Q&A: Interim president Danny Wirtz outlines new vision for Blackhawks

/ by Charlie Roumeliotis
Presented By Blackhawks Insider

Interim president Danny Wirtz joined the Blackhawks Talk Podcast on Monday to discuss what life inside the Edmonton bubble is like, Chicago's pitch to be a potential hub city, the new vision of the organization, the future of the front office, how the team is addressing diversity internally and standing by the name and Native American logo.

Here is the full transcript from the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:

Take us inside the bubble, where did you watch Game 1 and what were your emotions like, especially in the first period — falling behind and then scoring the four unanswered goals?

Game 1 we sat, they have designed suites — one suite is for general manager, where I sat with Stan [Bowman] and Al [MacIsaac], there's one for just our players who aren't playing and then there's one for our video coaching. Very designated and it's our same suite for the whole duration, so sat there and obviously watched a very different experience, not seeing fans in the arena but obviously seeing a really excited ... once you lock into the game play, it's like you're watching a Blackhawks game as normal. And obviously the outcome, the start of the game just really excited to see the team come out so strong and with such energy and a huge step in their stride, which was really cool.

I know you've obviously been involved with the Blackhawks from afar, but what has this last week specifically been like just immersing yourself in the environment and around the team, the players and just getting a better pulse, and maybe what have you learned from it as well?


Absolutely. I think, obviously, it's a surreal experience, especially after spending the last four or five months in my house, so anything outside of that is different. But you're in these tight conditions, there's a lot of team meals that are sort of planned and regular, we have tested every day as a group, so there's a lot of togetherness as a team unit. And for me, just getting closer to how the team operates on a daily basis, in preparation, a great appreciation for the logistics of the training staff that always are the unsung heroes, and then now in this environment where there's a lot of movement across locker rooms, you just see the machine it takes to get a team on the ice. The meals, the prep, and then actually just spending time with Al, Stan, Jeremy [Colliton], the coaching staff, and just a lot of down time.

A lot of interactions I've had in the last few months have been very formal. They've been Zoom calls, scheduled meetings, sort of actually, frankly, chat after dinner and just talk about the dynamics of the team, go back and talk about old hockey, different people that have come out of the organization, tell some old stories, it's really helpful for me to get some context and a greater appreciation of just what it takes to get an elite team on the ice every year. So it's been a great learning experience.

You worked hard on trying to get Chicago to be one of the hub cities for the Return to Play, what was that process like for you?

Oh, it was fascinating actually, especially at a time when we just saw such a positive outcome to having something of this magnitude come to the city when, essentially, the city was so shut down to be able to have done something. We were really motivated to get it. And also, using the collective creativity of the Blackhawks, the United Center, some of our external partners, to think, 'How would we do it? And how would we do it better than, hopefully, other cities?' And I think we came up with a compelling concept.

I think a lot of the ideas maybe found their way into the current hubs. And obviously having cooperation with the city and state, who were so willing to make this all happen. It was a great process. I think it bodes well for the city for future events and things we want to do. When the city works together and the sports teams, the coalitions partners, our city shines. While we didn't win this one, I'm feeling confident that, when we want to, we can really part our name out there for really large-scale events.


You obviously sent out a press release in April that this pause really allowed you guys to take a step back and reassess the future of the organization. Was the pandemic a true catalyst to changing the vision of this future or was there momentum behind the scenes in this area even before that?

I think — this is not unique to the Blackhawks — there has been and continues to be this sort of accelerated pace of change in the world. I truly believe that. Clearly, we're in a digital society, we're in a digital world where information is happening very fast. And how fans and teams and organizations react to this fast-changing world, the shift in demographics, the rise of younger demographics that consume media differently, all these factors were clearly at play well before the pandemic and this moment, I think, accelerated so many of those trends.

Just the fact that we're doing this video conference, right? We may have seen this five years down the road that we'd be all digitally connected through video conference, well obviously it moved up to our doorstep today. So just that alone showed that this pace of change and movement is happening, and I think a great chance for us to really assess during this pandemic, which I think we'll be in for a while obviously, and then coming out of it, what kind of world will it be and how do the Blackhawks fit in that? It was a perfect time to do that assessment.

Have you decided how the structure of upper management will look? Whether that's one president or SVP of hockey and business ops reporting directly to ownership? How might that look going forward and best suit the franchise?

Sure, and I don't want to imply that that's not important, but I think form follows function. You really have to do the work to understand what we need to do and where we need to go, and sort of get into how you end up doing it, if that's with five presidents, or two presidents, or one king, whatever it might be, I think that's really the end result of the work that we're in the midst of right now in really defining what are the areas of focus in the organization, where are we going to go and then ultimately, what type of leadership structure do we need to get there? So we're looking at everything.

