With the NHL season finally set to begin on Saturday, the Sun-Times sat down with Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz on Wednesday for a discussion about the state of the team, the state of the league, and the state of the fanbase in the wake of the four-month NHL lockout.
Here's a transcript of that interview:
Sun-Times: It's been a rough few months for everybody involved in the lockout. How do you feel the Hawks are positioned now after everything that's transpired?
Rocky Wirtz: The Hawks are positioned well, because we never took any time off as an organization. Unfortunately, the fans did, but we as a company, as a sports team, didn't. So we chose not to lay anybody off. Any full-time employee kept their jobs, so there's plenty of things to do from the hockey ops to the front office to even the ticket folks. So when the e-mail came that a handshake deal had been done, John McDonough and Jay [Blunk] had a 9 o'clock meeting that Sunday morning. They were ready to go.
ST: How heavily involved were you with the negotiations?
RW: I was not on the negotiating committee. I'm on the executive committee, so I would get updates. The league was very good about updating all the owners after every meeting. They had over 70 meetings. We get a very detailed e-mail that Bill Daly would put out, so you felt like there was plenty dissemination of information. I always felt very much informed. And then I'd read the press to see what they said (laughs). I'd say to myself, well, you knew what was released, because if it wasn't released from us, it came from the players' side.
I didn't even know that the federal mediator was back in again, then all of a sudden we got an e-mail he was in. I talked to Gary Bettman on New Year's Eve, and after talking to him I was giving ourselves a 50-50 chance that the season would not go. So really until the very end, I didn't know if we could make a deal or not.
ST: So you weren't like the rest of us, hitting reload on Twitter all night that last night when they were negotiating until 5 in the morning?
RW: I wish I was that good. I knew the process had to go through, but I just didn't know if the owners and their negotiating committee could get on the same page. I just wasn't sure. All I knew was they were meeting. I didn't know how close, because, as you know, at the beginning of December, we all felt pretty good about it; we thought it was close, and it fell apart. So I guess that feeling was, until that handshake was done, it wasn't going to get done. So at the time it was really great. My phone's right by my bed, and it vibrates when e-mails come in. When it came in at 4 or 5 in the morning, whenever it was, I figured it might just be them telling me there was a deal (laughs). I didn't check it till about 6 in the morning -- the compulsive curiosity, I couldn't stand it. I did look at it and saw it about 6 o'clock.
ST: So you were a little like the rest of us, then?
RW: I was. I had to look.
ST: Do you think it's a good deal?
RW: I think it is for both parties. The reason I like it, it's 50-50. The players can't do any better by the owners doing any worse, or vice versa. We truly are joined at the hip. It's important for us to grow the sport, it's important for the players to grow the sport, and the more that the sport makes, the more the players are going to make. I look at it as a win-win. It's painful to get through for the fans, but another nice thing is it's a 10-year deal, with a kick-out after eight, but I'm comfortable that 10 years is going to be the term of that deal, so it's something we don't have to do [again]. I think the players don't want to do it, I know the owners certainly don't want to negotiate again. We can grow the sport and not worry about the overall collective bargaining side of it. That's very painful for both the players and the owners.
ST: This is the third one in less than 20 years. Can we expect, in eight to 10 years, to do this all over again? Can you ever foresee a time when this won't' be painful?
RW: One of the things in the agreement is to have an owner-player meeting, so you don't have to wait until the end of the agreement to be able to say what are the things that concern the players, what are the things that concern the owners. So if you can listen to both sides, and both sides can understand where the game's going, then I think we can do a better job of lengthening these agreements and not letting them get to the very end.
ST: Is that going to be an annual meeting?
RW: The details are still being worked out, but there's a vehicle for an owner-player meeting, which years ago they had, and we just got away from it. If you can say there's something we should have done a better job of, it's communicating way before the deadline was coming.
ST: There has to be some resentment between the players and owners at this point, doesn't there? Is it going to be awkward at all dealing with your own players?
RW: I don't think so. Everyone in the organization respected the players' views, and hopefully they respected our views. I read some of the players' views and what they said afterward, they had a position and I respect that position.
ST: It's business, not personal, in other words?
RW: That's exactly right. I never took anything that any player said personally. And I know no one in the organization did, either. It was a position they had to take and I think hopefully anything that Gary Bettman said -- Gary was the spokesman for the owners, and we couldn't talk because of the gag order -- but hopefully the players didn't take anything he said personally, either.
ST: Have you had any contact with your players yet?
RW: I have not.
ST: How often do you during the season?
RW: The best contact I have with them is when I go in the locker room after you win the Stanley Cup. But I have limited access to them. I see them coming to the games in Lot H. And we get together at the Christmas party.
ST: I've been bombarded with fan comments the last week. As excited as they are -- and they obviously are -- they're really angry, too. Do you feel the league, or you, or the owners in general owe the fans an apology?
RW: I don't think so. I think we can thank them for their patience. But I think the process we went through, I don't think the owners or the players should have to apologize for going through a collective bargaining process. Labor is labor, and that's just the way it is. It might be very distasteful for the fans, but unfortunately, when you have unions involved, that's the process you have to go through. There's nothing you can do. This happens to be a labor situation that's more public than most businesses. When there are union negotiations, unless it impacts people's lives, usually we don't know about it.
