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NHL icon William Wirtz dies at age 77

by John McGourty

William W. Wirtz, president of the Chicago Blackhawks, reacts after a reporter's question during a news conference in Chicago, in this Feb. 16, 2005 file photo.
Chicago Blackhawks President William W. Wirtz, 77, died early Wednesday at Evanston Hospital. He had been associated with the Blackhawks since 1953.

Wirtz was the longest-serving chairman of the NHL Board of Governors and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Mr. Wirtz was the Chairman of Wirtz Beverage Group, President of Wirtz Corporation and Wirtz Realty, Director of First Security Trust and Savings Bank, and Chairman of the South Miami Bank Corporation. Mr. Wirtz also served as a Director of U.S. Bank Corporation and Alberto Culver.

But he was much more than that. Bill Wirtz was a kind man and a great hockey fan. Fans of the sport everywhere owe him a debt of thanks for his work in saving the NHL back in the 1970s and for building the United Center with private financing, one of his proudest accomplishments. He was a great philanthropist and heavily involved in the fortunes of the city of Chicago.

"This is not a good day, when you realize what Bill Wirtz meant to this organization, this city and this league," said Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon. "Most people never knew how giving he was, how generous, how loyal. My life was dramatically affected by him, by his family values and attitude. He made it so that we are all family here with the Blackhawks. He preached that and we're tying to pass that message to this team. To me, he was a second father. He had a great sense of humor and a great love for his family, for Chicago, for the game of hockey and for the Blackhawks."

John McGourty

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"Bill Wirtz was one of the classiest men you'll ever meet," echoed Blackhawks coach Denis Savard, one of the greatest players of the Wirtz era. "Everything was first class, from the people in the front office to the players to the coaching staff. He always did things first class. When you saw him around here or in meetings, you knew the Blackhawks were his favorite thing. He wanted to win as bad as anyone who ever played here. It's unfortunate that we lose him as this team is turning around."

"It is a sad day in hockey. We have lost a great owner and a great steward of the sport,” said Jeremy Jacobs, Chairman of the National Hockey League Board of Governors. "Bill carried his passion for the game and for his team with him everywhere he went. No one did more for hockey on both the professional and amateur levels than he did. He will always be remembered as a dedicated leader in the sport and for the legacy he has left in his community, especially his humanitarian efforts through his foundation. On behalf of all of the owners of the National Hockey League, our hearts are with his family on this difficult day as we all mourn the loss of our dear friend."

"Bill Wirtz was a giant presence in a giant city -– his beloved Chicago -– and an even greater presence in the National Hockey League," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "His 41 years as President of the Blackhawks and 18 years as Chairman of the Board leave an incomparable legacy of contributions to the game and to the League. His strength, intelligence, character and passion have been ingrained indelibly in the Blackhawks, in the League and in me. Bill was a true icon and a great competitor.

"While a fan of the game, first and foremost, Bill was a staunch advocate of philanthropic work in the community. Bill gave so much of himself to so many people without hesitation. He touched countless lives in countless ways.

"On behalf of the Board of Governors and the entire NHL family, I send heartfelt condolences to his wife, Alice, to his children -– Rocky, Gaily, Karey, Peter and Alyson –- and all the other members of the Wirtz family. Bill will be dearly missed."

As the tributes poured in from people throughout hockey, it was clear that, after his family, Bill Wirtz's greatest love was the Chicago Blackhawks.

"I first met Bill in 1967 when I told the Board of Governors that we would be forming the Players' Association," recalled former Blackhawks GM and coach Bob Pulford. "He stood up and greeted me with respect when some of the other governors wouldn't do that. He was a players' owner, a man who respected the players and did what he could for them.

"Like a lot of great men, he did a lot of things for people that no one ever knew about," Pulford continued. "His kindness toward people was great and genuine. I've seen him get on the phone with families after a member had just died. He was very compassionate. He paid for quite a few funerals. No one knew that."

"I first met Bill in the 1950s at a board meeting," said former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Jim Gregory, elected this year to the Hockey Hall of Fame. "I was awed by his knowledge of the game and his passion for it. He was the guy who held this league together in the 1960s and 1970s. He handled crises with labor and competition and he was a leader in expanding the league. He sacrificed his personal interests on behalf of the NHL. I had the utmost respect for Bill.

