The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks

The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks

by Bryan Smith


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“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.” —Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

When Rocky Wirtz took over the Wirtz Corporation in 2007, including management of the Chicago Blackhawks, the fiercely beloved hockey team had fallen to a humiliating nadir. As chronic losers playing to a deserted stadium, they were worse than bad—they were irrelevant. ESPN named the franchise the worst in all of sports. Rocky's resurrection of the team's fortunes was—publicly, at least—a feel-good tale of shrewd acumen. Behind the scenes, however, it would trigger a father, son, and brother-against-brother drama of Shakespearean proportions. The Breakaway reveals that untold story.

Arthur Wirtz founded the family's business empire during the Depression. From roots in real estate, "King Arthur" soon expanded into liquor and banking, running his operations with an iron hand and a devotion to profit that earned him the nickname Baron of the Bottom Line. His son Bill further expanded the conglomerate, taking the helm of the Blackhawks in 1966. "Dollar Bill" Wirtz demanded unflinching adherence to Arthur's traditions and was notorious for an equally fierce temperament.

Yet when Rocky took the reins of the business after Bill's death, it was an organization out of step with the times and financially adrift. The Hawks weren't only failing on the ice—the parlous state of the team's finances imperiled every facet of the Wirtz empire. To save the team and the company, Rocky launched a radical turnaround campaign. Yet his modest proposal to televise the Hawks' home games provoked fierce opposition from Wirtz family insiders, who considered any deviation from Arthur and Bill's doctrines to be heresy.

Rocky's break with the edicts of his grandfather and father led to a reversal for the ages—three Stanley Cup championships in six years, a feat Fortune magazine called "the greatest turnaround in sports business history." But this resurrection came at a price, a fracturing of Rocky's relationships with his brother and other siblings. In riveting prose that recounts a story spanning three generations, The Breakaway reveals an insider's view of a brilliant but difficult Chicago business and sports dynasty and the inspiring story of perseverance and courage in the face of intense family pressures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810138889
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Series: Second to None: Chicago Stories Series
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 149,001
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

BRYAN SMITH is a senior writer at Chicago magazine and a contributing editor for Men's Health. He is a two-time winner and six-time finalist for the National City and Regional Magazine Association's Writer of the Year award. His work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Newspaper Writing, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.

TONY ESPOSITO joined the Blackhawks as a rookie goalie in 1969 and recorded fifteen shutouts, a single-season record unlikely to be broken. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988; in the same year, his number 35 was retired by the Blackhawks. For the National Hockey League’s centennial celebration in 2017, Esposito was voted one of the hundred greatest players ever.

Read an Excerpt


A Legacy of Boos

He knew it was coming, could feel it like the menace of a looming storm. This night. On top of everything else. Dad's death. The empire tottering. The team, the crown jewel of that empire, limping into the new season, millions in the hole before the first puck was dropped. The family name, once an emblem of esteem, admiration, dignity to the city, to the world — now the subject of derision, taunts, mockery.

And now this. Everyone knows how the fans felt about him. Surely they know what's about to happen ...

William Rockwell Wirtz — "Rocky" — shifted uncomfortably in the cool luxury of the owner's suite at the United Center in Chicago's West Loop, a skybox aerie of leather seats, recessed lighting, and glistening bottles of top-shelf spirits laid in by the family's vast liquor, wine, and wholesale concern. Rocky's four siblings, their faces reflecting varying degrees of apprehension and anguish, ambled about him in the muddled haze of the freshly bereaved.

At fifty-five, Rocky was a squarely built man whose features and bone structure marked him as a Wirtz as surely as the engraved nameplate that guarded the entrance to his office. He had a somewhat low shelf of brow divided by two deep creases, a square jaw scaffolding a mouth bracketed on either side by equally deep furrows, and a broom-brush thick head of medium-brown hair, parted left to right. Rocky liked to smile and occasionally flashed a slightly mischievous grin, the prelude to a sotto voce zinger, usually a quip, but sometimes, too, a cutting remark that sliced as precisely as a surgeon's scalpel.

Similar features could be found on the taller, leaner figure standing not far from Rocky — Peter Wirtz, Rocky's younger brother by seven years. As the clock ticked down to the start of the ceremony Peter had arranged — nay, insisted upon — he wore a stoic expression reflective of the almost paralyzing grief he was feeling, hardened by his determination to see this moment through.

