Rocky authors big comeback

Rocky Wirtz was such a popular guy Thursday he had a tough time making it to his seat. Ross Dettman for ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Rocky Wirtz is trapped. Only 15 minutes remain until faceoff, 15 minutes until his Blackhawks officially return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in seven years, yet Wirtz can't escape.

He's been spotted on the concourse outside Fandemonium, the United Center's team store, and fans are mobbing him like he's a Jonas Brother standing in line for Space Mountain. They want to see him, they want to touch him, they want an autograph. But most of all, they just want to say one thing.

Thank you.

"I'm so happy … I'm so damn happy. Thank you very much."

"Thank you, thank you, you are the man."

"Thanks for bringing it back."

These aren't kids. They're grown men in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Men with families. Men with careers. Men who are beyond the acceptable autograph-seeking age. Yet Wirtz signs jerseys, hats, T-shirts, photographs, ticket stubs, rally towels, pucks -- you name it -- for all of them. Even those who don't take the time to stop still yell in the 56-year-old's direction as they walk by.

"Way to go, Rock."

"We appreciate it, Rock."

"Rocky, Rocky, Rocky."

The crowd runs four, five deep. One fan patiently waits his turn and, when he finally gets the chance, sticks out his shaky right hand and says, "Thank you, Mr. Wirtz. What you've done means more to me than you'll ever know." Rocky smiles, says thank you, then insists, "Listen, next time just call me Rocky."

And that's when it hits you. That's when you're quickly reminded that none of this was supposed to happen. At least not like this. At least not this fast. For years, the Wirtz name was synonymous with one thing in Chicago sports -- being cheap. "Dollar" Bill Wirtz, Rocky's father, infuriated Blackhawks fans with seemingly everything he did, from stubbornly refusing to televise home games, running famous players out of town and, in the end, all but ruining one of the league's Original Six franchises. He was one of the most reviled owners in professional sports.

But 18 months after Bill Wirtz passed away after a battle with cancer, his eldest son not only has brought the Blackhawks back from the brink but also has done something even more unthinkable -- he has restored the family name.

On Thursday night, during the team's first postseason appearance in seven seasons, Rocky Wirtz brought ESPNChicago.com along for the ride.

"I honestly wasn't sure if we could ever get it back to this point," he said. "I wasn't sure if the city would ever accept someone with the last name Wirtz running this franchise. I honestly didn't know. Would they trust me? Would they believe in me? But I followed my heart. I made the decisions that I felt had to be made. And so far, it's worked."

The turnaround is staggering. When Rocky took over the team, the Blackhawks had but 3,500 season-ticket holders. They had the second-lowest attendance in the league. One week into the 2007-08 season, the team was in danger of failing to make payroll and needed a $34 million loan from the Wirtz Corp. to help it stay afloat. The on-ice product wasn't much better, finishing fifth in the NHL's Central Division.

But last week, in the midst of an international financial crisis, the team set a single-season record for attendance. The average of 21,783 fans that poured through the turnstiles each night led the entire NHL. And Thursday night, the on-ice product confirmed its revival, as well, defeating the Calgary Flames 3-2 in overtime in the franchise's first Stanley Cup playoff game in seven seasons.

"The Winter Classic was our coming-out party," Wirtz said of the nationally televised New Year's Day extravaganza at Wrigley Field. "But tonight, the playoffs, this is the validation. This is what backs up all of the marketing and talking we've done. This is when we start to prove that when we said our goal was to win the Stanley Cup, we meant it."

His own man

There are four minutes until faceoff, and Rocky Wirtz has a window for his escape. There are four more rally towels to sign, but as soon as he's done, the team's PR man will tap him on his shoulder and make sure he's in his seat on time.

Rocky does not sit in some lofty perch high above the rink, like a king looking down on the peasants below him. He sits with the fans -- in Section 119, for those who want to know -- where he can't go a few minutes without someone coming by to shake his hand or say hello. And he wouldn't have it any other way. When Rocky took over the team and decided to watch games from the seats his family had always owned, United Center personnel asked whether he required extra security. And whether he would need ushers to stop fans from harassing him. He instructed just the opposite: Let everyone through.

