Rocky Wirtz is dead.
He passed on the evening of July 25th after a short illness. He is arguably the best modern owner of the Blackhawks and responsible for its most heinous failing. Mark Lazarus at the Athletic has an excellent column detailing Wirtz’s legacy and if you have a subscription, I recommend it fully.
Wirtz took over from his father “Dollar” Bill Wirtz. The name should give you some indication of the type of man the elder Wirtz was. He more than lived up to his name. Dollar Bill treated his players and employees terribly, driving away multiple good players with his cheapness and giving the team a reputation for treating players so badly that no one would come to it in free agency if they had a choice. He kept home games off television, dooming the team to irrelevancy. His son changed literally all of that.
Rocky Wirtz opened up the purse strings, treating both his players and his employees in a first-class manner. He put the games back on TV, hired people good at their jobs and got out of their way. The Hawks became a destination franchise, the gold standard in the NHL, and won three Stanley Cups in six years, in part because of his actions. And he did it all without, as far as I can tell, shakedowns of the tax holders that almost every North American sport owner indulges in.
Then came the news of what had been done to Kyle Beach.
Beach was a Black Ace, a minor leaguer brought up to provide practice bodies during the playoffs for the 2010 Stanley Cup run. Not a member of the team, exactly, but a contributor and around the team to a certain extent. During that time, he was sexually assaulted by a trainer. The team leadership learned of this behavior during the playoffs and that leadership — the team president, the team general manger and the head coach — decided to keep it quiet so as not to “distract” the players from the goal of winning the Cup. The trainer was allowed to continue with the team through the playoffs and even got his name on the Cup before being quietly let go.
The cover up was revealed about two years ago. A report was commissioned and released publicly. The three men were fired and banned from hockey. The report stated that Wirtz was unaware of the actions taken at the time, which is at least somewhat plausible as the president of the Blackhawks had stated long before that he did not keep Wirtz in the loop on team decisions. The team, now under the leadership of Rocky’s son, made some public moves designed to prevent that kind of action from happening again, settled Beach’s lawsuit on terms that appeared to make him if not happy at least content with the settlement, and had begun in some small way to begin the process of correcting their errors.
And then Rocky Wirtz exploded.
At a press Q and A, Wirtz was asked a fairly easy question about how the team was working to ensure that something like the Beach story could not happen again. He told the reporter that it was none of his business, they would not answer any question on Beach, and they were moving on.
That answer made it crystal clear that even if Wirtz knew nothing of the details, he created an environment where such an action could take place. The question was the softest of softballs. Any competent leader could have handled such a question in their sleep. But Wirtz reacted as he had been personally attacked. The idea that he owed anyone an accounting of the team’s failure or what he was going to do to correct those failures was personally offensive to him. He literally could not imagine a world in which he should be held accountable for the actions of the people that worked for him. Those people were fired, weren’t they, so what more could people want?
Speaking as a fan, we could want the players that we cheer for and the employees that support them to be safe in their work environment. One of two things happened in the meeting that allowed Beach’s abuser to go free. Either the people who made that decision knew they would be rewarded for doing the wrong thing or they knew that there would be no reward for doing the right thing if it cost them the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in almost fifty years. Either way, that is on Wirtz. He created a culture that either rewarded bad behavior or refused to reward good behavior. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder what he has done to change that culture, to make sure that good behavior is rewarded in all situations.
Wirtz’s reaction, however, is not remarkable among our business and political leaders. White collar crimes prosecutions are at an all-time low. The Supreme Court has artificially restricted the definition of bribery almost to the point of non-existence. The legal system allows a ridiculous level of conflicts of interest to pass by without comment. CEO compensation has ballooned for non-economic reasons. We live in a world where accountability is only for the little people. Why would Wirtz have ever thought it should apply to him?
Wirtz, like all public figures, is less a person to most of those who are aware of him, and more a character we see in television and read about in the newspapers and on websites. His loss is obviously devastating to his friends and family. His life and legacy are complicated. But it is clear that Wirtz’s life highlights the ways in which we have allowed the rich and powerful to not only escape accountability but to come to believe that the idea of accountability is somehow illegitimate. For all the good he brought the Hawks and their fans, that is probably his most important public legacy — if we pay it the proper attention.