Rocky Wirtz, chairman of the Blackhawks, dead at 70

One momentary lapse in judgment should never define a man's legacy.

So let's hope Blackhawks principal owner and chairman Rocky Wirtz, who died at age 70 on Tuesday, isn't remembered solely for losing his cool and berating reporters at a town-hall meeting in February 2022.

Wirtz passed away at NorthShore Evanston Hospital after a brief illness, according to a statement released by his son, Danny. Rocky was surrounded by his wife Marilyn and four children at his passing.

"Our hearts are very heavy today," Danny's statement read. "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. ... His passing leaves a huge hole in the hearts of many and we will miss him terribly."

The Hawks have been in the Wirtz family since 1954, and Rocky became the team's fifth principal owner when his father, Bill, died in 2007.

And he immediately got to work, turning around a franchise that was named the worst in pro sports by ESPN in 2004. The headline of that story was, "Rock Bottom."

Less than a month after his dad's death, Rocky brought the Hawks out of the Dark Ages and negotiated a contract with Comcast SportsNet Chicago to televise home games.

Then he called John McDonough, who was president of the Cubs at the time, and hired him to run the Hawks.

The duo welcomed back franchise icons Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull with a stirring on-ice ceremony on March 7, 2008. They also made myriad changes to a franchise that didn't even have a receptionist or director of human resources when McDonough was hired.

A little over two years later, the Hawks were raising a Stanley Cup in Philadelphia. Then another one in 2013 in Boston. Then a third in 2015 in Chicago, defeating Tampa Bay on home ice.

"Everything is first class and that was the vision," McDonough said of Wirtz during a Q&A session with Daily Herald columnist Barry Rozner in 2016. "There has not been one time ... where he has deviated.

"He's a gregarious, scintillating personality - a really positive, warm guy that everybody in our organization wants to win for. So to me, Rocky's as good as it gets."

Wirtz, who also ran Wirtz Corporation for the last 16 years, was also generous with his time and money. One example was his dedication to the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation, which donated millions to youth programs in and around Chicago.

In a team statement, the Hawks also reminded us that Wirtz kept the community in mind when the organization decided to build a $65 million practice arena. It was to be a "community ice rink first and a practice rink second."

That vision was most definitely realized as dozens of youth teams and thousands of kids use Fifth Third Arena every year.

So much good came from Wirtz's 16 years as owner.

Sadly, there was one big black eye - and that was the Kyle Beach sexual abuse scandal that erupted in 2021. It cost GM Stan Bowman and Senior VP of Hockey Operations Al MacIsaac their jobs. Former coach Joel Quenneville, who was coaching the Florida Panthers at the time, was also forced to resign by the NHL. The Blackhawks were fined $2 million by the league.

Less than four months later, the Hawks held a town-hall meeting in an attempt to move the organization forward. Danny was asked what the Hawks were doing to help prevent such incidents in the future, but it was an agitated Rocky who answered.

"The report speaks for itself," he said. "The people that were involved are no longer here. We're not looking back at 2010 (when player Beach was abused by a team video coach). We're looking forward. And we're not gonna talk about 2010. ...

"You don't work for the company. If someone at the company asks that question, we'll answer it. And I think you should get on to the next subject."

Wirtz issued an apology hours later, but the damage was done. A TNT broadcast panel, which included Wayne Gretzky, weighed in during the first intermission of the Hawks game that night.

Many in the organization were crushed afterward, knowing full well that's not normally Rocky's personality.

"His legacy will be tarnished by the scandal, but he was a generous and thoughtful man behind the scenes," said one Hawks employee who didn't want to be identified.

Rocky is survived by his wife Marilyn, and children Danny (Anne) Wirtz, Hillary Wirtz (Erin Quaglia), Kendall (Brendan) Murphy, and Elizabeth Queen (Joe Barley). He also had six grandchildren.

• Follow John on Twitter @JDietzSports

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