We obviously value the strength of having strong, accountable leadership, whether that's on the business side or hockey side, and clearly as an owner and an ownership group and family, we always have been engaged in the business and we intend to be that keeps stewarding this for our family as well, but also knowing that we believe not in micromanaging or meddling in areas that we are not capable of, so we're very humble about hiring some much smarter people around us to do the things that they do well. But I think what we as a family try to provide is that vision of where we want to go and what our expectations are as a family to deliver, and then hold folks accountable in delivering that for us. So that's really important and we'll eventually get to structure.


Danny, are you interested in potentially making your role permanent with the team and, if so, how might that affect your duties with Breakthru Beverage?

Look, I may have been informally involved with the Blackhawks, obviously right now very involved and hands-on, and I intend to stay very engaged with the organization, so whatever that looks like formally, we'll figure out. I'm used to wearing a lot of hats. My dad is a perfect example. In his tenure, he's worn a lot of hats, sat on different boards, run different parts of our family business, we're kind of used to juggling a lot of things, so that's probably never going to change. I thrive on that, actually.

I think that has a lot of value in continuing to stay engaged across industries and learning different business practices, it's been a huge advantage for me and I think it's been a great thing for my family to have that perspective outside of hockey and in our beverage business outside of beverage, and we try to bring some of those practices across industries that have been helpful and will only continue.

Last week you said you've been able to spend a lot of time with Stan Bowman — obviously you're with him now — and able to hear his vision of what the roster, what the team may look like down the road. How would you describe Stan's vision to Hawks fans?

I think it's interesting, and I'll admit, maybe like a lot of fans, see the end results of decisions, right? The complexity and the multi-dimensional aspect of every decision, whether it's at the draft table, whether it's a trade, whether it's a signing, or even just personnel moves in and out of the lineup, have such major ripple effects. You can't undervalue the impact of the salary cap and the financial management of all of this. And then, frankly, ensuring that we have a system that is both competitive today but also is not jeopardizing the future so we don't have such high peaks and valleys. And so really understanding the thought process of building that kind of system has been really helpful for me.

I think Stan is as hungry to win as anyone and wants to put elite teams on the ice, he knows what it takes to get to that end result of winning the Stanley Cup. But he's also a long-term thinker to know he can't do things to jeopardize the future so that we don't go take three steps back. So right now, it's really about marrying the great and exciting and emerging talent that we have in the organization and really getting a lot of value out of our core veterans, and even just as of Saturday, are major contributors of this franchise and are great leaders and know what it takes to win.


Those are really great parts to put together, so he's trying to make that happen that allows us to see this emerging young talent and also getting a lot out of these veteran players, so that's really where things are going. He absolutely has his hand on the wheel as it relates to the hockey operations. I like to learn and absorb and understand, but I am by no means an expert in the hockey decisions to sort of stand on making the really tough calls that we have to make now and for the future.

I know a lot can change between now and the start of next season, but do you expect Stan and Jeremy [Colliton] to be back with the team next season?

First off, as it relates to coaching, that's going to be Stan's call. That is important that as the leader of the hockey operations that he is really making those calls. He has a lot of confidence in Jeremy right now and we're really starting to see how his approach, you have to give these things time. You have to let folks like that implement their system and see that buy-in build as it goes on and I think you've seen a system that, when played properly like on Saturday, clearly has some great results and gets the most out of our team, so that's obviously Stan's decision. We believe in Stan and are committed to him. He has a multi-year contract and we're going to obviously support that, so we feel really good about that heading into next season.

Racism and social inequality is being examined everywhere, including the NHL and its teams, you guys put out a statement following George Floyd's murder that discussion was needed within your four walls to educate and have honest discussions. Has that happened and how has that gone?

So this is a really important piece. This is an important focus, not just for our organization, but for all businesses and I see it across all of our other businesses as well as we face head-on systematic inequality, systematic racism that is around us. Our sport is in a very unique spot and I think has a long way to go as a sport, and there are certain things we can do as an organization to start that work. A lot of time has been spent on statements and things, but for me, it's important that we really focus on the actions, starting with the core group within the organization.

We'll be launching this week a very comprehensive equity audit that will partner with an organization in Chicago called One Tilt, who really bring those conversations forward. As they would say, make the invisible visible in the organization so we can really confront the things that have held us back from being more diverse or more inclusive and really make sure that, as we think about going forward as an organization, we're actually addressing the root cause, we're addressing the systems, we're addressing the policies and how we operate so that we can get better here.


So it's one of those things where you want wins right now, you want to fix it, and unfortunately it's probably never going to be solved, per se, but we really want to do this right and really get to the heart of things and try to move the needle as an organization. I'm committed to it, our leadership team is very committed to it, the conversations have been good, we're entering this with a tremendous amount of humility to what we need to do and the work has started.

