Blackhawks' Rocky Wirtz honors his dad by not following his lead

Blackhawks revival is proof father doesn't always know best.

No one would have loved the Stanley Cup celebration more than former Blackhawks Chairman Bill Wirtz.

The sad thing is that if he were still around to enjoy it, it's unlikely there would be anything to enjoy.

From his death in 2007, and son Rocky's assumption of control, the Blackhawks were reborn.

That resurrection of a moribund enterprise is a Father's Day reminder that, even as we celebrate how father knows best, sometimes the best way for children to preserve and advance a parent's legacy is to forge their own.

Yes, history is filled with stories of next-generation busts and new corporate leaders who lose their way along with their business, but sometimes the kids are all right.

Let's put it this way: If the rest of the Wirtz family empire had been run with the same stubborn adherence to the old man's old way of doing things as its hockey team, you'd see horse-drawn wagons delivering beer, wine and spirits to your local tavern.

Nearly everything Rocky had given up suggesting to his dad — because, really, there's no use arguing after a point — was channeled into action when he took the reins, and action brought results.

He couldn't bring back his father. He could bring back his father's team.

Rocky had to be his own man, bring in his own lieutenants from top exec John McDonough on down. They needed a new game plan, a new urgency and new results after what amounted to a lost decade.

Forget about putting home games on TV — something the old man had adamantly opposed — clinging to 1960s media and marketing philosophies most abandoned long ago. That was easy. Rocky has complained for years that the team's books were as saturated in red as its home sweaters.

Blackhawks fans and players for the third time in six seasons can chant, "We're No. 1!" More significantly, those on the business side of the operation can say they're breaking even.

It's taken every bit of that success on the ice, and the revenue increases that winning hockey supports through broadcasting money, sponsorship deals, licensing agreements and packing the United Center game after game despite steady and substantial ticket price hikes.

But Rocky now says the Blackhawks cover their own payroll expenses, which they hadn't done in a long time. At some point, the hockey team had to be run with the same discipline as the rest of the Wirtz family portfolio, which includes liquor distribution, banking, insurance and real estate.

The team Rocky Wirtz inherited had among the cheapest average ticket prices in the National Hockey League, and now they're among the most expensive, even before reaching the secondary market on websites like StubHub.

Single-game regular-season ticket prices in the 300 level that started at $15 in 2008-09 started at $65 this past season. With another increase on the way for next season, the average Blackhawks ticket price will have increased 80 percent since 2009.

"Winning is good for your bottom line," Rocky told Fox Business Network on Friday, "not only as far as what you actually get, but as the future years going forward."

Part of the trick is to know which traditions to hold tight to, and which to set aside.

The Blackhawks under Rocky patched up connections to star players from the franchise's history to restore a touchstone for disenchanted, disenfranchised fans. At the same time, the Blackhawks stuck their business plan in the shredder, developing a new multi-tiered 21st century approach.

Rocky told The New York Times that his dad would be "very excited" by the Blackhawks' success, "and he would not have agreed with a thing we've done."

In doing so, the team didn't just establish a template to be studied by other franchises in other sports, but other businesses in other industries.

What, after all, is McDonald's trying to do now but modernize while retaining the part of its heritage that gives it equity in the American consciousness?

Assuming Sears' retail business is salvageable, how will the brand win back consumers who may recall childhood affection for its holiday Wish Book catalog but have never been less connected to bricks-and-mortar department stores?

Each generation, each corporate regime, each demographic group of consumers and producers must be free to make their own decisions, advances and mistakes.

Those who come before can offer a compass, street smarts and a sense of right from left as much as right from wrong. Shifting landscapes will render useless even the best available map for the future.

That's true whether you're running a media company, running for president or heading up a hockey team.

Rocky Wirtz made his dad proud. Even though dad wouldn't approve.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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