Q&A: Danny Wirtz on Blackhawks town hall and hockey culture


One week ago, the Chicago Blackhawks scheduled a town hall to talk about "the greater vision of the organization moving forward."

The event was thrown off course when reporters asked about the Kyle Beach allegations from 2010 and what the team can do to make sure a situation like that never happens again.

While the question was directed at team CEO Danny Wirtz, team chairman Rocky Wirtz stepped in to say the team wasn't talking about 2010.

Apologies were issued and Danny sat down with David Kaplan, filling in as Blackhawks Pregame Live host for Pat Boyle, to discuss that night and what the team is doing — and has already done — to change their culture.

Danny, the question that Mark Lazerus attempted to ask you, you and your team are smart people, you had to know that question was coming. It was an obvious question because it was the first time you guys were going to meet the media at the town hall in the moment. What's going through your mind as you watched that whole thing unfold?

Well, absolutely we prepared. We knew a question on 2010 was coming and and rightfully so. And I was actually excited to answer that question. And the answer to that question has so many things that we've been working on that I was proud to share. So, you know, we were prepared and ready to go and unfortunately went off track there.


Have you, since that moment, sat down since you and your dad Rocky?

Yeah, absolutely. Rocky and I spoke and he reiterated everything he shared that night and the day afterwards and regretting the outburst and I think mostly regretting the overshadowing of the work we are doing. But I know that our leadership team is committed to doing the right things to rebuilding this culture here at the Blackhawks. And I know that Rocky is 100 percent in our corner in support of that too.

How would you answer that question?

So I think starts with people and culture, right? We have a very new leadership team here than 2010, and thus we're a new organization in many ways. I think we've been able to put the right people in place, with the right values, that drive a culture through the system that comes to life every day and how we show up to work. The kind of environment we create for our employees and for our players, and ultimately making sure that we have a safe, secure and healthy place for our employees and players to work. And that shows up in our culture. And I believe that that culture is on track. And of course, in addition to culture, you also have to have the types of things that that that bring that culture to life. So things like our mental health and mental wellness department that's been started, that helps both players and employees. We started an employee-led culture committee that really tackles all things related to culture. So that's communication, that's learning and development. That's communication. That's what are things we need to be talking about as an organization. So that's employee led. And so that creates a lot of energy when employees feel safe to be able to share ideas and how to make the company better. And last but certainly not least, you have to have your procedures and your policies in place. And so we've been able to really tighten and recommit to those reporting procedures so that if there's anything that goes wrong, we have zero tolerance and we respond quickly and effectively for when when things happen. So in addition, of course, we have the Respect Hockey program that's coming from the National Hockey League that of course, we're partnering with. So there's some good things happening. It's work that doesn't have a finish line. You know, this is not we just did a couple of things and then we call it a day. It is work we have to work on every day. We have to keep rebuilding the trust with our employees and rebuilding trust with our fans and partners.

So as I thought about this, what would you say to a Blackhawks fan who's looking at you? You're the CEO, your last name is Wirtz. And he says or she says, after the events of 2010 and the issues that came to light over the past year, combined with the team's not playing well, why should I continue my fandom of your franchise?


I think I would reiterate that we are a different organization. That we are the kind of organization that I'm proud of. I think it's an organization that our people are proud to work for. And continuing to earn that trust that fans can believe in. And I think that's done not just for what I say here and what we say, but what we actually do, and that work has started and continues to work, and hopefully our fans will see it demonstrated in the work we do in the community, how we show up as an organization and frankly, how we listen to our fans. I think this is a time where we have to continue to listen and understand what is important to our fans right now and delivering on that value that they expect from us.

I'm going to ask you a tough question. I'm sure it's one you probably know and you want to answer it. Wayne Gretzky on TNT, that's one of the league's broadcast partners, said this: "From every point of view, this is just a horrible scenario, a horrible situation. What happened to that young man?" Gretzky said. "I'm sitting here thinking as a parent, you're sitting here going, my son's 18 years old. He might be drafted by that team. I want to know my 18 year old son is going to be protected." How do you respond to that comment from the greatest hockey player of all time and Wayne Gretzky?

It's a concern that I know a lot of parents share. And it's not just for the National Hockey League teams, it's the sport of hockey at all levels, and the Chicago Blackhawks participate in all levels of hockey. How we participate in youth hockey all the way up through the league, and we unequivocally are committed to creating a safe and healthy environment that's inclusive of different players and different employees, and that we are making sure that it's a safe space for everyone. So there's no question that we have implemented the types of things, as I said before, that should make that the place safe for for for all players to come, come to play for us. I also think it's important and we've been making it a standard question with each one of our general manager interviews as to how they will approach changing the culture of hockey and where is the culture of hockey today. Because I expect the leadership within hockey operations to be leading by example and to ensuring that that's driven through the organization for our players, our staff, our trainers, everyone who touches the sport and players. This has to be a team effort. We all have to be doing this through the choices we make, the decisions we make every day and how we show up.


