SBJ/October 1 - 7, 2007/This Weeks News

Wirtz ‘always had time for hockey’

When hockey agent Alan Eagleson developed the idea for a series of hockey games between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972, he found an unlikely ally in Bill Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks.

NHL owners planned to prevent their players from participating in the nine-game series, but Wirtz convinced them it would be a huge mistake. His efforts helped cement the participation of NHL players in the legendary Summit Series, which Canada won in the final minute of the final game.

Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz believed that
season-ticket holders always came first.

“If it weren’t for Bill Wirtz, it wouldn’t have happened,” said John Ziegler, a fellow NHL governor at the time who later became the league’s president. “He did that for the love of the game and because it was the right thing to do.”

An “Original Six” owner admired across the NHL for his love for hockey but criticized for the diminished value of the Blackhawks franchise in recent years, Wirtz, 77, died of cancer Sept. 26 in Chicago.

No succession plan has been announced for the franchise, though the team has said that one is in place. His son, Peter, currently serves as the team’s vice president.

During his 41 years in the NHL, Wirtz served as chairman of the board for 18 years and sat on the executive committee for more than a decade. Often maligned by Chicago fans, who called him “Dollar Bill,” he faced criticism for blocking TV broadcasts of home games and a perceived unwillingness to spend money on players.

Despite that, he became a dominant figure in Chicago sports, where his business interests extended into real estate and liquor that collectively pushed his family’s fortune to more than $550 million.

Wirtz’s roots ran deep in sports and entertainment. His father, along with a business partner, Canadian-born grain speculator James Norris, acquired Chicago Stadium for $300,000 in 1935 and gained control of the Blackhawks in 1952. Bill Wirtz was named president of the team in 1966.

In the 1970s, he rose in influence during the NHL’s battle for players and its survival with the upstart World Hockey Association. The period saw player costs rise by 400 percent as both leagues competed to sign top players.

Wirtz and Ziegler put together a committee in 1977 to talk to the WHA. Realizing that a merger would have violated the NHL’s collective-bargaining agreement, the pair decided to expand by bringing in WHA teams after those teams officially went out of business. The proposal was voted down three times, and Wirtz campaigned extensively until he won the board’s approval.

The moment was particularly important to Wirtz, who lost Blackhawk Bobby Hull to the WHA in 1972 when Winnipeg made a salary offer with a $1 million signing bonus that Wirtz was unwilling to meet.

NHL owners rewarded Wirtz for his efforts, electing him chairman of the board from 1978 to 1992. But his influence over the board waned when he was blamed for a player strike late in the 1992 season.

Blackhawk Down
The Blackhawks played before standing-room-only crowds for years before beginning a steady decline after the 1995-96 season. The club has averaged a league-worst 14,110 since 2000-01.
Note: A lockout resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
Sources: SportsBusiness Journal archives, 2007 NHL Official Guide & Record Book

The league’s expansion further eroded his influence, and his philosophy on running his team diverged from most other owners, which undercut his opinions in board meetings.

His refusal to show Blackhawks home games on TV in Chicago was criticized by fans and questioned by other owners, who thought televising local games was critical to growing and feeding a fan base. But Wirtz remained committed to his policy until his death, believing that season-ticket holders came first and televising games would hurt ticket sales.

Ticket sales suffered despite that view. Blackhawks attendance dropped steadily during the last decade, slipping 37 percent from 20,390 in 1995-96 to 12,727 in 2006-07 (see chart). The lack of interest in the team last year was driven home when it offered 200 free seats through an e-mail campaign and only 100 were claimed.

Fan frustration with Wirtz spiked as the team failed to reach the playoffs eight of the last nine seasons, and a perception developed among people in Chicago that Wirtz didn’t care. People who knew him said that was not true.

“He was very passionate about his hockey team,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “When it struggled, no one hurt more than Bill Wirtz.”

Throughout his 41 years in the league, Wirtz never missed a board of governors meeting until the one held this September.

“He had many businesses and many interests,” said Harry Sinden of the Boston Bruins, “but he always had time for hockey.”

Staff writers John Lombardo and Don Muret contributed to this story.

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