CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks are mourning the death of the man who led the franchise for the better part of the last two decades.
Rocky Wirtz, the chairman and principal owner of the NHL franchise, has died at the age of 70 after a brief illness, his family confirmed just after 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
“Our hearts are very heavy today,” said Danny Wirtz, Rocky’s son, in a statement released by the family. “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. He was a loving father, a devoted husband to Marilyn, a brother, a nephew, an uncle and a doting grandfather to his six remarkable grandchildren.
“His passing leaves a huge hole in the hearts of many and we will miss him terribly.”
Soon after the family’s statement, the Blackhawks release their own tribute to Wirtz, who was just the fifth principal owner in the history of the franchise.
He has been in that role for the Blackhawks since 2007, taking over full time after his father Bill’s death and the decision by his brother Peter not to remain in that position. He oversaw the rebuilding of the struggling franchise into one of the league’s elite, then started that process again over the last two years.
During his tenure, the Blackhawks won Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013, and 2015, seeing their popularity rise to new heights over the span of a decade. In his final years, the team had a decline of play on the ice, the fallout over the Jenner and Block report, and in his final days, the drafting of elite prospect Connor Bedard.
Born October 5, 1952, Wirtz grew up in the Chicago area and was a graduate of Northwestern University. He worked with the Wirtz Corporation, which was founded by his grandfather Arthur Wirtz, who first bought a stake in the Blackhawks in 1950 before taking full ownership in 1966.
When he died in 1983, Bill took control of the franchise until his death in 2007. Originally, it was Peter Wirtz that was named the owner, but he switch control to Rocky soon after and left the franchise.
When he took over the franchise, Wirtz immediately began new initiatives to win back old fans that had been lost in the post-Chicago Stadium era when the team’s fortunes on the ice began to slide.
One of the biggest things he did was to put home games on television in the Chicago area, an unpopular move that had been made when his father was in charge of the franchise. That included putting games on WGN-TV starting in 2008.
At the same time, the team’s fortunes began to change on the ice thanks to moves by then general manager Dale Tallon, who assembled a new-look team while also drafting franchise icons Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Head coach Joel Quenneville was hired in October 2009 as the Blackhawks began a stretch of nine-consecutive playoff seasons. That included a trio of Stanley Cup championships, the first for the franchise since 1961, in the greatest on-ice era in the history of the franchise.
Wirtz achieved his goal of winning back old fans while creating a new base of hockey supporters in Chicago as the team routinely led the NHL in attendance. Starting on March 8, 2008, the Blackhawks sold out 535 consecutive games at the United Center, a streak that would last over 13 years.
In the final years of his ownership, the play on the ice declined as the Blackhawks made the playoffs only once since the end of the 2017 season. That came when the team was able to qualify for a play-in series in the Edmonton bubble during the pandemic-shortened season in 2020.
In October 2021, Wirtz had the lowest part of his ownership when the details of the Jenner and Block report were released. It shed a harsh light on how the Blackhawks handled sexual assault allegations made by former player Kyle Beach against then-video coach Brad Aldrich during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While Wirtz was found to have not been aware of the allegations before the lawsuit, it led to a reckoning in the franchise and the ouster of general manager Stan Bowman.
In the final year-and-a-half of his life, Wirtz watched the rebuilding of the franchise on and off the ice. General manager Kyle Davidson, who was named as Bowman’s full-time replacement in March 2022, began a massive restructuring of the team that would lead to the departure of both Kane and Toews.
Yet the last major moment of Wirtz’s tenure came over the last two months, when the Blackhawks won the NHL Draft Lottery. That allowed the team to draft center Connor Bedard, considered one of the best prospects in the last generation of the game.