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Bill Wirtz, 77; owned Chicago Blackhawks, chaired NHL board

September 27, 2007|Neil Milbert | Chicago Tribune

Bill Wirtz, a Chicago businessman best known for his long tenure as president of his family-owned hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks, has died. He was 77.

A throwback to a bygone era in American sports when family ownership of professional sports franchises was the norm, Wirtz died Wednesday at Evanston Hospital in Illinois after a battle with cancer.

Wirtz played an integral role in the expansion of the National Hockey League from six to 30 teams, but his business ventures extended far beyond sports, and his sports ventures extended beyond the Blackhawks.

His business holdings included real estate, liquor distributorships, banks and insurance companies.

"Bill Wirtz was a giant presence in a giant city, his beloved Chicago, and an even greater presence in the National Hockey League," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a prepared statement. "His 41 years as president of the Blackhawks and 18 years as chairman of the [NHL] board leave an incomparable legacy of contributions to the game and to the league. . . . Bill was a true icon and a great competitor."

Wirtz had a thick skin, as evidenced by his refusal to flinch under a barrage of criticism that lasted for several decades because of his refusal to televise Blackhawk home games and, in recent years, his steadfast refusal to get into multimillion-dollar bidding wars to acquire the services of the game's best players.

In amassing a fortune estimated in excess of $550 million, Wirtz was legendary for driving a hard bargain, earning him the nickname "Dollar Bill."

But Wirtz also contributed several million to charity and was fiercely loyal to many of his longtime employees and former players. Under his guidance, Chicago Blackhawk Charities was established in 1993. It has since donated more than $7.5 million to charitable organizations, mostly in Chicago.

William Wadsworth Wirtz was born in Chicago on Oct. 5, 1929, graduated from Brown University in 1950 and began working as a certified public accountant. He joined his father, Arthur, and brother, Michael, in buying the Blackhawks in 1954. In 1966 he became the team's president.

As chairman of the NHL's board of governors, Wirtz was responsible for negotiating the 1979 amalgamation of the World Hockey Assn. by the NHL. He served on the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Winter Games in 1980 and 1984.

In 1976, Wirtz and his father were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for their contributions to the NHL. And in 1985, Wirtz was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions to amateur hockey.

Wirtz also was involved in harness racing and professional basketball.

The family's Ivanhoe Stable was one of North America's foremost Standardbred farms in the late 1970s and early '80s, with seven stallions and about 100 broodmares.

His father joined with George Steinbrenner, Lamar Hunt and others to take financial control of the Chicago Bulls before the 1972-73 National Basketball Assn. season. At one time the Wirtz family had a 20% interest in the Bulls, and Wirtz was the franchise's representative on the NBA's board of governors.

Wirtz and Jerry Reinsdorf, principal owner of the Bulls and the Chicago White Sox baseball team, became the driving force in building the United Center, an all-purpose arena that opened in 1994.

Demolishing the old Chicago Stadium was an emotionally painful decision for a man who had many fond boyhood memories of the times he had spent in the building, witnessing sports events and a presidential convention.

But Wirtz also took great pride in pointing out that the United Center was financed with private funds rather than taxpayer dollars.

One of the biggest disappointments of Wirtz's career in sports was the defection of star hockey player Bobby Hull to Winnipeg of the WHA in 1972.

"It's harder to lose somebody in life than in death," Wirtz later lamented. "Hull had two contracts -- one with Winnipeg and one with the WHA -- that paid him a total of $2 million. If we [the Blackhawks] sign him for $2 million, what do you pay Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito? And what does another team in the NHL pay its superstars?

"The war with the WHA was the third-bloodiest war in history, behind the Civil War and the Peloponnesian War."

Wirtz is survived by his wife, Alice; five children, Rocky, Gail, Karey, Peter and Alyson; and seven grandchildren. His first wife, Joan, died in 1987.

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