months before Emanuel chose political retirement over the uphill battle for a third term.

Among his many civic credits, Mr. Wirtz belonged to the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, was a board chair of the Field Museum and a trustee at Northwestern University, where he earned a bachelor’s in communications in 1975. He endowed a communications professorship and programs in the performing arts at the school.

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