June 26, 2013
When they saw the Stanley Cup, the crowd of people on Michigan Avenue stretched out their arms and ran toward it as if it carried the waters of Lourdes.
And behind the silver cup and the hungering crowd Tuesday walked an unassuming businessman in a gray suit. He didn't want to be noticed.
Good job, Rocky, I said loudly enough for others to hear.
"Don't be such a smart (guy)," said Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The night before, his Blackhawks had scored two goals in just 17 seconds to win the championship in the most amazing victory in Chicago sports history.
So let's just say it: Among Chicago sports team owners, Rocky Wirtz is the only one who is truly loved by the fans. The others don't even come close.
You should know that I personally like Rocky Wirtz. He's a gentleman. He doesn't brag. And he never, ever criticizes his late father William Wirtz, even though his dad and grandfather almost killed hockey in Chicago.
At least, they killed the game in my heart, letting Bobby Hull leave town when I was a teenager. When the Golden Jet left Chicago, hockey was dead to me. I never skated again. I stopped talking about the game with my brothers and with my uncles in Canada. Hockey didn't exist.
But it was worse for the fans who stayed with the Hawks. They had to endure the pain. And through it all, Rocky Wirtz never threw his family under the bus.
"We wouldn't throw anyone under the bus, because there were reasons why everyone did what they did before," he said. "I love my father. I disagreed with him. But he was my father. He was the boss. When he was no longer going to be the boss, it was a different story."
Wirtz and I have had lunch several times, and we've talked for hours, about families and politics and the way of the world, but not about hockey.
"I guess we'll talk about hockey now?" he said as we sat down for an interview Tuesday. "Just don't make this about me."
Sorry. This one is about you. Here's why.
Two recent Stanley Cups, and a core of young players who could bring another one. But even more, Rocky Wirtz brought hockey back to the fans of Chicago.
In 2004, the Blackhawks were widely considered to be the worst franchise in all of sports.
"It was depressing," he said.
Fans didn't show, they didn't care. The home games weren't even on TV. The Blackhawks weren't on Chicago's mind except, perhaps, as a laughingstock.
"By 2004 or so it was really bad," Wirtz said. "We were down to around 3,800 season ticket holders. At most, we'd have 6,500 fans at a game. When you could run around the same aisle, along the same row, all the way around the United Center and never run into anyone, not touch a human being, you know it's bad."
So when Wirtz's father died in 2007, it was time to start anew. Time to personally rebuild relationships with sponsors, media and, most of all, with fans. He began televising the games. He built a new organization.
"We asked ourselves, what if you could start over? What if we considered ourselves to be an expansion franchise, but one with a pedigree of great history, great players? What if we could think of ourselves as a clean piece of paper, what would we write down?"
What did the Blackhawks want to be? Like the Yankees? The Patriots? And how could they get there?
"We decided that for once we'd have the hockey people talking to the business people," he said. "I know it sounds simple. But when I grew up around the game, that didn't happen. On the liquor side of our business, we had operations talking to the sales people. I spent my whole business career that way. So it was just natural to apply it to hockey."
Wirtz said he wanted to bring sound judgment to decisions, to take the emotion out of the hockey discussions so as not to second-guess.
But this week Wirtz put emotion back into it. He chartered a plane and flew 188 people from Chicago to see Game 6 in Boston. The players' wives, their girlfriends, parents, grandparents. He paid for it out of his own pocket.
If you saw the game on television, you saw many of those families on the ice afterward. Maybe you thought about your own family and Blackhawks hockey and special times with those you love. I did.
"I spent these years setting up a system where I wouldn't let emotion get in the way of judgment for this hockey team," he said. "And then they scored the tying goal and the winner and I realized we're going to win the fricking cup again, my eyes started welling up. Tears were coming down. I guess I allowed myself to feel it then. The reality of it is the complete opposite of sorrow. It was euphoria."
That night, he was in Boston's TD Garden and I was at home on the phone with my Uncle Bill up in Ontario. We spent a half-hour breaking down the key plays of the game.
"You know something?" said Uncle Bill. "You haven't talked hockey with me for years."
I told Wirtz about that. He sat back, closed his eyes for a bit, then smiled.
"Say hi to your uncle from the Blackhawks," he said.
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