It was just after 6:30 p.m. on October 6, 2007, the Blackhawks' home opener, and the arena already thrummed with the arrival of a large crowd. Ordinarily, Rocky would have foregone the posh comforts of the owner's skybox, opting instead to take up his usual seat on a folding chair among the fans just inside the entrance to section 119. But this was no ordinary night — and, if what he feared came to pass, it would be no ordinary opening-night ceremony.

Eleven days earlier, Rocky's father, Bill, the controversial and reviled president of the Blackhawks, had died following a short bout with cancer. The loss reverberated not just in Chicago, but virtually anywhere in the world that cherished professional hockey. Bill Wirtz, like him or not, had dominated the league.

Big and barrel chested, with a fleshy, pitted nose, flashing dark eyes, and a rosacea-blotched face twisted into what seemed a perpetual scowl, Bill had boasted eighteen years of iron-fisted rule as chairman of the National Hockey League's Board of Governors and forty-one years as president of one of its crown-jewel franchises. In the early decades of his reign, he had built the team into a perennial winner and Stanley Cup contender whose achievements included a streak of twenty-eight straight playoff appearances. As chairman of the vast Wirtz empire built by his father, Bill had burnished his reputation as a businessman by expanding the company's sprawling portfolio of real estate, banking interests, and liquor wholesaling.

Mercifully for the family, much of the early news coverage of Bill's death focused on those accomplishments, along with his many private acts of kindness and generosity. Denis Savard, a Hall of Famer who spent ten seasons with the Blackhawks and was head coach at the time of Bill's death, recalled turning to the president as a nineteen-year-old desperate to help his family. "I called [him] up, and said, 'I need $10,000,'" Savard told the suburban Chicago Daily Herald. "'You can take it off my check.' Guess what? He never took it off." Hawks general manager Dale Tallon recalled that when his own father was given six months to live, Wirtz "told me and my family not to worry." He said "he'd take care of things — and he did." When Keith Magnuson, the beloved defenseman-turned-ambassador to the Blackhawks, was killed in a car accident, Bill Wirtz footed the bill for expenses.

At the crowded funeral service at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, former NHL Commissioner John Ziegler began by addressing the deceased. "Bill, you've got a full house," he said with a smile. Then he turned serious. "He loved the Blackhawks. He loved the NHL, he loved the game of hockey," Ziegler said. "But he had a greater love and that was the Wirtz family."

It was a bittersweet statement for Rocky, whom his father had shunned in the last years of his life, and whose own children — Bill's grandkids — had received letters from their grandfather telling them not to bother to show up for Thanksgiving dinner. "Don't worry," he added, according to Rocky. "I'll drop your Christmas presents off."

For many of the fans, nothing, not even death, could mask the scorn and fury they felt toward Bill Wirtz, who had turned their team — one of the so-called Original Six of the NHL — from powerhouse to laughingstock, a judgment all but enshrined in 2004 when ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise not just in hockey, but in all of pro sports.

More infuriatingly, Bill had done so with a sort of perverse delight, a defiance that jabbed a thumb in the eye of the generations of fans who had sunk heart and soul into the fortunes of the team. First and most famously, he had refused to televise regular-season home games, assuming that it would undermine attendance, and he had clung to that decision with an obstinacy that in the final years of his life seemed based as much on spite as any deeply held principle. He simply could not — or would not — admit he had been wrong. He had alienated past Hawks legends, including the most iconic of them all, the "Golden Jet," Bobby Hull. He had fired one of the team's most successful coaches, the colorful and beloved Billy Reay, by having a card slipped under Reay's door a few days before Christmas. And year after year he had lowballed salaries for players and coaches to the point that Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Verdi tagged him with a moniker that would follow him to his grave: Dollar Bill.

By the late 1990s, relations with fans had corroded so completely that on the few occasions when Bill ventured into the public eye — as when he presented Savard with his retired number 18 jersey during a pregame ceremony at the new United Center in 1998 — the crowd drowned his remarks with boos loud enough to shake the rafters. He responded to such humiliations not with apologies or even anger but taunts. "They're getting weak," he said of the fans after the Savard debacle. "They were much louder in the old building."

Rocky fully understood the situation, which is why he worried about the agenda for this night. Over his strenuous objections, Peter had arranged a ceremony to honor Bill, climaxed by a moment of silence. The idea — incredibly, in Rocky's opinion — was endorsed by his other siblings, including sisters Gail, Karey, and Alison. To Rocky, the notion felt like dangling a slab of raw beef in front of a pack of starving lions. What did they think was going to happen?

