Let the love begin: The 11th annual Chicago Blackhawks Convention starts July 27.
Characterized to me by Tribune sports columnist David Haugh as an “annual opportunity for Hawks fans to take selfies with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and hear how Chicago’s premier sports organization the past decade operates,” it will be three days of lively and loud.
Some of the buzz among the hundreds filling the Hilton Chicago over the weekend will surround the recent trade of Hawks right winger Marian Hossa and the even more recent death of former Hawks goalie Ray Emery.
Past triumphs and failures will come up, but the future, as always, will be of primary concern.
“How will the Hawks do this season?”
There is also likely to be chatter about a new book, “The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks” (Northwestern University Press), written by Bryan Smith, the longtime staff writer of Chicago magazine, owned by the company that owns this newspaper.
But such talk about the book will be speculation because it is not available until Oct. 1, and so only a handful of people have read it. (It can be preordered at www.nupress.northwestern.edu.)
I have read it, and here it is important to note that I have never seen an entire hockey game, amateur or professional, on TV or in person. My closest encounter with hockey came one evening at Mike Ditka’s restaurant when Bobby Hull and I got into a wine-fueled misunderstanding and I felt lucky to get out alive.
That said, this is a terrific book, a dramatic family saga told in artful prose and filled with emotional turmoil, a few surprisingly touching moments but enough dysfunction for a couple of Eugene O’Neill plays. It’s got some very big personalities, some nutty ones too, and, yes, there is enough hockey in it to satisfy any fan. But there is much more about business and power, love and loss, volcanic tempers and shrewd deals, and all the other elements that have conspired to create a vast and diversified fortune, and make a damaged family.
The “Wirtz family business” in the subtitle is the Wirtz Corp., a privately held conglomerate of real estate, liquor distribution, insurance and banking, some other minor things and, its most public product, hockey.
The patriarch of the family and architect of its business was Arthur Michael Wirtz, born in 1901 and the son of a Chicago cop. He started his fortune buying real estate during the Depression with a partner named James Norris. They bought buildings – the Chicago Stadium in 1935 – mostly here but in cities across the country. To fill the stadiums they owned, they got into the entertainment business, producing wildly successful ice shows starring Olympic medal winner Sonja Henie and forming the Hollywood Ice Revue. Wirtz and Norris got involved with professional hockey as early as 1933 and started in the liquor and wine distribution game in the 1940s. They formed the International Boxing Club, holding bouts in their arenas and producing nationally televised fights and almost all championship matches in the early 1950s. Wirtz helped buy the (then-spelled) Black Hawks and became the team’s president in 1954. The team was popular and competitive, winning the Stanley Cup in 1961. Arthur was admired, even revered. He was known as the “Baron of the Bottom Line.”
When he died in 1983, his son Bill (William Wadsworth Wirtz) took charge. He was, as the book captures, “big and barrel chested, with a fleshy pitted nose, flashing dark eyes, and a rosacea-blotched face twisted into what seemed a perpetual scowl.” He kept many of the family business interests alive, but botched up the Blackhawks, which were infamously cited by ESPN in 2004 as the single worst franchise in North American sports – any sport. Under Bill, the team became very bad and thus unpopular.
Bill comes off in the book as a man so tragic that one can almost feel sympathy for him. Almost. Always a heavy drinker, he seemed to lose his bearings after the death of his first wife, Joan, in 1983, same year as his father, and was increasingly addled after suffering a massive stroke in 1995. When he died in 2007 at 77, his Tribune obituary began, “To hockey fans, Bill Wirtz will be remembered as ‘Dollar Bill,’ the tightfisted owner of the Blackhawks who kept home games off TV and let some of the team’s biggest stars (Bobby Hull among them) skate out of town.”
Shortly after his death, there was a ceremony to honor him at the United Center. Even before the eulogy could begin, as Smith writes, “the first low rumble, like the signal of an approaching thunderstorm, rippled through the crowd. Catcalls and whistles came next. . A chorus of jeers and chants rose. And then BoooooOOOOOOO!!”
Rocky was there. “It was not pleasant,” he said one afternoon earlier this week. He might have followed that with this from the book: “The family name, once an emblem of esteem, admiration, dignity to the city, to the world – now the subject of derision, taunts, mockery.”
But he did not. Instead he said, “I loved my father, but I didn’t like him.”
It is easy to understand why, for there are ample examples in the book.
His dad “would lash out,” Rocky says. There were shouting matches, noisy arguments that in one case nearly led to physical blows between father and son.
It gets worse, as his father’s rage radiated to Rocky’s family, including his three children. His dad “would say, ‘Don’t bother to show up for Thanksgiving,'” Rocky recalls. The same for Christmas. “He’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll drop your Christmas presents off.'”
Those sort of chilling stories in the book obliged me to ask for a meeting with Rocky in order to ask him, “What in God’s name compelled you to discuss these dark details of your life?”