"When people go to a restaurant, they want to see the owner," he said. "They want to be able to tell him if they had a great meal -- or a terrible one. It's the same way. If someone is happy with something we did, I want to know. If someone is upset with us, I want to know that, too."

On this night, everyone is happy. When Wirtz sits down, the man in front of him turns around and shakes his hand. When it's announced that new Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will drop the first puck, the man shakes his head. "Mr. Wirtz, that should be you down there," he says. "This is all because of you."

Wirtz, of course, tells him to call him Rocky.

Seconds later, the national anthem is performed and 22,478 fans are standing on their feet, screaming at the top of their lungs. Somehow, as the song continues, the stadium gets louder. And louder. And just when you think that's it, when it's impossible for any more noise to fill the United Center, it gets louder still. The cement floor begins to vibrate. Not an arm in the building is without goose bumps.

Wirtz's eyes begin to water. A tear falls down his cheek.

"You can't help but get a little bit emotional from that," he says. "That's the loudest I've ever heard this place."

In between the first and second period, Rocky's wife, Marilyn, leans over to explain.

"This is all bittersweet for him," she says. "He really misses his father. People think because he has done things a bit different that he doesn't miss his father. But he misses him every day. And I know he'd give anything to have his dad here to see this tonight."

From the moment Bill Wirtz died, Rocky let it be known things were going to be different. The old man wasn't even in the ground yet when, at the wake, Rocky told his brother Peter about his plans to put the Blackhawks' home games on television.

"In many ways, I think Dad was past the point of no return," Rocky said. "He had been so stubborn for so long, I think he backed himself into a corner where he couldn't change if he wanted to. Me? I didn't have that problem."

Although fans were ecstatic with the decision, some wondered whether it had happened too fast. How could a son change everything his father stood for in a few short weeks? Rocky didn't see it that way.

"Look, it didn't say somewhere in his will, 'You better not put the team on television or I will come back from the grave and disown you,'" he said. "That's not in the will. I worked with my dad for 33 years. And I know he'd want me to do what I thought was the right thing to do."

"Billy was old-school," Marilyn said. "Rocky is new-school. After [his] dad died, he told me one night he was going to do whatever it took to make the fans happy again."

Beyond putting the team on television, there was a new radio contract with WGN-AM 720. There was fence-mending with former Blackhawks greats Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito. There was the hiring of former Chicago Cubs president John McDonough, whose overhaul of the organization included a Blackhawks offseason fanfest and a late-summer street festival celebrating the opening of training camp.

When young talent such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane began to grow, the Hawks started to win. And the name "Wirtz" was seen in a whole new light.

"Look at him," says John Miller, a close friend of Rocky's for more than 40 years. "You think about all the abuse his family went through, and now he's like a rock star. And the thing is -- he's the same person today as he was 30 years ago. What you see is what you get."

But not everyone is sold. Mark Weinberg, a Chicago attorney who self-published the book "Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks Fans," said he believes that with the Blackhawks' young talent, anyone could have filled Bill Wirtz's shoes and been successful.

"Rocky's dad put him in a position where he simply couldn't fail," Weinberg said. "And yet here he is basking in his glory of all he's done and walking around the United Center like some sort of hero. It's completely disrespectful of Bill Wirtz. But fans don't see it that way. They only see the wins and losses."

Nervous Nellie

They made the promise six years ago, a simple shake of the hand cementing the fact that the next time the Blackhawks reached the postseason, Rocky and business associate Steve Berg, the founder of Effen Vodka, would crack open a bottle of 25-year-old Macallan scotch.

