The Rocky Show: The Importance of Great Leaders

By Brett Fox

I woke up and looked out my window. There was snow everywhere. The 100-foot tall giant TV antenna Dad installed was on its side:

The April blizzard had knocked the TV antenna down.

How were we going to watch Chicago Blackhawks home games in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

The only way to watch the Blackhawks on TV was picking up a signal from an out of town station located across Lake Michigan. That was out of the question with the TV antenna down.

That was the world (or at least Chicago) as it was in 1971.

The Blackhawks were big in Chicago back then. Especially with young kids like me.
We had our heroes:

  • Bobby Hull. Everyone called him “The Golden Jet” because of his blond hair and because he was the fastest skater in hockey.
  • Stan Mikita. He was the team captain, and the leader.
  • Tony “O” Esposito. The goalie who kept posting shutout after shutout.

Every year the Blackhawks were contending for the Stanley Cup:

It was a great time to be a kid.

We played hockey in the backyard during the winter. I still remember knocking Russell’s front tooth out with my stick. Sorry, big brother :-).

Then Bill Wirtz, the stingy owner of the Blackhawks, wouldn’t pay The Golden Jet the money he deserved. Hull left for greener pastures, and the Blackhawks went into a long, long nosedive.

The nosedive lasted until 2007.

Not much changed between 1971 and 2007 except:

The players were not as talented
Attendance continued dropping

The Chicago Blackhawks were on the verge of becoming irrelevant:

They had missed the Stanley Cup playoffs nine of the ten previous seasons.
Chicago was 29th out of 30 teams in attendance in 2006-7.
Season ticket sales had dwindled to only 3400 per year for a 22,428 seat arena (with standing room).
Player payroll had to be funded through other Wirtz family businesses.
And you still couldn’t watch Blackhawk home games on local TV.

Bill Wirtz passed away in 2007. His son Rocky Wirtz inherited the team.

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The first thing Rocky did was sign a deal to have Blackhawk home games broadcast on local TV.

More importantly, Rocky engineered one of the most stunning turnarounds in business and sports history:

Contrast the bleakness of 2007 versus the view today:

  • The Blackhawks have just won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.
  • The Blackhawks have sold out every home game for the past eight seasons.
  • There is a season ticket waiting list of over 13,000.

The team is profitable and worth almost $1B according to Forbes magazine:

blackhawks value
Oh, and you can see every home game on local TV!

What caused the turnaround?

It always starts at the top!

I don’t care what the enterprise is. You need a great leader to have sustained success.

The Blackhawks have that in Rocky. Then you need all the other things you need to win in any business:

  • Great managers. The Blackhawks have that. Coach Joel Quennville is considered the best head coach in hockey.
  • Exceptional talent. The Blackhawks core players – Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, and Marian Hossa – are amongst the best in the game.
  • Great culture. Rocky believes in “spending money to make money.” He’s paid his players well. Rocky has mended fences with previous players including Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito.
  • The ability to make tough decisions. No sport has tougher salary cap rules than NHL hockey. Successful teams like the Blackhawks have to shed top talent. General Manager Stan Bowman traded winger Brandon Saad Tuesday because the team couldn’t meet Saad’s salary demands. Bowman wished Saad well and then said, “This is a business.”
  • A Lot of luck. The Blackhawks certainly have been lucky. None of their core players has been seriously injured. And you need the bounces to go your way in hockey more than any other competitive sport. The puck bounced Chicago’s way this year. That’s all it takes.

The business takeaways are simple:

  • It always starts at the top in any profession.
  • Refer back to number one.

No great company can have sustained excellence for a prolonged period without a great leader.

It’s that simple.

But exceptional leaders are hard to find, aren’t they?

Yes they are.

How many exceptional CEO’s have you worked for? I have only worked for one exceptional CEO in my career.

Interestingly enough, the company had all the other boxes checked as well:

  • Great managers. The company had lots of great managers
  • Great talent. 80 percent of the people were “A” players. That compares with 20% of the employees being A players at most of the other places I worked.
  • Great culture. The company was singularly focused in a way I have only seen one other time. Employee motivation was sky high.
  • The ability to make tough decisions. Management made tough decisions over and over again. “Should we kill this engineering development effort because we are late to market?” Everyone knew the project was doomed, but, unlike many management teams, management at this company actually killed the project.
  • A lot of luck. The company was in the right place at the right time. Many of the bounces went its way for a long time. The stock price rose 100X during my tenure.

How do you know if you are working with a great leader?

Here’s a short list of what great leaders do:

  • Great leaders care about their people. A great leader’s demeanor may be gruff, but great leaders go out of their way to help their people succeed.
  • Great leaders focus on the important stuff. A great leader is able to drown out the noise and focus on what truly matters.
  • Great leaders inspire their team. Great leaders come in many forms. Some great leaders are very shy. Some great leaders are charismatic. It doesn’t matter. Every great leader finds a way to motivate and inspire his or her team to greatness.
  • Great leaders say “we”. Mediocre leaders say “I”. Again, it’s all about the team.
  • Great leaders consistently make tough decisions. Great leaders have the ability to say “no”. And then great leaders rally the team around the direction the company is going.
  • Great leaders hire great teammates. I can’t think of a one-man company that achieved sustained greatness. It goes back to the old saying that “A players hire A players, and B players hire C players.”

Recruiting great teammates is probably the most important trait of any great leader.

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Going back to my Blackhawks, that’s what Rocky did when he took control of the team. He hired John McDonough as President shortly after he took over. Then McDonough hired Joel Quennville as coach and the rest is history.

What did you do for the playoffs in 1971?

I have two great memories of the 1971 playoffs (well one great one and one not so great one):

  1. Game 5 of the semifinals versus the New York Rangers. My Dad took Russell and I to the game. The Blackhawks dominated play, but the game was tied 2-2 going into sudden-death overtime. Bobby Hull won the game on a slap shot off a face off. The Blackhawk fans gave New York goalie Eddie Giacomin a standing ovation after the game for his outstanding play. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
  2. Game 7 of finals versus the Montreal Canadians. My Dad took his friend Lew to the game instead of Russell and I. The antenna was working, so we watched at home. Chicago lost the Stanely Cup 3-2 on two fluke goals. I am still pissed at my Dad for not taking us.

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Photo: Brett Fox
Graphic: Statista