Rocky Wirtz assumed control over the Chicago Blackhawks after the passing of his father, William “Bill” Wirtz, shortly before the start of the 2007 hockey season. Years of poor performance on the ice resulted in a dwindling fan base. The poor play of the hockey team was a result of Bill Wirtz refusing to invest in player facilities and the frequent trading of productive, popular players. Bill Wirtz was also infamous for refusing to broadcast home games on television, never budging from the idea that even less fans would attend games if they could watch from the comfort of their own homes. This reputation garnered Mr. Wirtz as the most reviled owner in sports.
Rocky Wirtz inherited a hockey team with extensive and deep-rooted issues. The Chicago Blackhawks had been under control of the Wirtz family since 1954, and many of the changes Rocky would make stemmed from decades of questionable ownership decisions. Habits and preferences of the previous regime would need to be overturned. The low point of the team came in 2004 when they were dubbed “Worst Franchise in Sports” by ESPN. For the Chicago Blackhawks to become a championship contender, Rocky needed to address financial, marketing and personnel roadblocks.
The Wirtz family had hands in several business ventures in the Chicagoland area for decades. The family’s significant interests in real estate, liquor distribution and banking would become an opportunity to address the financial shortcomings. After learning of the $6 million deficit meant the team couldn’t cover player or management salaries, Rocky leant the team a loan from the family’s financial fund. The was the first issue he was made aware of, and also the first opportunity unique to Rocky. He needed to pump some life into the team, and this was the start of his habit of investing in his product.
By the time Rocky became chairman, ticket prices were at an all-time low. Reflecting the play and perceived value of the team on the ice was congruent with the dipping attendance. In 2007, the Blackhawks ticket prices were 28 of 30 in ticket price and 19 of 30 in average home game attendance. The team only raised prices when value was increased. For example, after the labor dispute canceled the 2004-05 hockey season the team returned with rebranded lower level seats. These front row “on the glass” seats included a brand new in seat food and beverage service. At this time, the franchise was valued at $179 million, far below the $200 million average league-wide.
Wirtz sought a way to take advantage of one of the biggest markets in the country and one of the most recognizable brands. Wirtz recognized a gap in proven leadership within the organization. He hired John McDonough, President of the Chicago Cubs as President of the Blackhawks. Understanding the value and rarity of the Blackhawks brand and the Chicago market, he put a leader in place who would responsibly plant the seeds for a championship culture.
John McDonough, with the support of Rocky Wirtz, wanted to create a culture that other hockey players wanted to be a part of. Days before McDonough officially accepted the position, he sat down with Blackhawks players to understand their needs and wants. The athletes are seeing facilities year around, and if anyone knew that the team was lacking it was them. Of the impending improvements, McDonough asked “What do you guys need? Because we’re going to get it for you. All of it” (Lazerus, pg 2). To be a world class organization, a leader needs to create an attractive destination for players and the front office. Treating people well and valuing their contributions. Wirtz and McDonough immediately began improving facilities, player travel accommodations, meals and equipment.
Possibly the most efficient way a sports team can market themselves is to simply be on television. The policy of not broadcasting games on television stemmed all the way back to Arthur Wirtz, Rocky’s grandfather. He believed the first period of hockey games shouldn’t be on radio. Philosophies like this, created by an owner and passed down within the family stunted the growth of the franchise and potentially future young players of the sport. Rocky seized on the opportunity to broadcast Blackhawks games, both on television and on the radio. He used his business relations to secure Chevrolet sponsorships for radio broadcasts. For the first time, there were 12 home games on television. His success relied on the goodwill of the fans, which the Blackhawks and Bill Wirtz lost long ago. Insuring the Blackhawks would be in the homes of hockey fans was a crucial step in rebuilding that trust.
