Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz kept a low profile during the NHL lockout, but he was solidly behind commissioner Gary Bettman.
Wirtz, a member of the league’s board of governors executive committee, is allowed to talk now and told the Daily Herald he doesn’t believe the NHL suffered any lasting damage during the more than three-month shutdown. He also said he was prepared for the season to be canceled if it came to that.
Here is the full question-and-answer session with the Hawks owner.
Q. What damage was done to the game?
A. “I don’t think any, to be honest with you. Short term there’s pain. I think you have the natural anger and resentment and disappointment, but long term I don’t think there was any damage because the owners and players are truly joined at the hip now with a 50-50 deal. The owners can’t do any better and the players can’t do any worse and vice versa.
“It behooves both of us to build this game back to where it was. We said that seven years ago, but when the players have 57 percent and the owners get 43 … you can say it all day long, but now you really have incentive for both people to grow the game. The more we grow the game the more the players are going to have. You can’t be any fairer than 50-50.”
Q. Was this necessary?
A. “I do because there were too many teams losing money. I don’t know how many because the league doesn’t share that, but I know there are plenty that were really having trouble. The thing you have now is all 30 teams have the ability to make money. If we’re struggling making money in Chicago, in an Original 6 market, I can imagine if you’re in a nontraditional market how tough it is.”
Q. Are you losing money?
A. “Yeah, we are. As far as just the Hawks themselves, we’re not where we have to be. We’re shrinking the gap, but we started six years ago with such low ticket prices, we were second lowest in the league. We’ve been able to inch them up, but you can only go up so much. Now we’re able to get other ancillary income, if it’s corporate sponsors, which help a lot. The fans have to realize it’s 12 percent off the top goes to the county and city, so for every Blackhawk ticket you’re dealing with 88-cent dollars. You’re not dealing with 100 cents on the dollar before you pay the rent on the United Center or anything else.”
Q. What are your plans to win back those unhappy fans?
A. “We’re certainly going to address it for the fans, both season-ticket holders and those that don’t have tickets. I think the best way is to get back on the ice and show this great game to them. Just let the process work itself out.”
Q. Where there plans in place to cancel the season??
A. “Absolutely. I was prepared personally. I had ear marked money for what it would take to cancel. I didn’t know until the very end. I gave it a 50-50 chance that we would not have a season. I was prepared that the season wasn’t going to go. If the owners and the players couldn’t get on the same page, those deadlines were true deadlines.”
Q. What are your thoughts on Gary Bettman?
A. “Gary Bettman did exactly what the owners asked him to do. I don’t see any difference than what Don Fehr did for his players. Don Fehr did a great job negotiating and representing his players, and I think Gary Bettman equally a good job in doing what the owners asked him to do.
“They said we have to get to some kind of contract that everyone can make money and if that means you have to cancel the season, you have to cancel the season. But the owners were all in lock step. I read some things that there were groups out there that wanted to do different things, but the owners were very united.”
Q. Did anybody win this thing?
A. “I don’t think anyone won. It was difficult because you lose money on the short term, the players lost money. I think it’s a win-win long term and in the short term no one won.”
Q. Jonathan Toews had some strong comments. What do you think of those?
A. “I think he was speaking from the heart of what he believed, and I respect his views. I just think Jonathan hasn’t gone through labor negotiations and unfortunately sports is a labor negotiation and it’s a process. So many times, as frustrating as the process is, what you heard from Jonathan wasn’t personal. I just think it was frustration. I respect the frustration, but you have to have gone through labor negotiations to realize what kind of process you go through. Some of it’s just a lack of knowledge.
“When the players hired Don Fehr you knew exactly what the process was going to be because he wasn’t going change at this stage of his business career what he had done in the past any more than what Gary Bettman had done in the past. If Jonathan had been around back then, I think he would have realized this is the process you have to go through.”
Q. How close did you come to layoffs?
A. “Even if we canceled the season we weren’t going to lay anyone off. We knew that this was going to end some time. It took six years to get the organization where it is today with full-time staff members. When it was going to end we wanted to hit the ground running.”
Q. What would you say to those fans who remain bitter or angry?
A. “All I can say is thank you for sticking with us and I’m sorry that we couldn’t start the season on time. I want to thank them for their passion that they’re angry. Don’t forget back before fans were so indifferent they couldn’t care less when we lost the season. I’m thankful that they’re at least angry. Hopefully they trust us that we’re going to do everything we can to put the best team on the ice and set our sights high that we want to win.”
Q. Do you like this team?
A. “I do. I think there are quite a few question marks, like with anything, but I think we have a good nucleus and I like the development at Rockford. In this shortened season we’re going to need those players. With injuries, if you don’t have any kind of bench you’ve got a real problem.”
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