I’ve only been to a few hockey games — always under duress — but that didn’t keep me from reading “The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks,” well into the night.
Typically I don’t expect sports books to be page-turners, but Bryan Smith, a two-time winner and six-time finalist for the National City and Regional Magazine Association's Writer of the Year award, never intended “The Breakaway” to only chronicle the rise of the Blackhawks from a team that couldn’t even fill one-sixth of the United Center, to a three-time Stanley Cup winner under the leadership of Rocky Wirtz.
“I’m not a sportswriter, never was,” says Smith who chatted on the phone between book events — he was on his third in two days.
“What really attracted me to the story was the almost-Shakespearean family dynamics of three generations. It started with Arthur Wirtz, founder of the family fortune, and then follows his son, Bill, who was famously or I should say notoriously famous for his management of the team and refusal to allow the games to be broadcast on television — to his oldest son, Rocky, who led the team to what Forbes magazine described as ‘the greatest turnaround in sports business history.’ ”
Arthur Wirtz, the son of a Chicago cop, had the foresight to scoop up real estate during the Depression, buying buildings such as the Bismarck Hotel and the Chicago Stadium (where the Blackhawks, a team founded in the 1920s, played) as well as other arenas and halls in Chicago and around the country.
He next had to figure out how to fill his arenas. One of his creative ideas was forming the Hollywood Ice Revue to showcase Sonja Henie, a Norwegian figure skater who won three gold medals in three consecutive Olympic games.
The shows were a success, Smith says, citing as an example one night in 1940 when a Henie performance in New York City raked in $80,000.
Besides real estate and entertainment, Arthur Wirtz moved into other areas, and currently the privately held Wirtz business portfolio consists of liquor distribution, insurance, banking, real estate, some smaller things and, of course, the Blackhawks.
Why Bill Wirtz, who took over the business after his father’s death, didn’t try to take the Blackhawks to a higher level is difficult to understand, Smith says. Arthur’s first-born son had a pugnacious style in general and in particular even toward his own family, so that Arthur disinvited Rocky and his children from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and once came to blows with him.
When Rocky took over after Bill’s death, like their father, the rest of the family weren’t interested in seeing the Blackhawks change direction and were instead content to let the team, which was losing $30 million a year, continue on in the same manner.
“The team was hurting other parts of the Wirtz business,” Smith says.
“It was a no-brainer, but in the last years of Bill’s life, it was an issue of stubbornness; he dug in, and it really alienated the fans. It was like he was sticking a fork in their eyes. It’s amazing that (Rocky) was able to turn it around and even more so, when you remember that it was 2007 when Rocky took over the team; at the time, the whole nation’s economy was cratering.”
Smith says that Rocky doesn’t take the credit for the team’s success.
“He credits John McDonough,” says Smith about the Blackhawk’s president and CEO, who Wirtz hired away from his position as president of the Chicago Cubs in 2007.
Family feuds and dysfunction can run deep, and Rocky Wirtz is estranged from many family members, even though the Blackhawks are now revered by fans and not draining funds from other family businesses. Wirtz, it seems, lost his family while trying to save them.