There’s no way to bring up the history of the Chicago Blackhawks without talking about ownership. It was on this day 10 years ago that Bill Wirtz, the team’s longtime owner, passed away at the age of 77. Less than two weeks later, it would be officially announced that his son, Rocky, had taken over as chairman of the franchise.
It was a transformational moment for an organization whose ambitions immediately changed. The older Wirtz had been content to run the Blackhawks in a frugal fashion, and let the product on the ice often reflect that. Rocky had a new plan, and we’ve been experiencing the fruits of it ever since.
There were a lot of important things that happened to lead to the Blackhawks’ three Stanley Cups in this era: drafting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, hiring Joel Quenneville, signing Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa to bargain contracts, finding gems like Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
But having Rocky take over the team from his dad changed everything from top to bottom.
When I was a kid growing up in the North Shore, the Blackhawks were ... well, nobody really thought about the Blackhawks. We argued about Frank Thomas or Sammy Sosa, or talked about how great MJ was even though he played for the Wizards now. We wondered if Rex Grossman would ever stop being Rex Grossman.
The Blackhawks hardly pushed their way into that conversation because they weren’t good, and more importantly, they weren’t on television. This is well-worn territory at this point, but it’s still incredible to me that up until 2007, the team refused to broadcast home games because of concerns that it would affect attendance.
During the 2006-07 season, the Blackhawks finished 29th among the 30 teams in average attendance at just 12,727 per game. Whatever Dollar Bill was trying to do, it was not working.
Now look at the steady climb upon Rocky’s arrival:
The Blackhawks have led the NHL in per-game attendance every season since 2008-09. They’ve managed that while aggressively raising ticket prices to become some of the most expensive in the league. Personally, I hardly ever go to games at the United Center because they’re not in my budget.
There are a lot of people from deserve credit for that success, from the hockey operations to the coaches to the players to team president John McDonagh. But the guy at the top who initiated all this was Rocky Wirtz, even though his father had set a much different example.
The rise of the Blackhawks has been one of the biggest stories in hockey over the past decade. A sad day in late September 2007 was a prime catalyst for it.