Rocky Wirtz wasn’t in the room when his mother died and he didn’t need to be there when it was his father’s time. That just wasn’t him and it wasn’t Bill Wirtz either.
But it was Rocky, the eldest of Bill and Joan’s five children, who, after Bill passed away at 12:15 in the morning, got the family together and made sure all the funeral arrangements were in place. And by 2:15 a.m., they were.
It was Sept. 26, 2007. And little more than a week later, at 55 years old, W. Rockwell Wirtz was the new chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks.
It came as something of a surprise to those outside the family and the organization. Despite being an officer of the Blackhawks, Rocky’s name was never even in the media guide. And it was his younger brother Peter, the team’s vice president, who worked more closely with their father on the hockey side of the family business, who seemed most closely aligned to him.
“For whatever reason, dad and Peter chose not to [involve me more], but it didn’t bother me,” Rocky said when I interviewed him shortly after he assumed his new position. “It was what it was. I had plenty to do. I was busy enough. I’d get involved with all the businesses. I was an officer of every company we had. We all worked together and that was Peter and dad’s deal and I didn’t bother treading on it.”
Rocky didn’t need to be threatened. For starters, as head of the family’s wholesale liquor empire, his side generated the majority of its billion dollar-plus annual revenue while the Hawks continued to lose money.
“What I was trying to do was to earn as much money on the other side of the organization as I could,” Rocky said. “If I could [earn] on a pre-tax basis what the Hawks lost, that was my goal. Now I didn’t express that in great detail to dad, but that was my thinking. I was just hoping the Hawks wouldn’t get to the point where we couldn’t turn them around.”
It was weird to Rocky because in their other businesses, the wholesale side and their real estate holdings, Bill believed you had to spend money to make money, and then re-invest the money they made right back into the business, which in hockey meant players’ salaries.
“He just didn’t execute it and I don’t know why he didn’t follow through,” Rocky said.
There were other things father and son disagreed on, and Rocky was not shy in letting his father know about it.
“Dad and I would have our difference of opinion and it was always civil,” he said. “I always said, ‘Just because I’m on the same team doesn’t mean I have to always agree with you. You don’t pay me to agree with you. You can do that all by yourself.’ ”
The old man trusted him.
Rocky was the one who, as a child, went with his dad to the Hawks’ games and then out to the Pump Room after, where he would fall asleep in the booth while Bill had a few pops, then drive back home to Winnetka with him at 3 a.m.
“The school would call,” Rocky recalled with a laugh, “and they’d say, ‘We think there’s a problem with Rocky. He’s falling asleep in class. Do you think we need to have him tested?’ ”
He was nicknamed Rocky after his middle name Rockwell, the last name of his maternal grandmother. But Bill, who was involved in international boxing, told heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano that he named his first son after him.
“My mom told the story of when I was born, getting flowers from Rocky Marciano, will little boxing gloves,” Wirtz laughed. “Depending on the audience, my dad changed the story.”
Rocky was in sixth grade when his grandfather Arthur began talking about the family succession plan, which would begin with Bill, followed by his younger brother Michael and eventually to Bill’s oldest son Rocky.
“Right or wrong, my grandfather didn’t have women in the business but everyone shared equally as far as what their percentage of ownership was,” Rocky said. “But as for running the operations, the corporations, it was going to be the male descendants.
“I always just assumed I’d eventually work for Michael and not directly for dad.”
After college, his grandfather officially asked him: “Do you want to sign onto this? And then, do you want to take responsibility for the family at the passing of either Michael or dad?” Rocky recalled. “So that was a question I had to ask myself. I’ve been groomed to take over for many, many years.”
His father taught him to trust his instincts and to never be intimidated by anyone or anything. And as Rocky grew older, Bill relied on him that much more.
The two spoke at least an hour a day every business day. Rocky could finish his sentences for him. In fact, in business meetings, the two spoke in a kind of code that would leave the others in the room completely confused.
“And sometimes I’d interpret for him to other people too,” Rocky said. “Usually he liked to tell his stories and he had his own pace, so if I would cut to the chase, it would really upset him.
“I knew exactly what he was thinking. It was special. But I also knew where he wanted to go. Many times what he would do is circle a subject and touch upon it and circle around and keep touching upon it but never get to the center of that circle, and it was very disarming to people.”
Rocky also knew other things about his dad. Like the fact that he knew how to skate but hadn’t done it since his kids were little and would never tell people he had a pair of black figure skates in the basement. “It was the funniest thing,” said Rocky.
He knew that his dad had the uncanny ability to talk to the guy who swept the floor like he was the chairman of the board.
He also knew that after his father’s stroke 13 years before his death, that Bill was struck by his own mortality, that he wrote more letters to friends, planned for his death, that he changed.
He knew, even though Bill never talked about it, that his father’s real fear was of developing some type of dementia.
“Growing older was a rite of passage but losing his memory was not,” Rocky said. “My dad was a CPA and he was as sharp with the balance sheet as anyone I’ve ever seen. Tax planning, he was superb at it.
“He had an unbelievable memory with total recall. He could remember a conversation that happened 25 years ago and pick up with the last sentence that he talked about at that time.”
Rocky knew that his father could go eight deep in his game of naming actors in old movies, even in the end, even when he was doped up in the hospital. “And that’s when I realized how sharp he was, even at that point,” Rocky said.
He also knew that his father had a moment three weeks before his death, lying in his hospital bed and staring out the window, where it all hit him.
“You know, everyone should go through an experience once like this in their lifetime,” he told his son.
“Being humbled was not something he’d ever talk about,” Rocky said, “but that was really humbling to him. He realized that all those problems that were paramount to him before he had gone in the hospital, weren’t really that important.
“It’s the only thing I’m sorry about, if I have to reflect, that it took him that long to realize that. Why did he have to wait to be almost 78 to realize it? All the problems with the Hawks, all the problems with the day-to-day business, all the aggravation. It really wasn’t that important.”
They shared a birthday and in the end, they shared that.
Rocky was named chairman of his father’s team on Oct. 5, 2007, the first time in his life he would not celebrate his birthday with two cakes. And then he changed his father’s team, changed the philosophy and changed the culture by putting home games on television, making executive changes and making amends with estranged former stars.
In November of 2007, he told me that his job is to be “a steward for the family, turning the business over and having the balance sheet and the business better than when I took over.
“It was better after dad took over,” Rocky said. “And it’s going to be better after I do it.”
It already is.
And somehow you get the feeling that Bill would agree.