What did you think of Matt Dumba and what he had to say before Game 1 on Saturday in Edmonton and what did you think of your captain Jonathan Toews? Not only the words that he put out there, but the action that he brought to the West Side.

First off, I thought Matt Dumba's remarks were tremendously powerful. They were heartfelt, they were honest, they were direct, too. These are not comfortable things. He challenged us, he challenged the league, he challenged the hockey community, and I think that was good. The show of solidarity across both teams was powerful and those were very important statements to make. But I think, again, similar to our journey, the work starts and it has to start now.

For Jonathan, we were tremendously proud of the comments he made. And like all players and all humans, we're all reflecting on our own journey on this, what we need to do and to have that humility as a leader and a public face to be able to share that says a lot about his character and his commitment to want to be part of the solution and to do the types of work that he needs to do, personally, and showing up and doing that work on the west side and contributing to the community is just one of those first steps that I think, he's our captain and that's what we love about him.

I wanted to get back to reassessing the organization as far as diversity goes, how do you feel you've made progress [as an organization] over the years in that regard?

I think there's a few dimensions of diversity. I think we are definitely seeing more women enter our organization, which is really positive, but within that there's still, we really have to think — and this is through the work — we're going to see different areas of representation, so we may have strong representation in some departments but not in others. We may have strong representation at one level but maybe we need to figure out how to help women move to the next level of the organization, so I think there's lot of ways we need to do this.


I never want to be too satisfied with where we're at. I think we've done some decent things by all means, and also the inclusive part is a really important thing in this work, just because your numbers are up, but if people don't feel like they can be themselves, whatever that might be, then we're not doing that properly. It's a really important piece of our organization. I can't stress enough about how much we're committed to making it work.

The team has put out a few statement on the topic of the team nickname and logo, as a franchise you've created new policies like banning headdresses at the United Center, why does the team feel it's right to stay with the Blackhawks name and logo going forward?

Obviously, the logo is cherished amongst our fans, within the league history, within our family. And we've always tried to steward that logo with a tremendous amount of respect and honor. But we're also not deaf to the feelings of others and of groups who don't see it the same way, and so we need to reflect on that, we need to listen to that, and we need to challenge ourselves to actually live up to that standard that we have. To truly honor it, to truly respect it, and to maybe even use the logo to advance education, to advance learning and acknowledgement of the contributions of Native Americans in the world, not just in the historical perspective, but actually here and now.

The Native American contribution in military as we honor on the ice the contribution through the arts and some of the programs we're looking to develop, there's a lot of stories we need to tell and I think our platform, the Blackhawks and sports, can be a great platform for that, so we're looking to make our platform more productive and supportive of Native American story and I think the events of the last couple months really woke us up to not just being satisfied with what we've done, which we have a lot of pride for the things we have done, but a challenge to really do better and do more, so you will definitely be seeing a lot more as it relates to really honoring the contributions of Native Americans and really ensuring that our fans and even our internal players and staff are all very aware of the origins of the name and the role Black Hawk played in the region.

When you guys were going through [the process] of putting out statements, how important was it to get out that the origin of the name is different from maybe the other team names in different sports?

Yeah, I mean, that's obviously a component of this for sure, how it was originally named after the Army Regiment and, of course, that all originates with Black Hawk the leader, which is a difference and distinction, for sure. And clearly our fans, those that know about that, I think feel strongly that that is a major distinction, but it's important for us not to get into debate about you should be offended because of these reasons or not. We're in a world where we need to listen, so I understand that. We just try to do our best with that and knowing it is something that we need to take that responsibility for.


Obviously the past couple years have been pretty difficult, not making the postseason after you've become so accustomed to that. But you guys still rank No. 1 in attendance. What's your message to Blackhawks fans who have stayed with you guys through the good times and the bad, and what's your excitement level that you guys are back on the upswing?

Right, I think the message is, we have tasted that success, there's no question the last decade has been filled with those amazing highs. And, for some, that maybe have been their only experience with the Blackhawks, depending on your age, so we have set a very high bar for fans and that bar is still there. But the steps it takes to get back there can be as exciting, right?

We got to see it with [Patrick] Kane and [Jonathan] Toews and [Duncan] Keith and [Brent] Seabrook from their first days as a Blackhawk to where they're at now where they're legends in the sport, and to be able to see a new generation of future stars I think is really exciting. I think we get the best of both worlds in this moment, so we're going to see it play out in this qualifying round and in the playoffs, and I think for our fans it's really about being excited with the play right now but also about the optimistic for the future, which we all share.

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