There are two adages when it comes to public relations. “There is no such thing as bad press,” and “Time heals all wounds.” On Wednesday evening, Chicago Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz did his best to prove those wrong with a tone-deaf outburst during a town hall meeting with fans and local media. The backlash was sudden and fierce, and the long-term effects of his thoughtless comments will be severe.
Blackhawks Town Hall Goes Belly Up
You’d think losing 5-0 to a division rival heading in the opposite direction on a nationally televised home game would be the worst thing to happen to the Blackhawks on Wednesday. However, what was said by the owner of the team two hours before puck drop made the game completely insignificant.
The Blackhawks held a town hall meeting with invited fans and members of the local press to discuss the state of the franchise. Things got off to an excellent start as some pre-chosen questions from the fans were handled nicely by Chief Executive Officer Danny Wirtz and President of Business Operations Jamie Faulkner. The new leaders of the Blackhawks came off as thoughtful and understanding. They weren’t speaking in tired cliches. They were winning over the doubters. That is, until Rocky opened his mouth, inserted his foot, and destroyed any goodwill that built.
Mark Lazerus of The Athletic stepped to the podium to ask a question, one which was specifically asked to Danny, and all hell broke loose. The veteran beat reporter asked a question that we all deserve an answer to and one for which the panel should have been prepared. All Lazerus asked was what measures the team is making to ensure that what happened to Kyle Beach will never happen again.
Instead of letting his son answer this, Rocky interrupted and lit the match to his legacy in one angry rant. Even when Danny tried to interject and save what little bit of credibility and dignity the elder Wirtz had left, he was cut off by his father.
“That’s none of your business. What we’re going to do today is our business. I don’t think it’s any of your business.
“You don’t work for the company. If somebody in the company asks that question, we’ll answer it. And I think you should get on to the next subject. We’re not going to talk about Kyle Beach. We’re not going to talk about anything that happened. Now we’re moving on.”From ” Rocky Wirtz’s childish, unprofessional outburst calls into question his fitness to lead the Blackhawks” by Mark Lazerus, The Athletic, 2/2/22
Phillip Thompson of the Chicago Tribune quickly moved in with a follow-up question and was shouted at by Wirtz, doubling down on his shameful behavior.
These words shouted angrily out of the mouth of a man that preached accountability and transparency since last October when he felt exonerated by the Jenner & Block report regarding the Beach abuse. Now we know those were just buzz words given to him by the public relations department, and he meant none of it.
The Beach Business is Our Business
Wirtz’s tirade was wrong on so many levels, but he is most wrong in thinking that what the Blackhawks are doing behind the scenes isn’t our business. If you want the loyal fans, many of whom are embarrassed even to admit that today, to give you their business, you make your efforts our business. That’s how transparency works.
To make matters worse, the Blackhawks had their game against the Minnesota Wild on the national TNT broadcast in the United States. During the first intermission, the studio crew of Liam McHugh, Wayne Gretzky, Anson Carter, Rich Tocchet took Wirtz to task after the clip of his explosion was shown. Gretzky, who rarely uses his position as the greatest player ever to speak up on major issues, had the most scathing comments.
“From every point of view, this is just a horrible scenario, what happened to [Beach],” he said. “As a parent, you’re sitting there going, my son’s 18, he’s going to maybe be drafted by that team … I want to know my 18-year-old son is going to be protected.”
During the second period, well over three hours after the incident, Wirtz released this polished and brief apology.
“Tonight, at the Chicago Blackhawks town hall, my response to two questions crossed the line. I want to apologize to the fans and those reporters, and I regret that my response overshadowed the great work this organization is doing to move forward. We have the right leaders and right processes in place to create a safe environment for our employees and players.”
He couldn’t even address Lazerus and Thompson by name, and he still didn’t answer the original question. That is so damning, but it’s hard to believe Wirtz fully understands that. Thompson later revealed in a Tweet that he received a personal apology from Faulkner, not Wirtz, via email, even though he was in the same building and could have easily delivered it face-to-face.
Damaging the Blackhawks Future
Forget burning a legacy; that fire has been smoldering for a long time. The Wirtz family has a long tradition of not being liked by fans and players in this town. Rocky’s grandfather Arthur, and father Bill, were both known as shrewd businessmen with “my way or the highway” attitudes. There were generations of players let go and home games not shown on local television, all in the name of saving the almighty dollar.
Rocky was supposed to be different. His name was cheered by fans at the sold-out United Center as the team was at the top of the NHL mountain. Those days feel as if they happened as long ago as when Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita skated at the old Chicago Stadium. They are over and are never coming back.
Danny Wirtz and Faulkner are now left to pick up the pieces of a franchise already in shambles. The current team is mediocre, crippled by the contracts of two aging superstars from an era gone by. The cupboard was left bare by a disgraced general manager who was left in power for way too long by you know who. Then, we have the effects of the Beach scandal, which we know now hasn’t changed things one bit.
This is a franchise trying to find a new general manager. The first job opening listed on the team’s employment page is for a public relations manager. Who is lining up to get these jobs now? What goes on behind closed doors if Rocky is willing to shout down Danny during a public forum? Any good faith his son and Faulkner had built is gone, and, once again, they have to unfairly start from scratch.
Gretzky’s point was valid. How many young players will be excited to play for an organization that clearly values its bottom line over their safety? How will you attract free agents to play for your team when they know that every decision will come down from the angry man in the executive suite?
Then we have the trickle-down effect to the fans. You know, then ones that keep Rocky’s pockets lined by filling up his building 41 times a year. Attendance numbers are already low, and after what we saw Wednesday, they should get even lower. Social media was flooded by long-time fans who said this was the final straw. We will probably never know, but one can only wonder how many phone calls came in Thursday morning from season ticket holders looking to cancel.
Wirtz thinks that he just had a minor exchange with a couple of reporters, and an empty apology written by an intern can make it go away. The damage goes much deeper than that. So deep that if this franchise truly wants to recover, it needs to leave Rocky behind. It is time for Danny Wirtz and Faulkner to become the true leaders of this organization. It is time for Rocky Wirtz to go. If he loved this team like he says he does, he would have already left.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.