There was no need to trade away players or make hasty signings to create a better product on the ice. Star rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews debuted for the Blackhawks that season after being drafted in the first round in 2007 and 2006, respectfully. This dynamic duo elevated the brand of hockey to an exciting, youthful piece of entertainment. The demand to see these two superstars was fueled by the organization focusing their marketing efforts on them. The two players quickly became the face of the franchise, which included making public appearances. To create viable success in the league, the Blackhawks couldn’t hide in the shadows.
The team was creating a vision for long term success. The organization replaced the team’s ad agency and created the “One Goal” campaign. For the first time in the modern era, the Chicago Blackhawks had a distinct vision and made it known what they stood for and what they viewed as acceptable.
The McDonough and Wirtz tandem worked to understand how the organization became so dysfunctional. A critical part organizational leadership is recognizing the groups or individuals in the group who aren’t contributing to the overall success of the team. A total rebrand of the team meant many people had to be let go from the front office and coaching staff. Creating a clean slate allowed Rocky Wirtz to rebuild from the bottom up with new leaders who could support his vision. According to Schein, “Leaders first create cultures when they create groups and organizations. Once cultures exist they determine the criteria for leadership and thus determine who will or will not be a leader” (Scott, pg. 68). McDonough fired 20 of the 35 front office team (Vardi.)
A major piece in rebuilding trust with the fan base was bringing back former players and other fan favorite individuals who were once synonymous with the organization. When Rocky’s father directing the organization, he developed a habit of not keeping former Blackhawks players part of the franchise. Fan favorites and 1961 Stanley Cup champions Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were nowhere to be found after their retirement from hockey. William Wirtz was also known for making rash decisions on terminations based on personal grievances. Without realizing it at the time, Wirtz was clearing house of the popular personnel that should have been synonymous with the organization.
Bringing back Mikita and Hull into the organization and eventually honoring them with statues outside of the United Center created heroes in these former players. This distinction was invaluable in reigniting the interest of the Chicago Blackhawks for people who remember watching those players play. Reinstating Mikita and Hull as team ambassadors for the team allowed them a public spotlight again. Once the Blackhawks games were televised again, Rocky Wirtz made sure to bring back former Announcer Pat Foley. Foley, a recognizable voice of the sport, was fired without explanation in 2006. The personnel brought back and empowered by the Blackhawks helped create the beliefs and values of the historical franchise. Choices like these brought the Blackhawks back into the minds and mouths of sports fans, not just in Chicago but league wide.
Rocky Wirtz’s action during a time of complete cultural and organizational rebuild can be used as a blueprint for turning a franchise around. What could be considered the greatest turnaround in the history of sports is attributed to taking the temperature of external and external components. Evaluating missing pieces in leadership creates opportunities to place people in roles to allow the group to succeed together. Wirtz also provides an example of the importance of valuing the people around you, while working to make practices that elevates their value.
Moving forward, the Blackhawks should continue to expand on how they build a championship dynasty. While rebuilding successful franchises is feat not often replicated, another president, or Rocky himself, can look to why and how the rebuild created a winning culture. My goal is to work in team operations for a hockey team. If given a situation as dire as Rocky Wirtz, I would intend on creating a similar framework for a cultural turnaround.
If or when attendance at games becomes an issue, bringing in fans and recognizing them anyway I could would be a priority. Rocky has built respect and trust with the once forgotten supporters of the team. This area of responsibility is difficult because it relies on making choices within the leadership framework that may be unpopular with the fans. Understanding when a personnel change is needed in the general manager or coaching position even if those individuals have garnered popularity with the fan base.
The annual Blackhawks fan convention began in 2008. Fans bases get invigorated when they feel the team they follow is integrated into their communities. The inaugural Blackhawks Convention in 2008 proved to be an instant success and was the first of its kind for the National Hockey League (NHL.com). The team made the commitment to show appreciation for the loyal people who support the team year after year.
Patrick Lencioni provided six important questions that need to be answered by organizational leadership teams. Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is important right now? Who must do what? (Scott, pg 25.). In the midst of Rocky’s organizational rebuild, his moves that made the biggest impacts were the ones that answered those questions. More importantly, however, is to note how the previous leadership did not address those questions.