But that was before Wirtz Beverage Group stopped carrying Macallan. So on this night, between the first and second period, they settle for Johnnie Walker Blue. They are standing in the Sonja Henie Room, home of Rocky's United Center office and the bar where he entertains his guests. On this night, TV news anchors, radio DJs, lawyers, doctors, liquor distributors, hotel executives and health-care moguls fill the room. Rocky knows them all; he has invited them all; and before the game, after the game and between periods, he entertains them all.

Bill Wirtz used to sit in here and watch the Blackhawks on television, parking himself on the first bar stool so he could shake the hand of each visitor. But his son works the jam-packed room like a politician, bouncing from guest to guest, shaking hands, saying hello and making everyone feel as though he couldn't wait to see him or her.

"It was a much different room with Bill," says Guy Chipparoni, the PR man. "It was pretty quiet, sort of laid-back. This is like night and day. This is like the Metro Club."

Rocky has this impressive talent, the ability to rub shoulders with the Chicago elite, and yet, as soon as a period is about to begin, return to his seat and seem as approachable and down-to-earth as a beer vendor. It's all part of his three-pronged master plan: Take care of the fans, take care of the corporate sponsors and take care of the media.

At one point in the game, a fan sitting below Wirtz picks up his cell phone and yells to one of the referees: "Hey, ref, it's your mom on the phone. She wanted me to let you know: 'You suck!'" Rocky, the man who minutes earlier was in the party room talking to a bigwig from a local health care company, not only laughs at the fan but, in a "Beavis and Butt-Head" sort of way, repeats the punch line, "Heh-heh … she wanted me to let you know, 'You suck.'"

The Johnnie Walker Blue goes down smooth, of course. But it does little to ease Rocky's nerves. When he watches a game, he looks calm. He doesn't jump in and out of his seat. He doesn't rag on the referees or complain about missed opportunities. He just sits there, quietly, sometimes on the front edge of his seat, sometimes leaning back, but always quietly watching the game. But deep down, the kid who was born and raised on Blackhawks hockey rides the highs and lows of every single goal.

"It eats at him," Marilyn says. "He can't take it."

"Sometimes I just wish I knew the final score," Wirtz says, "and I didn't have to go through actually watching the game."

Wirtz's nerves settle down a bit when Cam Barker scores at the 13:17 mark of the second period to tie the score at 1-1. But when Calgary responds with a two-on-one goal early in the third period, his nerves return.

"You can't give up a two-on-one like that," he says. "You can't do that in the playoffs."

But at the 14:27 mark of the third period, Martin Havlat erases the Blackhawks' gaffe with a tying goal. Rocky leaps out of his seat, high-fives everyone around him, pumps his fist and says, to no one in particular, "Let's go."

Before overtime, Wirtz returns to the party room, where he holds up a plastic cup of soda and tells a few friends, "I wish this were a scotch because I need it tonight. I can't take much more."

"You can just tell," Chipparoni says, "he's wound up pretty tight."

A few minutes later, Wirtz is ready for overtime, sitting on the edge of his seat in Section 119. Just before the puck is dropped, he leans over and whispers, "One shot, one goal and we'll all go home."

Twelve seconds later, it happens. Free-agent-to-be Havlat slaps a shot past Calgary goalkeeper Miikka Kiprusoff, and the Hawks win 3-2. The scene is bedlam. Wirtz leaps out of his seat, pumps his fist in the air and again slaps high-fives. The noise is deafening. And no one is going home. All around Rocky Wirtz, the fans have again circled in. The man who made the quip about the referee's mom wants a hug. A father wants his two daughters to shake the hand of the man who "made this all possible." There are more jerseys to sign, pictures to take.

When he finally returns to the Sonja Henie Room to shake a few hands before heading home, Rocky Wirtz refuses to paint some broad stroke about this night's importance in turning around the franchise. Instead, he points to the obvious. The Blackhawks have not won a Stanley Cup since 1961. He wants to change that.

"What does this all mean? What does it mean for our franchise?" he asks. "It means we're one win closer to winning the Stanley Cup. And, from my mouth to God's ears, that's the goal."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.