Wirtz was a living contradiction

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

The telephone calls would come at the most unusual of times, almost all of them unsolicited.

"This is Jim DeMaria from the Blackhawks," the voice on the phone would say without expression. "Please hold for Bill Wirtz."

What would follow, depending on the day, the year, the mood and the circumstance were wide-ranging, often-rambling, and always lengthy and loud conversations about the state of hockey.

Why he picked me to vent, to send his angry letters of protest, to leak the occasional piece of information, to air his views on the issues of the day, I never asked.

Maybe he called other journalists. Maybe he made other meandering phone calls. That can't be answered now; Bill Wirtz passed away yesterday at the age of 77, a living contradiction gone from the hockey world.

You may not have known it from the way he allowed his franchise to disintegrate, or from the strange manner by which his Chicago Blackhawks have operated, from a Stanley Cup drought six years longer than the Maple Leafs, or by his antiquated views of modern media and the power of television, but Dollar Bill was deeply passionate about his hockey.

Stubborn and certainly misguided, he also was deeply passionate about the National Hockey League, where he served 18 years and two separate terms as chairman of the board under commissioners (with different titles) Clarence Campbell and John Ziegler.

My first encounter with Wirtz came at the 1982 NHL all-star game in Washington.

The league had a fancy black-tie dinner in those days and all us not so fancy people dressed up in tuxedos for the occasion. In the hotel bar afterward, we gathered for a post-dinner cocktail or two.

Wirtz was holding court at one table of the lobby bar. A bunch of writers were holding court at another. When the bar was set to close, Wirtz called the bartender over and purchased every bottle that already had been opened.

He wasn't ready for closing time. By about four that morning, there were only a few of us left when Wirtz announced in somewhat slurred words: "I'm going to fire Magnuson's ass." He was talking about the late Keith Magnuson, then the coach of the Blackhawks.

He said it in front of Neil Milbert, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune.

"Are you going to use that," Milbert asked me later.

"No," I said, "Nobody in Calgary (where I worked at the time) cares about what the Blackhawks do."

I went to bed. Milbert went with the story. There was only one problem. Wirtz hadn't bothered to tell general manager Bob Pulford of his plans. Pulford was ambushed with questions the next day and knew nothing about a coach firing.

The next day, Magnuson was fired.

I never spoke to Wirtz again in person after that night, only by phone.

And most of those conversations have taken place over the past five years.

He was angered and saddened by the NHL involvement with controversial agent David Frost. He wrote angry letters to Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin and Gary Bettman, urging the league to distance itself from what he called "the greatest embarrassment in our history."

He could call about the lockout, about free-agent signings, about issues in minor hockey, about the state of the league, about Goodenow, whom we shared a similar opinion about.

But he always went back to the Frost story. Something about that consumed him and troubled him.

Wirtz had donated millions to minor hockey in the midwest.

He had grandchildren playing. He had instituted a help line for hockey-playing kids in situations that required help. He would send me his programs for youth hockey.

He would leave messages on my voice mail, some of which I could never erase. I listened to them yesterday.

I never really knew the Bill Wirtz who strangled the life out of an Original Six franchise, just saw what he was guilty of. I knew the other Bill Wirtz.

He loved the game, at all levels. He just couldn't translate that love to make his own team successful.


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