April 20, 2024

Rocky Wirtz, Chairman of Chicago N.H.L. Team, Dies at 70

W. Rockwell Wirtz, nicknamed Rocky, the chairman of the N.H.L.’s Chicago Blackhawks, died Tuesday at age 70.

The Blackhawks announced Wirtz’s death on their Twitter account but did not list a cause or location.

“Our hearts are very heavy today,” Danny Wirtz, Rocky’s son and the chief executive of the team, said in a statement. “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.”

Wirtz’s grandfather Arthur had gained control of the team in 1954, when Rocky was 2 years old, after working in real estate. Arthur Wirtz’s other interests included a hotel and a furniture business. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971 and is credited for using his “financial might to help solidify the standing of the N.H.L. in the United States.”

Today, the family’s businesses, through the Wirtz Corporation, include real estate, insurance, banking, beverage distribution and sports and entertainment. Rocky Wirtz had been the president of the corporation and the chairman of team since 2007, having assumed the roles after the death of his father, William.

While Chicago hockey fans had come to criticize William Wirtz for the team management’s refusal to televise most home games, for poor on-ice performance and for a reluctance to sign free agents — inspiring the nickname Dollar Bill — the team returned to prominence in the 2010s.

Rocky Wirtz reversed some of his father’s policies, including those regarding televised games and ticketing, and dipped into money from other family businesses to prop up the hockey team.

Wirtz said his changes on television and ticketing — his father preferred to price all seats on the same level of the arena the same, regardless of location — had come after he talked with Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the N.B.A.’s Chicago Bulls and Major League Baseball’s White Sox. Their families had worked together to build the arena their teams share, United Center, which opened in 1994.

“This is just shocking news, and I am personally devastated,” Reinsdorf said in a statement. “Rocky truly was a great man. We were far more than partners at the United Center. We were very close. He was a dear friend, and our trust, our bond, was unbreakable.”

Chicago won three Stanley Cups in the decade, in 2010, 2013 and 2015, breaking a championship drought that stretched to 1961, an especially long fallow period for one of the league’s Original Six teams.

Those championships, however, lost their glimmer when a 2021 investigation commissioned by the team found that several Blackhawks executives had failed to report an accusation that a minor league player was sexually assaulted by the team’s video coach during the 2010 playoffs.

The investigation found that executives had been worried about distracting the team and had not conducted a thorough inquiry or adequately punished the coach, Brad Aldrich, who later made a sexual advance toward a team intern. Aldrich later worked in several other jobs in hockey and pleaded guilty to sexual contact with a minor while he was a high school coach in Michigan, where he had to register as a sex offender.

During a town hall event in 2022, Rocky Wirtz confronted reporters and declined to answer questions about the player who had brought the 2010 accusation, Kyle Beach, and what the team would do to protect players in the future. He later apologized.

The N.H.L. fined the team $2 million, and two executives who had been among those made aware of the accusation in 2010 resigned from their posts. Fans and members of the news media have criticized the league for not levying stiffer punishment. Chicago retained its 2023 first-round draft pick and won the lottery, giving it the ability to select Connor Bedard, a prospect regarded as a generational talent.

Besides his work in hockey and in the family’s businesses, Wirtz pursued philanthropic efforts and served on the board of trustees at his alma mater, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

In addition to his son Danny, Rocky Wirtz is survived by his wife, Marilyn; two other children, Kendall and Hillary; a stepdaughter, Elizabeth; and six grandchildren, according to an N.H.L. statement.

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