"It was amazing to watch how he treated people," Gregory continued. "He had patience with everyone and talked to everyone in that organization about hockey. This is really said. I knew he was really sick when he missed the September Board of Governors meeting, the first one he'd missed in 45 years."

"Bill was a great leader in his own way," Pulford added. "He never told you what to do, he gave you his opinion, you listened and went forward. I never heard him say, 'Do this.' I found that extremely refreshing."

The Wirtz family's connection to the National Hockey League dates to 1933, when Wirtz's father, Arthur, joined James Norris Sr. and James D. Norris in the purchase of the Detroit Red Wings. Arthur Wirtz and James D. Norris purchased the Blackhawks in 1952 and Bill became the Blackhawks' vice president and director in 1953. Bill Wirtz had been working in his father's real-estate and financial businesses after graduating from Brown University in 1950.

Upon Norris's death in 1966, Bill Wirtz became President and Governor of the Blackhawks.

Wirtz was elected to his first term as President of the NHL Board of Governors in 1970. It was at this time that the NHL added the expansion franchises in Buffalo, Washington, Vancouver and Long Island. Wirtz was returned to the office in 1974 when the NHL was being challenged by the World Hockey Association. He negotiated a collective-bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association that brought about a return to financial stability and hastened the demise of the NHL's competitor. Four WHA teams were admitted into the NHL in 1979.

Former Chicago Blackhawks hockey player Bobby Hull, left, and Blackhawks President William Wirtz smile during ceremonies honoring Hull and retiring his number 9 jersey before a hockey game between Chicago and Boston in Chicago, in this Dec. 18, 1983 photo.
"The National Hockey League was in dire straits and just as easily could have folded at that time," Pulford recalled. "Bill Wirtz negotiated that collective-bargaining agreement and the WHA merger. He deserves a lot of credit because he was directly responsible for saving the league."

Bill Wirtz's combined 18 years as chairman of the NHL Board of Governors is the longest in league history.

Wirtz was also selected as the mediator between Hockey Canada and the NHL regarding the 1972 Summit Series against the team from the Soviet Union. Wirtz's duties included arranging game dates, radio and television broadcasts, and meeting the needs of players and coaches.

Wirtz served on the United States Olympic Committee overseeing the 1980 team that won the gold medal at Lake Placid and the 1984 team that went to Sarajevo.

Both Wirtzes are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Arthur Wirtz, a real-estate investor who also owned the Ice Follies, was inducted in 1971 and Bill Wirtz was inducted five years later.

Under Wirtz, the Blackhawks enjoyed unprecedented success. Long one of the NHL's weakest franchises, the Blackhawks had finished sixth and last four-straight seasons in the mid-1950s before accumulating a group of young players that included Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Glenn Hall, Ken Wharram, Pierre Pilote, Elmer "Moose" Vasko, Eric Nesterenko, Bill Hay and Murray Balfour.

In 1961, the Blackhawks finished third during the regular season but they beat the first-place Montreal Canadiens in six games in the semifinal before downing Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings in six games to win their first Stanley Cup since 1938. It was only the franchise's third Stanley Cup, having also won in 1934.

The 1961 Stanley Cup kicked off a golden era in Chicago. The team captured its only regular-season championship of the Original Six era in its final season, 1966-67. That was the first of nine division championships in 14 years and 14 championships in 27 years. The Blackhawks played in the Stanley Cup Final in 1971, 1973 and 1992.

The Blackhawks struggled through the late 1990s and this decade as a result of a couple of managements that were not successful in drafting and developing players. Wirtz hired General Manager Dale Tallon, who played five seasons for the Blackhawks in the 1970s, in 2005. Tallon has used the NHL Entry Draft to stock the Blackhawks with some impressive young talent, including Jonathan Toews, Pat Kane and Jack Skille. Tallon, in turn, hired former Blackhawks' star Denis Savard to coach the team last November.

It is a sad irony, as Pulford and Savard noted, that Wirtz died knowing but not seeing that his team is on the verge of once again becoming an NHL power.

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