In the case of the Chicago Blackhawks, carefully building organizational effectiveness created the organizational performance. Scott (2014) defines organizational effectiveness as “athlete satisfaction, organizational citizenship and organizational commitment” (pg 32.). Maintaining up-to-date facilities, infrastructure and game time experience is an example of holding themselves responsible for organizational commitment. Wirtz and McDonough wanted to be the example of how players are treated and how employees are valued. They believed the Chicago Blackhawks had the potential to be a world class organization. Because they made Chicago coveted destination for players and front office personnel, they were able to recruit high level talent and convince others the organization had a path to a championship. It also became much easier to retain players when Chicago became the example of the NHL on the luxuries offered to the team.
The next steps to maintain this organizational commitment is to strive to invest in the facilities for your group. Building relationships with players to understand if their needs are not being met, or if there is a perceived shortcoming in the organization is an invaluable asset. If I was a team executive, I would travel to all of the NHL stadiums to assess what players and front like and don’t like about their work environment. This task should fall on Rocky’s shoulders. To not sustain the reputation the Blackhawks have created for themselves could be in part to falling short of the organizational commitment.
The marketing aspect of the rebuild is a pattern that can be replicable with the Blackhawks and adapted to other franchises. New and young players will always make the roster, and the next step needs to showcase the future leaders of the team. Kane and Toews were highlighted in their rookie year to remind the world of the talent on the roster, with the goal of filling seats and generating new excitement and interest. Keeping the pattern of marketing young talent in the same fashion can make that player a household name, repeating the process of cultivating interest and excitement.
This action prepares the team for what the future leaders may look like. The Blackhawks successfully honored their past, now they need to prepare for the future.
Regarding the history, it is imperative the Blackhawks continue to bring retired leaders and other key personnel into the spotlight. One of the popular players Bill Wirtz famously traded away was Chris Chelios. The native Chicagoan was named a team ambassador in 2018 (ESPN.). Chelios was captain of the team from 1996-1999 before being traded, and it also a native Chicagoan. Wirtz dedicates his work to expanding the Blackhawks brand and building the leadership family. One of the highest honors a player can receive is having their jersey number retired by a team. Considering the way Wirtz has continuously recognized historical role players, it is curious why there hasn’t been a jersey number retired during his tenure as chairman. If Rocky wanted to show more commitment to player legacy, he would retire a player number.
The constant reminder of where the team came from is how Rocky exhibits his emotional intelligence. Sports is a competitive environment, operated and consumed by emotional beings. “The importance of effectively dealing with both their own feelings and emotions and those of the people they interact with and lead” is how Scott (2014, pg 50) ascribes how leaders of sports organizations should recognize the importance of emotional intelligence. In 2018, after missing the post-season for the first time in ten years the Blackhawks rebranded the familiar “One Goal” with “Believe in One Goal.” This campaign acknowledged the team’s shortcomings while encouraging confidence in their future. The team exhibited self-awareness and intellectual growth.
Rocky Wirtz created a roadmap for how a team can heal its wounds and become the example of a well-run sports franchise. The Blackhawks reversed course to eventually become Stanley Cup champions. Answering questions relating to cultural leadership and the purpose of the organization, Rocky Wirtz arranged his emotional intelligence to define the goals of the franchise. He surrounded himself with leaders he trusted and leaned on that trust to build relationships with an alienated fanbase. With minor changes dependent on specific circumstances, this method of a cultural rebuild can be replicated with other franchises. Wirtz ownership outlined how to effectively change inherited problems. The next challenge for Rocky and the Chicago Blackhawks will be how they sustain this success in adversity. The 2018 hockey season began with the same leadership that failed them the year before by missing the playoffs and finishing last in the division (Hockey-reference.com). I believe this will be the test of Rocky’s cultural leadership; sustainability post-success.