Rozner: Pressure now on Blackhawks' Rocky Wirtz to get it right

  • Rocky Wirtz, at the 2015 Stanley Cup rally at Soldier Field, has an important decision to make.

    Rocky Wirtz, at the 2015 Stanley Cup rally at Soldier Field, has an important decision to make. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 4/28/2020 10:16 PM

There was a time 15 or 20 years ago when I would mention in passing to my Daily Herald bosses Doug Ray and John Lampinen that if I should happen to vanish from the planet, they will want to point the cops to West Madison Street.

That's where they ought to start, in the Blackhawks' front office.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On the long list of those who have ever hated me, no one had more interest in seeing me disappear than Bill and Peter Wirtz.

And I wasn't kidding.

So it was with some shock that I heard from the PR man who looks out for Rocky Wirtz. It was about two weeks after Bill Wirtz died and Rocky wanted to get together for drinks.

If I had any friends, I would have brought one along for backup.

But while everyone thought Peter Wirtz would be the new boss after years of working for his father, I knew the real story and had written when Bill died that Rocky would get the team.

Rocky had displayed great courage in staying away from a franchise that he loved so that when the time came to take over, he could do so without the Wirtz stink on him.

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"I wasn't even in the press guide," Rocky told me in October 2018. "I had been an alternate governor for 20 years, and they didn't even have me listed as an alternate governor.

"It was hard to stay away, but we had so many other businesses and thank God we did because I could concentrate on those. My job was to raise enough money in the other businesses to cover the losses from the Hawks.

"Behind the scenes, I would give my thoughts, and my dad and Peter would take their anger out on me because they didn't agree with me.

"They'd get up and walk out. They'd be in their offices or another room and they'd wall me off, shut the door and keep me out. Or they'd walk away and go somewhere else. It was obvious they didn't want me around and that's fine. I just had to grin and bear it."

When his father died, Rocky knew massive changes had to be made, and when we had beverages in mid-October 2007, he wanted to know everything I knew and everything I thought.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And I did not hold back.

It was so ugly after an hour or so that his PR guy said, "Lighten up a little, would you?"

I asked Rocky if he had heard enough. He said he had not. So on we went for at least another hour.

It was brutal, but one of the suggestions I made that day was that he needed John McDonough, someone who could build an organization from scratch and someone who could market a sleeping giant.

The Hawks' had no business operation. Hockey ops consisted mostly of Bob Pulford pals who wore leisure suits and used pencils.

I seriously doubt he needed me to tell him about McDonough, but I wasn't stunned when it happened a month later, the Hawks needing a big presence and someone to be the face of the tough decisions that would soon arrive.

Unlike his father and brother, Rocky Wirtz said he would be "hands off" once he put someone in charge and he stayed true to that for 13 years.

The result was McDonough made unpopular calls involving very popular personalities. He built an organization out of nothing on the business and hockey sides, and what exists now -- three Stanley Cups later -- is one of the best franchises in all of sports.

Obviously, the last few years on the ice have been difficult, and it is no easy task trying to make the playoffs and rebuild at the same time.

It hasn't worked and that's probably why McDonough was fired Monday. As of Tuesday, he told friends he still did not know why he was let go, but to understand Rocky is to believe that he did not want to meddle, that he believed in being "hands off" and following the chain of command.

So rather than tell McDonough to fire Stan Bowman or perhaps argue about the future of the front office and the direction of the team even if Bowman stays, he chose a clean break from the team president.

There is nothing else logical, especially since McDonough had a long-term deal and doesn't currently have a clue why he was bounced.

There will be speculation that McDonough rubbed too many people the wrong way and that he was a nightmare to work for, something he readily and frequently admitted, but you can't argue with the success the Hawks had under him.

He rid the Hawks of the frauds, of the lazy and of the underachieving, and he refused to hold someone's hand and pat them on the head when a kick in the ass was needed.

He was unafraid to tell someone the truth in a world where no one wants to hear it anymore.

And he turned the Hawks into a model franchise, one the NHL points to whenever it wants to hold a big event or do something right, and in that regard Gary Bettman would be wise to bring McDonough into the NHL offices.

He transformed the Hawks in only a few years and it remains one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in sports history.

"My plan was to get really good people, and hiring John McDonough, I pat myself on the back for that one because it was the best sell job I ever did on anybody or anything," Rocky said in 2018. "Think about it. He was president of the Cubs, president of a major league baseball team, had done a spectacular job selling out the park and made Wrigleyville a destination.

"Why would he want to come to the Hawks? I knew what he wanted more than anything was winning.

"I told him, 'Before I hang up my logos, we're going to win it all.' And he believed me. And that was it. If you go fishing, you set the hook. I was going to reel it in because I knew he wanted to win something."

That is something the Hawks did plenty of during the greatest decade in the history of the franchise.

In the process, McDonough took the bullets when things did not go well, but now the focus will be on Wirtz and what he does next, the next round of changes and the men replacing those who have been and will be fired.

Rocky Wirtz is beloved, and rightly so. What he was willing to do before he got the team and after he arrived is the stuff of legend, especially following in his father's footsteps.

But you're beloved only until you're not. And now the pressure is on Rocky to get it right.

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