Proud Wirtz gladly embraces trophy

CHICAGO -- Rocky Wirtz loved that his team wouldn't touch the Campbell Trophy signifying the Western Conference championship. But when a white-gloved, blue-blazered member of the Hockey Hall of Fame brought the gleaming silver Cup to the Blackhawks' chairman Sunday night, Wirtz was not shy about posing for pictures with the ornate silver bowl.

It bore no more significance to his young players than as a symbol of what more they want to achieve. But for Wirtz, a hockey historian, it represented a man in former NHL president Clarence Campbell, whom he knew well and respected.

"That's what I thought," said Wirtz as he leaned over to read that the trophy was crafted in 1878 (and named for Campbell at the start of the modern era expansion). "This is actually older than the Stanley Cup. It's just a gorgeous trophy and rightfully so. It's a great honor to have this [named] for that gentleman. He was a class act. People around hockey didn't know him as well. One thing they didn't know is that he was one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg, which tells you what a brilliant mind he had."

Tucked away in a private room of the United Center with family and friends after the Hawks' 4-0 sweep of the San Jose Sharks secured them a berth in the Stanley Cup finals, Wirtz' mood was typically upbeat. But like his team, Wirtz's pride in the Hawks' latest accomplishment was celebrated in somewhat measured, analytical tones.

"Did you see Jonathan Toews with his hand on his hip, saying, 'It's all right, but we have something else to do?'" Wirtz said in describing his captain's lukewarm acceptance of the trophy. "He was saying that four more victories is what the goal is.

"I know they didn't want to celebrate after any round. It was the same way and real smart for that last Vancouver game to pack for that last week saying, 'We're not coming home.' It was very much a conscious decision that 'We're winning this last game and not coming back home until after [the first two games in San Jose].'"

After taking over as majority owner of the club following the death of his father, Bill, in October 2007, Rocky ushered in -- along with new young stars, televised home games, a new front office led by John McDonough and a winning team -- a new spirit that has electrified and recaptured its fan base.

When the giant scoreboard video screen flashes the image of Wirtz watching the game with his wife, Marilyn, from folding chairs in the corner of the rink and halfway up the 100 level, it is met by a thunderous ovation for the man who seemingly gave the Blackhawks back to the people of Chicago.

But if this is a thrill for Hawks fans, it is just as much for Wirtz.

The last time the Hawks were playing in the Stanley Cup finals, in 1992, he said, "I was at home watching on TV, like any other fan. Whether they won or lost, I still had to go to work the next day."

Just the same, Wirtz is a student of the Blackhawks, having accompanied his father to countless games as a boy, and loves what he sees.

"Joel Quenneville and his coaching staff have done such a terrific job putting these guys in the right frame of mind and not letting them get ahead of themselves," Wirtz said. "But that's from the coaching staff. Then you have the John Maddens of the world, who has won a couple of rings, and it was a very conscious effort last year to sign him with just that in mind. How do you control and really work with these young kids, whose average age is 26 and Madden is 37 … and then play the way they play?

"Toews just turned 22 and [Patrick] Kane is 21, [Kris] Versteeg is 23. But they rise to the occasion. They didn't get flustered this last game, down two goals to none, including a short-handed goal which could psychologically do something. It might have frustrated them but no, they just came and did their business."

Wirtz rattled off the virtues of each player: his admiration for Duncan Keith playing Sunday after getting several of his teeth knocked out, goalie Antti Niemi for playing far above the maturity level of a first-year player, the entire group for playing together and for putting the team ahead of themselves.

"They're classy people, they like each other, and it shows," Wirtz said. "Obviously they're highly skilled, but it's the chemistry. What makes that? What makes leadership? They put such high expectations on themselves.

"How about Brian Campbell coming back? He's getting paid regardless. But he came back after that terrible injury [broken collarbone and ribs] and made a major difference. At the end of the season, they had to learn to play without him. But did you notice when he came back, he wasn't out of shape. He was taking those mini shifts. He never looked winded out there."

Wirtz, 57, laughed about players urging him to try growing a playoff mullet like Kane's.

"That's not going to happen," said the neatly groomed Wirtz, rarely if ever even seen without a suit.

Not even a little facial hair?

"I can't handle it," he laughed.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.