It was jarring news. One where you check your phone again, go through the various social media feeds, and then check again. Then it’s real. When news broke of Chicago Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz’s sudden passing, it was a gut punch to the fanbase.
The stories of him shaking hands with fans is true. I had my encounter with it–admitting my allegiance to the enemy while doing so.
So too, is how he rescued an organization that was an absolute joke not only in the league, but in the sports landscape.
His chief sin was how he reacted to a couple reporters during the townhall meeting in 2022. There’s no getting around that. He handled it poorly and apologized for it later in a statement. His public appearances were few and far between after that.
But there’s an entire picture to look at, both positive and negative, which every human being is judged by.
Blackhawks Go From Joke To the Toast of Chicago
Those who followed hockey in the late 90’s and 2000’s remember the Blackhawks descent. It was slow at first, but hastened after their only playoff appearance in 10 years during the 2001-02 season. By the time Rocky took over, the heavy lifting began to put the organization where it belonged.
In three years from taking over, Wirtz had a Stanley Cup Champion. Twice more it would happen before a slide would occur, albeit for different reasons. But beyond championships and parades, the Blackhawks became the organization that everyone tried to emulate. Speedy, skilled forwards were drafted in hopes they’d be the next Patrick Kane. Stoic leadership in the mold of Jonathan Toews’ Captain Serious moniker became vogue. Trying to find that final missing piece like Marian Hossa was what many teams tried–and often failed to do.
For a six season stretch, they were the team everyone was gunning for, and quietly admiring for what they could accomplish. They began to fade by 2017, and once Marian Hossa left the game, they couldn’t fill the void he’d filled for eight seasons.
From there, it steadily became a ‘should we or should we not rebuild’ mentality that ultimately was answered when Kyle Davidson took over. Though it was hockey operations, his reason for ascending was due to Stan Bowman’s resignation in the wake of the Brad Aldrich sex abuse scandal that involved former player Kyle Beach.
The Blackhawks, because of their inability to handle a situation properly, were getting appropriately blasted for their inaction.
Human Frailty and the Failures That Follow
Wirtz’s reaction at the townhall when he snapped at reporters was a low. It was the wrong reaction all the way around. There’s no denial in that.
The report indicated Wirtz never knew about what had happened, and to be honest, that really doesn’t surprise me. Leaders are often insulated to protect them from negatives, moreso to make sure they weren’t implicated. The buck stopped with John McDonough and it would come back to be an egregious mistake.
His outburst that day was his own human frailty, and one can only speculate the reasons for his reaction. But likely the chief motivators were embarrassment and shame.
Dr. Brene Brown, a renowned professor and author, has spoken at length about how shame and empathy are on the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Empathy of course, is being able to share in the emotions of another person. To truly appreciate and understand where they’re coming from.
I can’t imagine the shame and embarrassment Wirtz felt. Here was this crowning achievement, this resurrection of a former laughingstock organization all tarnished because of the massive failings of those he put in charge. They not only let down the organization–they failed to protect a player of the organization he loved.
But ultimately, he failed, too. And I have to imagine that for the months of negative publicity, and just earned criticisms of the handling finally exploded on that day like a dormant volcano churning below the surface.
Don’t mistake what I’m writing–it wasn’t the right reaction. The Blackhawks should have been embarrassed for their inability to protect Beach and do what was the right thing. From McDonough down to head coach Joel Quenneville, it was an abject moral failure.
He should have deferred to his son Danny in the moment who has gone the opposite direction of shame with empathy in how the Blackhawks approach things. That was on display with what Davidson and the development staff did with the off-ice camp this past month. It was also obvious with how he handled things in the aftermath.
But in his own human frailty, that we all have, Rocky Wirtz lashed out. Those few minutes dampened the years of good he did.
But it doesn’t completely undo it.
His impact on the Blackhawks is not unnoticed. It will still be talked about years, if not decades from now. His legacy will include everything that goes with it, the positive and the negative.
But there’s no doubt that Wirtz was a giant in the city of Chicago, and that his loss will take time for the organization to get over.