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Who will run the team now?
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff

William Wirtz

 

Daniel White | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/27/2007 12:09 AM | Updated: 9/27/2007 6:42 AM

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As unsettled as the Blackhawks have been as a franchise for the better part of the last decade, there are more questions ahead after the death Wednesday of longtime owner and president Bill Wirtz of cancer at 77.

With Wirtz in failing health for several years, this was a day the organization knew was coming but had a difficult time grasping nonetheless.

There was no word from the team Wednesday about possible successors to Wirtz, though everything points in the direction of sons Peter and Rocky Wirtz taking over the controls of the hockey portion of the family empire.

Peter is a Hawks vice president, overseeing off-ice operations and promotions.

Oldest son Rocky has dabbled in hockey in the past, and it's not out of the question that his role in the restructuring of the team could become larger.

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Legendary player Stan Mikita

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The focus for Rocky in recent years has been on running the family-owned and highly profitable Judge & Dolph, the state's largest liquor distributor.

"I think Bill, with his children, did a great job and they're prepared to take over the team," said senior vice president Bob Pulford, whose name appears second on the organization's masthead just below Bill Wirtz. "I don't think there will be much change, but you'll have to ask Rocky and Peter about that."

It figures to be some time before the Hawks have any kind of announcement regarding the club's future.

"I'm sure Rocky and Peter will have a lot to say and I'm sure that they will do the right thing; they always have," general manager Dale Tallon said.

"I don't know, but I presume Peter was being groomed for this because I think Rocky was in the other business ventures that they have," Hawks legend Stan Mikita said Wednesday. "Mr. Wirtz never asked me how to run his team, so I don't know how the family is going to do it."

Selling the team wouldn't seem to be an option at the moment for the Wirtz children, of which there are five surviving their father. Bill Wirtz loved his team, and it might be difficult for the children to part with it for that reason alone.

Forbes Magazine, during the course of the 2006-07 season, valued the Hawks at $168 million, which ranked 12th in the National Hockey League.

Pulford, who has been with Wirtz since 1977 when he was hired as general manager and coach, took the news hard.

"He was not only my boss, but a good friend," Pulford said. "Before yesterday we thought he was going to get better, then all of a sudden you hear he's not going to make it. It's been a tough day."

Bill Wirtz had been president of the Hawks since 1966, a tenure without a Stanley Cup, and he insisted on maintaining many of the policies of his father, Arthur, who died in 1983.

The policy that Bill Wirtz spent the most time defending is the one the Hawks have become known for across hockey: not televising home games.

Arthur Wirtz put that policy in place to protect his season-ticket holders, which made sense decades ago when the Hawks had about 14,000 of them. Bill Wirtz has kept the TV policy in place, some believing out of respect for his father.

Now most Hawks fans are wondering if the TV policy is something sons Peter and Rocky might change, or if it will stay in place out of a similar kind of respect.

"They had a reason for doing it and I think Arthur Wirtz started it," Mikita said. "Billy was probably just going according to what Arthur spoke to him about. The times I used to see Arthur Wirtz, I know Billy adored him as far as a business person."

Wirtz, who inherited the Hawks and Chicago Stadium from his father when Arthur died, had an estimated worth of $800 million at the time of his death.

In addition to owning the Hawks, he was chairman of Wirtz Beverage Group, president of Wirtz Realty and the Wirtz Corporation. He also served as director of First Security Trust and Savings Bank.

By Wirtz's own estimate, the Hawks have been losing at least $15 million a season in recent years. They have made the playoffs only once in the last nine seasons and had the second-worst attendance figures in the NHL last season.

Those close to him claim Wirtz wanted to have a winning hockey team again and was bothered by how hard his team had fallen.

"Oh, he wanted to win," Pulford said. "He loved the Blackhawks, and I don't think anyone wanted to win more than he did."

Details of services for William W. Wirtz

Visitation for William W. Wirtz, longtime president and owner of the Blackhawks, will be from 2-9 p.m. Sunday at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., at Old Orchard Road in Skokie.

Funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut St., at Michigan Avenue, Chicago.

Interment will be at Ivanhoe Cemetery in Ivanhoe.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Chicago Blackhawk Charities, 1901 W. Madison St., Chicago, 60612 or Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Foundation Inc., 805 15th St. NW, Suite 430, Washington, D.C., 20005.