Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz dies at age 70 after short illness

ByEric Horng and ABC7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Tuesday, July 25, 2023
Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz dies at age 70
Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, died Tuesday at the age of 70, the team confirmed, after a brief illness.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago Blackhawks owner W. Rockwell "Rocky" Wirtz has died at age 70, the team confirmed Tuesday evening.

Wirtz died at NorthShore Evanston Hospital after a brief illness, according to a statement released by the Blackhawks. His wife Marilyn and his four children were with him at the time. He is also survived by six grandchildren.

"Our hearts are very heavy today," said son Danny Wirtz. "Our dad was a passionate businessman committed to making Chicago a great place to live, work and visit, but his true love was for his family and close friends. He was a loving father, a devoted husband to Marilyn, a brother, a nephew, an uncle and a doting grandfather to his six remarkable grandchildren. His passing leaves a huge hole in the hearts of many and we will miss him terribly."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement on Wirtz's passing, saying in part, "Devoted to family and the Chicago Blackhawks, Rocky was a native son of Chicago and an accomplished businessman. Rocky took over control of the Blackhawks in 2007 and almost immediately restored the passion and following of the storied, Original Six, franchise...The NHL sends its sincere condolences to Rocky's wife Marilyn, his children Danny, Kendall and Hillary, Marilyn's daughter Elizabeth, and their six grandchildren. He will be missed terribly."

"Rocky Wirtz was a champion in every sense of the word - in family, in business, in sports ownership, and most important, in life," said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson in a statement. "From his stalwart leadership of the Wirtz Corporation and multitude of corporate ventures, to the Blackhawks' miracle run of three Stanley Cup champions in six seasons, he exemplified class and excellence at every turn."

Wirtz's grandfather, Arthur Wirtz, purchased the Blackhawks in 1954, when Wirtz was just two years old. Rocky Wirtz took over the team after his father, William, died in September 2007.

Wirtz rebuilt the Blackhawks franchise and oversaw their three Stanley Cup championships. Fans say he will be missed.

William Wirtz was nicknamed "Dollar Bill" for his frugality when it came to acquiring the services of the game's best players. And the team struggled while playing in front of small crowds in its early years at the United Center, making only one playoff appearance from 1998-2008.

Wirtz rebuilt the Blackhawks and oversaw their three Stanley Cup championships. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane leading the way, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015. The team also made it to the 2014 Western Conference Final, losing to the Los Angeles Kings in an epic seven-game series.

At the Billy Goat Tavern on Madison, where photos of Blackhawks legends grace the walls, fans learned the news.

"He got a legacy. He got a big legacy. He won three championships, and he brought excitement back to the fans of Chicago," said Rodney Fox, fan.

"I definitely think of the Stanley Cups that we've won and all of the spirit and positivity that it's brought to the city," said fan Tara Walsh.

Wirtz reinvigorated a franchise that, in some sense, had lost its way.

"You had the most iconic players in team history all estranged from the franchise, from the late Tony Esposito to Bobby Hull, and when Rocky took over," said David Kaplan, co-host of "Kap and J Hood" on ESPN 1000. "It was an overnight change from doormat of the NHL to the model franchise."

"He changed everything. The Blackhawks were on TV. They, for better or worse, he basically gutted the interior of the workings of the Blackhawks," said Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist.

"When Rocky took over, there were probably about 5,000 people showing up to the Blackhawk games. And since he took over the Blackhawks, he brought Chicago three Stanley Cups," said Steve Demitro, community hockey organizer.

He also oversaw the Wirtz Corporation family holdings, the team said, and oversaw the multimillion dollar United Center campus expansion and development of Fifth Third Arena on the West Side.

Wirtz's tenure was not without controversy. Last year, he apologized for comments related to the team's handling of sexual misconduct allegations. But fans say that controversy does not overshadow a brilliant career.

"He brought the Hawks back into our living rooms and introduced the Blackhawks to a lot of new fans," said Shane Carnithan, fan.

White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf released a statement, saying in part, "This is just shocking news, and I am personally devastated. Rocky truly was a great man. We were far more than partners at the United Center. We were very close; he was a dear friend and our trust, our bond, was unbreakable."

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker released a statement, saying in part, "Rocky epitomized what it means to be an Illinoisan -- always ready to lend a hand to a stranger. His absence leaves a gaping hole in our state and nation, but Rocky's extraordinary legacy will carry on in thousands of lives that he touched and the hundreds of thousands of fans whose hopes he helped fulfill."

He also ran the family's beverage business since 1980, and developed properties along Chicago's lakefront and in the suburbs. He was also a member of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, board chair of the Field Museum, and a trustee at Northwestern University where he earned his degree in 1975.

The team said he will be remembered for his sharp wit, enduring loyalty and humility, the Blackhawks said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.