All right, the brand got tarnished. What today is the brand of Chicago Blackhawks hockey?

Well, I think the starting point always is is our heritage. We are an Original Six team and we represent so much of history and memories for our fans in Chicago. But that can't be where it stops. Brands have to evolve. We have to be of the moment and we have to be reflective of the world around us and bring our community together, bring the city together and be the kind of brand that represents progress and forward momentum, new methods of improvement. And those are as exciting as all the great things we've done in our past, and I think that's how our brand becomes alive. We know that we have a lot of work to do. We know that those things take not just words, but a lot of action, a lot of building. And we're committed to it. We have the right type of team. We've got great leadership in place, and I think we have the kind of ideas that we'll be sitting here 10 years from now. And I'll be able to answer that question definitively that we are a brand, not of the past, but of the future.

You also are involved in a high profile search to get a new general manager.  Are you still committed to the structure he'll report to you?

Yup. Absolutely.

Why move so quickly? Because you have said, I want to get this done fairly quickly and maybe by the trade deadline, if possible. Maybe someone becomes available at the end of the year. You go, Whoa, I didn't see that person.

Sure. That's always a possibility. We have been working on this for a while. Actually, we've been doing probably more work up front evaluating the organization, talking to folks within the organization, around the organization and outside of hockey to really understand where the sport's going, what type of leader is needed to lead the Chicago Blackhawks in 2022 and beyond. And so I think that work really front-loaded the process. So the search process actually becomes fairly discreet. We move quickly because I do think we have to respect the candidates and their timing. And it's been a great process so far. We've been able to see and we've been sharing with our fans, the folks that we've been interviewing, different profiles of executives in the space. And you learn a lot with each interview. You confirm some things that you went in and then also challenges some of the things you go in thinking about what you're looking for. So it's been a great process. It really validates the importance of really running a good process to ultimately get to a great decision and put our new leader in place.


I found something intriguing because I broadcast for the Cubs for 25 years, that you're talking to an assistant GM, Jeff Greenberg from the Cubs, who people look, why he's talking to a baseball guy? I think that's leaving no stone unturned. Was that an eye opening experience?

Fascinating. We have been having conversations, not just through the interview process, with other executives in other sports. And you learn about how they approach player evaluation and scouting systems and player development. All the things that go into player performance and biometrics. I mean, these are very advanced concepts that different sports have have led in in different ways. And so it's just good diligence for us to really understand how other sports are approaching these things because look, we want to win and we will look for every possible chance to have competitive advantage. And so I think you would think less of me not to look under every, every rock to find some of that insight that could help us get back to winning championships.

You also put together a panel of three of the best players that ever have worn a Blackhawks sweater. Eddie Olczyk, Marian Hossa,Patrick Sharp... What did they contribute to the process?

First and foremost, they're a trusted partner. We know them. They know what it's like to be a Blackhawk. And I think each one of them brings a unique perspective. When you've played the sport, when you played the sport at the level that they each played in different ways, they look at things differently. They provide perspective that we just wouldn't be thinking of. So already they've had a lot of value and as the process goes on, I think we're gonna be tapping them to really be a good sounding board to weigh in on different aspects of the position and what we see from candidates. And we're just very fortunate to have that kind of pedigree of advisors on the team.

And having guys like that they can get into, because they played, the weeds of hockey and analytics and everything that goes into it, right?

Absolutely, absolutely. And the the player experience, I think, for all of them. There's what it was like to be a player and where they could have gotten more support or part of their performance enhancements. And all the aspects of the player experience, I think is really important to really understand as we build a management team to help get the most out of all of our players.

You have gone from whatever you were doing in your prior life to this role now and wow, I've got a lot on my plate. Besides the obvious, I want to see the Stanley Cup again, what's the other goals that are on your checklist?

We set a vision when we started to reimagine the potential of hockey. That's the vision for the Blackhawks right now. And I think what that does is it opens up the possibilities to do things differently, to be on the forefront of new thinking and new methods. And that goes to our business and how we reimagine our fan experience and how we bring great value to our fans. And it goes on the ice and how we can actually reimagine ways of driving performance. And to me, it's of course we want to win and and winning the Stanley Cup is frankly, it is the ultimate goal, always. But I think if we learned anything, it's how we win and win with the level of integrity, win with a winning culture and be the kind of company and organization that our people want to work for. Our fans want to be part of and our partners want to partner on. So that to me is is what success looks like when you think about winning in the Chicago Blackhawks.


Editor's note: Some responses were lightly edited for clarity.

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