Wirtz dies at 77; helped negotiate NHL-WHA merger

Updated: September 26, 2007, 5:49 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

CHICAGO -- William Wirtz, the longtime owner of the Chicago Blackhawks notorious for driving a hard bargain, died Wednesday at age 77.

In an announcement on the team Web site, the Blackhawks said Wirtz died at Evanston Hospital after battling cancer.

Bill Wirtz
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhChicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, seen in 2005, was chairman of the NHL board of governors for 18 years. But he also faced harsh criticism for refusing to spend money to make the Blackhawks a contender.

The family, led by Arthur Wirtz, purchased the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954. In 1966, William Wirtz became team president.

Wirtz was chairman of the Board of Governors of the National Hockey League for 18 years and helped negotiate the merger of the NHL and the World Hockey Association in the late 1970's.

"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 statement.

"His 41 years as President of the Blackhawks and 18 years as Chairman of the Board leave an incomparable legacy of contributions to the game and to the League. His strength, intelligence, character and passion have been ingrained indelibly in the Blackhawks, in the League and in me. Bill was a true icon and a great competitor."

Together with Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Wirtz helped back the construction of the United Center, which replaced the Chicago Stadium, the longtime home of the Blackhawks and Bulls.

But since moving there 12 years ago, the Blackhawks have made just four playoff appearances -- only two since 1997. The Blackhawks haven't played in the Stanley Cup finals in 15 years. As a result, the Blackhawks -- one of the six original NHL teams -- average about 12,700 fans per game in an arena that seats 20,500.

"Bill Wirtz was a giant of a man whose passing leaves a tremendous void in Chicago. It was an honor to have been his partner for over 25 years. He was a person of great integrity, loyalty and generosity," Reinsdorf said in a statement.

Wirtz's stewardship of the Blackhawks was long questioned, with the criticism becoming more vociferous in recent years. Many fans blamed him for allowing too many good players to leave over the years, and for his refusal to televise most home games.

At the United Center, the retired numbers of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall and Denis Savard hang high above the ice. It has been years since players of that caliber have played for the team.

And in recent years, Chicago lost such high-caliber players as Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios.

There are other banners hanging from the United Center rafters, touting the many successful seasons for the franchise. One stands out: the one representing the Stanley Cup in 1961, the last time the Blackhawks won the championship.

Wirtz often said his goal was for the team to win another Stanley Cup, but he was not known to spend lavishly on the team. His steadfast refusal to get into bidding wars to acquire the services of the game's best players earned Wirtz the nickname "Dollar Bill." That image changed somewhat when the club signed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million contract in 2005.

Despite his reputation for paying close attention to the bottom line, Wirtz was known for his philanthropy.

Since its establishment in 1993, Blackhawk Charities has donated millions of dollars to worthy causes in Chicago, including the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois.

Wirtz's interest in sports extended beyond the NHL. He served on both the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympic Committees. And for his efforts on both the professional and amateur levels, Mr. Wirtz was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.

In addition to being president of the Blackhawks, Wirtz' business endeavors extended to real estate, liquor distributorships, catering, parking lots, banking, hotels and the travel industry.

Wirtz is survived by his wife, Alice, five children, Rocky, Gail, Karey, Peter and Alyson, and seven grandchildren.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.