Chicagoans of the Year 2010: Rocky Wirtz, Chicago Blackhawks

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The enormity of it—the marvelously goofy, wonderfully silly, joyously cathartic insanity of it—didn’t hit Rocky Wirtz right away. As the principal owner and chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks, he was elated, of course, that night last June when Patrick Kane slipped a stealthy wrist shot between the pads of Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, giving the Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years.

But it wasn’t until a blistering morning in downtown Chicago a few days later, when an estimated two million fans crammed the streets for a victory parade, that Wirtz realized what his team’s success meant to this city. “You could see it growing, starting from here, the West Side,” he recalls, sitting outside the United Center before a recent Hawks game. “People hanging out on rooftops, waving and shouting and taking pictures. You saw all these firemen and policemen pulling cameras out of their pockets. While they were on duty.” By the time the motorcade turned from Madison Street onto Michigan Avenue, he says, “the crowds were 15, 30 people deep”—and each face shone with pride.

“I was in the motor coach with the mayor,” Wirtz, 58, remembers, “and he kept saying, ‘Look at this, Rocky! Look at it!’ He was amazed.”

On one level, the moment was simply the capstone to an amazing sports story: The Chicago Blackhawks, just two years earlier the joke of the National Hockey League and a franchise voted one of the worst in professional sports, were now one of the most popular teams—and they were champs. On another, the championship was a gift to a loyal and rabid fandom that had suffered deeply for nearly half a century. “With the economy and everything else, people were looking for a feel-good story,” Wirtz says. “And when it happened, it captured the hearts of Chicago.”

It wasn’t just that they won; it was how they won. To say that Blackhawks fans were upset with the previous owner—Rocky’s father, Bill Wirtz—is a little like saying that winters here are chilly. And to turn the team around, Rocky was forced to buck many of his dad’s most cherished philosophies. He put home games on television. He reached out to Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, and other Hawks legends. Wirtz lured John McDonough away from the Cubs to serve as team president, and he rehired Pat Foley, one of the best play-by-play men in the business, whom his father had fired.

While he admits he had to do some things his father never would have countenanced, Rocky’s biggest regret is that his dad did not live to see the thing he wanted so badly. “I realized that hoisting the cup was something he wasn’t able to do before he died,” he says. “I’ve told people I would have given my right arm if he could have.”

In the off-season, despite having replacement surgery on both knees, Wirtz devoted himself to sharing the Stanley Cup with as much of Chicago as possible. From a signing at Daley Plaza and a photo session at the United Center to a party for his entire staff, he turned the “people’s trophy” into the Windy City’s trophy. And Chicagoans couldn’t get enough of the cup—or of Wirtz.

Owners of sports teams are rarely beloved figures. And chants at parades are usually reserved for star players. That sweltering June day, however, one chant broke out that captured the feelings of a city: “Thank you, Rocky!”

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