“Honesty,” he said. “That’s one of the things my mother taught me, to always be honest and not to put on airs. She always thought of herself as just a South Side Irish gal.”
Rocky Wirtz, whose full name is William Rockwell Wirtz, is an affable man, seemingly unguarded in conversation and unburdened by his past. When people recognize him on the street – and they do, with something approaching movie star frequency – they will wave and shout, “Hey Rocky,” and he will smile and wave back at them. He is, simply put, likable.
He is certainly successful. All facets of the family business appear to be running smoothly. And even a nonfan (it’s hard to miss a parade) will be aware of how he has managed to transform the Blackhawks. The team, which ranked second to last in attendance for 2006-07 season, has led the NHL in attendance every season since 2008-09. It is valued at more than $1 billion.
Rocky changed the culture of the team, but he prefers to give most of the credit to John McDonough, the team’s president and CEO, who Rocky lured from his previous job as president of the Cubs in 2007.
“If there is a hero in the book, it has to be John and what he has done,” Rocky says.
In 2008, before the championship banners started to fly, Rocky sat down for an interview with Smith, who wrote a lengthy story for Chicago magazine.
“I liked the story,” Rocky said earlier this week. “And after that Bryan and I would talk every once in a while about maybe expanding things into a book.”
As the Blackhawks began to thrive, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, Smith approached some major publishing houses about that possibility. Their responses were along the lines of: “Yeah, nice story but too local.”
After the Hawks won their third championship – an accomplishment Forbes magazine called “the greatest turnaround in sports business history” – Smith and Rocky made a financial deal that would enable Smith to take a five-month leave of absence from the magazine to research and write the book.
“I was not at all interested in writing a hagiography, a puff job,” Smith says.
That was good, because Rocky wasn’t either, saying, “This was not to be a valentine to me.”
It is not. Though it is understandably complimentary to Rocky, it avoids the sort of gushing that often characterizes such commissioned projects. It’s frank and forthright, incisive and intimate.
The book has more than 20 photos and a $27.95 price tag. Any profits, known as royalties and generally 10 percent of the retail price, Rocky and Smith have agreed to share.
“But any and all the royalties that we may earn will go to the Blackhawks Foundation,” says Rocky, noting the team’s charitable arm focused on health, education and housing in the city and state. “And I’ll be happy to autograph a book for anybody who asks.” (The book can be preordered at $27.95 – or you can get an autographed copy with a minimum $50 donation to the foundation – through www.the-breakaway.com.)
Unlikely to make such a request will be any of Rocky’s four siblings, all younger than his 65 years. There has ever been tension between them, but it flared into legal battles and attendant ugliness after Rocky took over the Wirtz organization following their father’s death, exercising an ironclad plan devised by grandfather Arthur Wirtz. Rocky rarely speaks to his sisters Gail, Karey and Alyson. He and his brother, Peter, who had been much closer to father Bill and to the Hawks, have nothing to do with one another. Their tortured relationship is one of the more disturbing threads in the book.
None of these Wirtzes would consent to an interview for the book and so none will likely be pleased by what is on the pages when, or if, they read it.
They are not likely to read this, Rocky’s answer to: “What was wrong between you and your dad?”
“I truly believe that he saw his own father in me, and that scared him,” said Rocky. “He was terrified of his father. I think he felt his father was controlling things from the grave, and there I was, reflecting so many of my grandfather’s qualities and not always bending to my dad’s will. My grandfather was smart and clever. My father was smart, but he was not clever.”
Smith was not fully aware of what he was getting into. “There were a couple of times when Rocky would tell me a story that was just so heartbreaking, so sad, that I had to ask him, ‘Are we good to use this?'” Smith said. “His answer was always, ‘Yes.'”
Smith returned last August to the magazine, and his colleagues were happy to have him back.
“And I am happy with this book,” he says.
So is Rocky, and happy, too, about his three grown children from his first marriage – Danny, Kendall and Hillary, two of whom are in the family business. “I love them, and I think that they and I are able to use our family’s history as a road map. We work on our relationships,” he says.
The book’s foreword is by Tony Esposito, the Hall of Fame goalie for the Blackhawks who has known Arthur, Bill and Rocky. As might be expected from an author who admits, “I am honored to be even a small part of ‘The Breakaway,'” his contribution is laudatory but it is not dull. It even contains a few kind words about Bill. Esposito writes, “(Bill) was fun to be around. He was a great storyteller who could go the distance with players half his age. We had a lot of late nights that would go into early mornings. It was special, as was the way I negotiated my contracts – never through the team’s general manager or my agent, but directly with Bill. He treated my family and me well, very well.”
That may well be, but he treated his eldest son like an emotional punching bag. Hockey is a tough game, they tell me, but so is life and Rocky Wirtz has managed to survive the worst of it.
But on to more important matters: “How will the Hawks do this season?”
“Fine,” said Rocky Wirtz. “Just fine.”