The public memorial service honoring the legacy of late Chicago Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz was held at the United Center on Wednesday, and, no surprise, it was well-attended by fans, former players, and staff members.
Key members from the Stanley Cup-winning core were in attendance, a list that included Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp, among others. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Joel Quenneville and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attended the private service for family and friends on Tuesday at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
Blackhawks public address announcer Gene Honda opened things off by introducing new television color analyst Darren Pang, who presided over the services and shared emotional opening and closing remarks.
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Longtime Blackhawks TV play-by-play announcer Pat Foley, who was brought back by Wirtz in 2008 after he was fired by the organization two years prior, was the first guest speaker of the day. He spoke eloquently about what Wirtz meant to him personally and how Wirtz just might be the most important figure in Blackhawks history.
"He did not revitalize this franchise; I don't think that does him justice," Foley said. "I believe he saved it. Before he took over, the Blackhawks were irrelevant. Rocky made you feel welcomed."
Former Blackhawks defenseman Chris Chelios also shared some words and got choked up when talking about the impact Wirtz had on his children. Chelios was one of the ambassadors Wirtz invited back to the franchise after he left on sour terms with the previous ownership group.
"When I did finally come back to Chicago as an ambassador, it was easy for me to get along with Rocky cause I knew where it'd come from and I knew what type of person he was," Chelios said. "And the most important thing that his father and Rocky, it was so easy to tell, family first and foremost, then his friends and then the Hawks and then everyone underneath that with the businesses and his staff. That's all that mattered."
Hossa and Seabrook, two of the many leaders from the dynasty era of the Blackhawks, spoke about the impact Wirtz had on each player as individuals and for the franchise. Hossa, specifically, singled out how Wirtz was a man of his word when he signed a one-day contract to retire with the Blackhawks, not to mention having his No. 81 retired.
"Years ago, Rocky took me out for dinner," Hossa recalled. "We talked about the possibility of trading my contract. I wasn't too excited for that idea because it was really important for me to retire as a Chicago Blackhawk. Rocky didn't put any pressure on me to decide one way or the other, but explained to me that I would always be a Blackhawk. Few in his position would take the time to explain it.
"I asked him if he traded my contract, I would love to return and officially retire as a Blackhawk. So we shook hands and he made a promise to me. I called it a gentlemen's agreement.
"He treated me with respect by taking the time to share with me the value of our relationship for the long term. After a few years when it was time for me to officially retire, Rocky delivered his promise. ... I was thrilled. That meant a lot to me, not just being able to retire with this organization, but the fact that Rocky made that promise to me and he kept that promise. That is something I will never forget."
Before offering his condolences, Seabrook admitted "I've never been this nervous to be inside the United Center on his ice sheet." He called it "an honor" to be on the stage and talk about Wirtz's legacy.
"Rocky made us players feel like we were in this together," Seabrook said. "It was never him being an owner and us being players. We are all pulling on the same rope together. That type of relationship in this world is rare, but as a player, I always appreciated that he wasn't controlling or around too much. But we always felt his presence.
"It was a privilege to be a Blackhawk, and that started with Rocky. I'm very lucky to have played my entire career for the Wirtz family."
The ceremony lasted a little less than one hour before the visitation was opened up to the VIP members and general public. Fittingly, the Blackhawks lowered the 2010, 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup banners to serve as the backdrop.
Wirtz restored hockey in Chicago, and his legacy with the Blackhawks will live on forever.
"I've been in this building when it didn't have life," Pang said. "And I've been in this building when Rocky's taken over and it's had so much life and so much personality. ... Rocky made it. He built it. His vision, his personality has made this United Center really feel like the old Chicago Stadium.
"So as we leave today, let's remember to listen to the sound of the fans yelling, 'Rocky!' Rest in peace."