ST: Was Gary Bettman wrong to apologize then?
RW: No, I think he was speaking from the heart. He's apologizing that the fans didn't get to see the greatest game. He said what he thought he had to say and I think that was fine. But overall, I don't think there should be any apologies. It's unfortunate it took this long, but it is what it is. And what we have to do is move forward, not look back.
ST: A lot of teams are doing a lot of fan initiatives, giving away food, letting kids in free, lots of giveaways. We haven't heard anything from the Hawks yet. Are you planning anything like that?
RW: They are. And they're going to have some major announcements. They're just working out the details. So I would suspect that sooner than later, like any day now, the Hawks should come out with what they're going to do. It's going to be something to interact with the fans. Everything they're going to do is going to be well thought out and innovative. I don't want to see a "me, too." I'd like to have the Hawks do innovative thinking and not just follow what everyone else is doing.
(NOTE: On Thursday, the day after this interview, the Hawks announced their "Fan Salute," which involves giveaways of tickets, autographed jerseys and sticks, and other fan initiatives.)
ST: The Hawks were among the last front offices to address the media after the lockout ended, you're among the last to announce fan initiatives -- why is that?
RW: It's being deliberate and making sure we have all the pieces put together.
ST: Gary Bettman is an easy villain, but he's essentially working at your behest. Do you want him to still have that role going forward?
RW: Absolutely. Gary did exactly what the owners asked him to do, and that was to get a contract in which all 30 teams could be profitable. The owners were all walking in lockstep, as the players were. Many times you read about people villainizing Gary Bettman, [but] he was doing just what the owners wanted him to do, just as Don Fehr was doing what the players wanted him to do. You have to respect their positions, but I don't think anyone should [begrudge] either of them for doing what they're paid to do, and that's to sit down and collectively bargain. It might take longer than people wanted it to, but it was a process they had to go through.
ST: Off topic a bit, if you look at football and the ongoing debate about head injuries and CTE... do you expect that to be a big part of the next NHL CBA, addressing those concerns and making hockey a little safer, without sapping it of its essence?
RW: This is something thats important for the owners and players to work on. Now that we have the CBA put to bed, it's important that we can deal with the players and the equipment manufacturers, because there hasn't been enough research done. The shoulder pads are like football shoulder pads, and all the research is head-on. In hockey, there's so much contact from the side. So as the shoulder pads get bigger and the equipment gets better, the player feels the hit that much less. We need to start doing a better job of doing testing and working with the manufacturers, and we need the players' blessing to do that, too. The league has been on the forefront of baseline testing, making sure we don't put players in early, making sure we have a protocol. The Blackhawks have been traveling with a team physician; we were the only team at the time to do that. I believe in the new CBA that's something teams have to do. We've been doing that for several years. The players would hopefully say the No. 1 thing we care abut is their safety. The last thing we want to do it put a player out on the ice when he's not ready."
ST: You look at Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa -- the game's biggest stars are missing so much time because of these hits.
RW: They are. Marian Hossa wasn't cleared until sometime after Thanksgiving. So think if the season had started on time, how long he'd have been out. You don't want your prime players being taken out by anything. And those are cheap hits. The league is doing what they're going to do, and we have to do more of that. We've been very explicit. The players are shown film of what's a legal hit and what's not a legal hit, so there's no ambiguity.
ST: You've built up so much goodwill with this fan base. I assume next Tuesday you're going to be sitting in your usual seat in the 100s. What do you anticipate the reaction is going to be from fans?
RW: I think the reaction will be that they're happy to get the game back. There are going to be some people who are going to be disappointed we didn't start on time, but it is what it is. I'm not worried about it at all. It's like if you own a restaurant. You want every meal to be perfect, but it's not going to happen that way. We want to win every game, but it's not going to happen. We do the best we can. As long as the fans know that we're trying our hardest, and we're doing the best job we can to put the best team out there and to be successful every year. That's all we can ask for ourselves. But I'm not worried about it.
ST: Are the Hawks a money-making venture? It's a model franchise, a huge deal in a huge city. But is this a money-making venture?
RW: No, it's not. Not yet. We're getting there, but we're not there yet. That's why the collective bargaining agreement was important. The top 10 teams pay in to the pool - we're not there yet -- then you have 12 percent off the top goes to city and amusement taxes, which is one of the highest amusement taxes in the country. So when you net down what you get, you're getting 88-cent dollars. And then by the time you get parking taxes and everything else, it's not profitable. Even though we've had 190-plus sellouts in a row, which we've been very fortunate to have, we're not profitable yet. But we're shrinking the gap as we go along.
ST: So to go back to the original question about the state of the league -- if the Blackhawks can't make money, how are the New York Islanders going to make money? How are the Nasvhille Predators going to make money? The Florida Panthers?
RW: Well, that's the problem. Six years ago we had the second-lowest ticket price in the league. We've been inching those up, but you've got to be very careful about how much you can raise your ticket prices. Hopefully with corporate sponsors and other revenue sources, you don't have to depend so much on your ticket prices. It's a combination of everything.
ST: Those $7 hot dogs and $12 beers help.
RW: Every hot dog and occasional beer -- it doesn't hurt.