The simple answer was to veto the thing. He was, after all, the boss now — the chairman — granted authority over all of the Wirtz companies, including the liquor distributorship, the banking arm, the insurance, farms and real estate holdings, as well as the Blackhawks, under a plan of succession devised by Bill's father, Arthur, the founder of the Wirtz Corp.

But despite an icy relationship with Peter, one that reached back to their boyhood days, Rocky felt obliged to grant the request, consequences be damned. As a senior vice president with the Blackhawks, Peter had been Bill's right-hand man, and had expressed an admiration for his father that bordered on worship. Many observers, in fact, assumed Peter, not Rocky, would take over the team. When Rocky shattered his brother's illusions, Peter's sense of anger and betrayal, while unspoken, radiated off of him like heat off a summer tarmac. Fine, Rocky said. Go for it. But I don't think you're going to like the reaction.

The choreography called for a red carpet to be rolled onto the ice and then the arena lights to be dimmed. Dale Tallon, the silver-haired general manager of the club and longtime loyalist to Bill, would step into a spotlight and read a few remarks. As he spoke, Bill's image would flash on the giant scoreboard overhead. Then, the moment Rocky felt was inviting trouble in an arena full of beered-up fans: a moment of silence.

At the appointed time, the Blackhawks players took to the ice and formed a circle under the scoreboard. The lights dimmed, casting the stadium in darkness save for a single spotlight into which Tallon stepped. Rocky watched the general manager lumber up to a set of microphones and adjust his reading glasses. Bill's face, as scripted, loomed on a set of rotating screens at the top of the scoreboard.

Tallon had not even begun when the first low rumble, like the signal of an approaching thunderstorm, rippled through the crowd. Catcalls and whistles came next, piercing the silence with angry shrieks. A chorus of jeers and chants rose. And then: BoooooOOOOOOO!!

"William Wadsworth Wirtz was a true Chicagoan," Tallon said, his words tinny and hollow. Boooooooooooo! "He loved this city and made enormous contributions to it"— BOOOOOOOoooooo!!!! —"of which we all can be proud." BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

Rocky glanced at Peter. His brother stood, arms folded, jaw set, in stoic silence. The faces of his sisters clouded, then ran with tears. BOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

Tallon gamely limped on, but by the time he finally asked for the moment of silence, the clamor was deafening.

Whatever slim hope Rocky had clung to that somehow, some way, things would not be as bad as he feared evaporated into the rueful reality that he had been absolutely right. The moment was not about healing, forgiveness; not about the commutation of a sentence banged down long ago on his father by heartsick, gavel-clutching fans. Bill Wirtz had helped build a franchise into a proud icon, yes, a team to make a kid knock the block off a kid from another town who favored the Flyers or the Penguins or the Rangers. But then he had forsaken it, turned it into a joke, for reasons they still couldn't fathom. Had he been another man — a kinder, more gracious person willing to admit his mistakes — he might have been granted leniency. But he was Bill Wirtz and — in their eyes — had committed his sin smugly, defiantly, arrogantly. Accordingly, the fans seized on the moment not to honor their tormentor, but to unleash decades of anguish in a single, ugly parting shot, purging their impotent frustration and howling at an owner who they believed had made a mockery of their devotion.

As the boos rumbled in a great, lusty wave through the arena, Rocky cycled through a range of emotions: anger, sadness, humiliation, disgust, helplessness. Then, like a skater hit with a breakaway pass, he felt a sense of calm descend. The team was his now and he would restore it and he would do so by any means necessary, including — and without prejudice — taking a wrecking ball to virtually every principle that his father had held sacred. Throughout his life, Bill Wirtz had made clear that breaking his commandments would be akin to blasphemy, that going against him would be like questioning God himself.

Rocky's response — forged in that moment and fashioned into a shining city of success in the astonishing years to come — embraced a similarly biblical fervor: So be it.


Worse Than It Seemed

The day after the United Center debacle, Rocky Wirtz paid his first official visit to Blackhawk offices at the arena. Though he had been around the team and indirectly involved for most of his adult life, his appearance marked one of the first times he had set foot in the franchise offices in more than two decades, the result of his father having all but excommunicated him from anything to do with team decisions. Rocky and his staff instead had worked in comfort and relative peace out of a suburban branch of the family liquor business in Wood Dale.

Given the years away from the United Center offices, Rocky scarcely knew what to expect as he trod the carpeted sanctum — regarding either the physical state of the offices or the economic condition and morale and makeup of the team itself, whose business operations were centered here. He had been counting on Peter to stay on as a senior vice president and provide this essential knowledge and guidance, but days after Bill's death, when Rocky told Peter that he would not be in charge of the team, the younger brother abruptly resigned. To Rocky's great relief, his brother assured him that he would help in any way he could during the transition, but in the days that followed it became clear that the promise was as empty as the United Center on most game nights. Peter did not reach out, did not debrief Rocky on anything — barely spoke to him, in fact, unless it was through attorneys.

In the dark about the franchise's inner workings, Rocky started with the one thing he did know: that the team's finances wobbled on shaky, possibly collapsing, ground. He'd gleaned as much from the Wirtz Corp.'s consolidated tax returns and, like the rest of the league, from a stunning comment Bill had made to the Toronto Star a few months before his death. The Hawks, Bill had told the newspaper, had lost some $191 million over ten years. The figure was shocking, but Rocky couldn't even trust that. Bill was known for crying poor. Yes, the Hawks were losing money, maybe a lot of money, but nearly $20 million a year? As Rocky began his tour of the United Center headquarters, he could only pray his father was exaggerating.

From the moment he stepped through the door, however, he knew better. The space was standard-issue insurance office — rows of cubicles bathed in fluorescent light, glassed-in enclosures for the front-office executives. Physically, at least, the space looked to be in good shape.

Something was off, however, a sense that grew on Rocky as he walked deeper in: other than a jangling phone, the Blackhawk's United Center offices were strangely quiet. Rows of cubicles sat empty. The back half of the office space stood unfinished, waiting for the growth that never came. While the other team that shared the arena, the Chicago Bulls, sprawled over two full floors, the Blackhawks took up barely half of one. At the desks that were occupied, Rocky noticed, the employees sat hunkered in silence. Who were they? What were they doing? And why, Rocky wondered, did no one look up when their new boss strode through the hushed floor?

As the phone continued to ring, Rocky poked his head in the office of Jimmy DeMaria, an executive who for some twenty-five years handled public relations for the team, but whose mouthful of a title — executive director of communications, broadcasting, and community outreach — struck Rocky as slightly extravagant. DeMaria had been one of Bill's untouchables — along with senior vice president and on-again, off-again general manager Bob Pulford and marketing chief Jim Sofranko.

On this day, DeMaria was the only front office person around, another oddity. "What's going on with the phones?" Rocky asked him. "Well, you know, we use interns — either from UIC or Loyola," DeMaria replied, according to Rocky's recollection. "Sometimes they have exams or they get in a fight with their boyfriend or girlfriend and don't show up."

"So who answers the phones?"

DeMaria shrugged. "It's OK. I'll answer it."

That wasn't the point, Rocky wanted to say, but let the moment slide. Later, he learned of an even more astounding phone issue: the listed number for ticket sales similarly went unanswered, though for a different reason — it was disconnected.

Rocky walked on, his disbelief growing. Everywhere he looked, he saw dysfunction. At one point, he asked where he could find some Post-it notes and a pad of paper. On someone's desk, he was told. "Why not in the supply closet?" Let me guess, he thought. There is no supply closet. How about a bottle of water? No. If Rocky was thirsty there was a water dispenser with paper cups in the corner.

A few days later, when Rocky called a 10:00 a.m. meeting of the Wirtz Corp. staff, he was astonished to see some of the employees saunter in ten, sometimes fifteen, minutes late. Gene Gozdecki, the beloved company lawyer on whom Rocky leaned heavily in the early days, explained the tardiness. "They never start the meetings on time," he told Rocky.


Excerpted from "The Breakaway"
by .
Copyright © 2018 W. Rockwell Wirtz.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. A Legacy of Boos
2. Worse Than It Seemed
3. King Arthur
4. It Happens on Ice
5. Fathers and Sons
6. The Son Also Rises
7. Wirtz Family Values
8. Bill Grabs the Puck
9. The Penalty Box
10. Freefall
11. The Passing of Dollar Bill
12. Meet the New Boss
13. The Ex-Cub Factor
14. A Change of Channel
15. Resurrection
16. A Tough Call
17. "What It Feels Like to be a Wirtz"
18. What Just Happened?
19. The Breakaway

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