The NHL went on its All-Star break in the middle of last week, but that doesn’t mean there was any shortage of hockey news. Today, we’ll take a look at Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz and his epic rant against the media, a recap of the All-Star Game and Skills Competition, the start of the Winter Olympics…and even more bad news for the Blackhawks.
1. Rocky Wirtz Goes on Epic Tirade Against Media
By now, you’ve probably heard what Chicago Blackhawks owner and chairman Rocky Wirtz said at the team’s “Town Hall Meeting” last week. If not, watch the short clip above; it has to be seen to be believed.
In short, Rocky Wirtz — and I use his full name so we don’t confuse him with his son Danny Wirtz — went on a tirade when a journalist asked how the Blackhawks will better protect its players if something happens again like what happened to Kyle Beach in 2010.
Also attending the Town Hall were Danny Wirtz, the team’s CEO, and Jamie Faulkner, president of business operations. The meeting was moderated by color commentator Eddie Olczyk (who looks like he wants to sink into the floor when the elder Wirtz got pissy.)
Anyway, Mark Lazerus of The Athletic asked his question to Danny Wirtz, but Rocky Wirtz interrupted and basically said that they will not talk about what happened in 2010, and that it isn’t anyone’s business except for the team’s on what they will do going forward. Here’s the full exchange between the two:
Here’s the full exchange between me and Rocky Wirtz.
I honestly thought it was kind of a softball question. pic.twitter.com/VeSUnuDnv5
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) February 3, 2022
Phil Thompson of The Chicago Tribune tried asking the same question later, and was berated by Rocky Wirtz. Thompson then asked a question about Blackhawks’ tickets poor resale value, and Rocky Wirtz continued to belittle Thompson, even making fun of the newspaper that he worked for.
As a longtime Blackhawks fan, this feels all too familiar. The ‘Hawks had a notoriously bad relationship with the media for almost 40 years — from the early 1970s up until former team owner William W. Wirtz died in 2007. Rocky Wirtz took over the team then and turned it around, from the worst franchise in all of pro sports to one of the NHL’s best teams.
But Rocky Wirtz’s time in the public spotlight should come to an end. Let his son Danny, who seems young and hip enough, take over as chairman. Rocky can own the team and sign checks, but should be kept far away from the public and the media. Otherwise, he is going to seriously hurt the team’s chances of attracting a great General Manager, quality coaches, or sought-after free agents.
Rocky Wirtz later apologized via a press release, but the damage is already done.
2. Blackhawks Fire Trainer for Sexual Assault
Can the news get any worse for the Chicago Blackhawks?
The answer is a resounding YES!
On Sunday, ESPN reported that the Blackhawks fired athletic trainer D.J. Jones for sexual harassment. Jones was the head athletic trainer for the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL, the Blackhawks top minor league affiliate. Jones, who worked for the team for 16 years, allegedly sexually harassed a member of the team’s ice crew in 2014. He was reported of misconduct on October 27, 2021, investigated, and fired on November 3, 2021.
This news just comes four days after Blackhawks owner and chairman Rocky Wirtz told media that what the team is doing to prevent sexual harassments is “none of your business.”
This firing was one month after the team reached a settlement with former first-round draft pick Kyle Beach, who was sexually abused by former Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich.
So, why are we hearing about this firing now? Most likely because the Blackhawks were already getting a ton of negative press surrounding Kyle Beach’s lawsuit and the internal investigation of Aldrich that was released two months prior.
The Blackhawks claim that they are going to do better and be more transparent. They did fire Jones for what he did, but the team still has a long way to go to be considered trustworthy by the media, the fans, and its season ticket holders.
3. 2022 NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas
The NHL held All-Star Weekend for the first time since 2020. Friday was the NHL Skills Competition, which was a mix of traditional events — such as fastest skater and accuracy shooting — along with some new ones. Saturday’s All-Star Game used the same three-on-three format that it has used since 2016. The weekend looked like it was going great, but the NHL — in typical NHL fashion — still found a way to botch things at the end.
Friday evening started with Gary Bettman addressing the media for the League’s “State of the Union,” including an announcement about the next Winter Classic (see below) and Blackhawks’ owner Rocky Wirtz’s tirade (see above). Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daley also took questions from the audience.
The Skills Competition — which has been a staple of NHL All-Star Games since 1990 — was a lot of fun, as usual. Among the highlights, Jordan Kyrou of the St. Louis Blues won the Fastest Skater Competition…and not Connor McDavid, who has won it three times in the past. The Fountain Face-Off, a special new event for Las Vegas, featured players shooting light-up pucks from the center of the Bellagio Fountains and onto floating platforms. Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski won that one. (You can watch the Fountain Face-Off in its entirety here.) Another new event was 21 in ’22, where players shot pucks at giant playing cards and tried to get to 21, like a hand of Black Jack. I liked the new skill challenges. They were creative and got the players out of the rink and into the public, which can only help the NHL raise its profile.
The All-Star Game — or rather, three smaller All-Star Games — were all relatively close. Even though games were 3-on-3, teams actually tried to play defense. In the first game, the Metropolitan Division beat the Pacific Division 6-4. In the second game, the Central Division beat the Atlantic Division 8-5. And in the final game, the Metropolitan Division beat the Central Division 5-3. Claude Giroux, who scored one goal in Metro’s first game and two more goals in the last game, was named the All-Star MVP. Or so I was told.
As soon as the game ended, viewers were instructed with an on-screen graphic to switch over to ESPN+ to see the All-Star postgame, including the announcement of the tournament’s MVP. I didn’t catch the graphic, so when ABC cut to the local news, I wrongly assumed it was a quick news break before returning to the game. Nope!
I understand that the game went past its time slot by 15 minutes, but would five extra minutes have mattered? Or couldn’t they have announced during the broadcast that we should switch over to ESPN+, which loads slower than a Geocities web page circa 1998. Either way, it was a lame ending to an otherwise cool weekend.
4. Bruins, Fenway Park to Host Next Winter Classic
On Friday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the Boston Bruins will host the next Winter Classic at Fenway Park on January 1, 2023. This will be the fourth time the Bruins will play in the Winter Classic, and the second time Fenway Park will host the game.
The Bruins’ opponent for the upcoming Winter Classic has yet to be announced. According to Greg Wyshynski of ESPN, there is speculation that the Bruins’ opponent could be the Pittsburgh Penguins, as Fenway Sports Group owns the Penguins and Fenway Park. It makes sense, and it would be cool to see “The Battle of the Black and Gold” on New Year’s Day.
However, the Penguins have already played in two Winter Classics and three Stadium Series, so it would be nice to see a team that hasn’t played in an outdoor game yet. Personally, I’d love to see the Carolina Hurricanes play against the Bruins next year, but clad in green-and-blue Hartford Whalers jerseys. The Bruins and Whalers were rivals in New England for 18 years, so playing up on that former rivalry would be a nice theme for the game.
But, this is the NHL, so it will probably be Pittsburgh…again!
5. Olympic Hockey is Underway
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China started this weekend. The Women’s Ice Hockey Tournament already started. Team USA is currently 3-0, while Team Canada is 2-0. The Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament starts on Thursday.
Here are some helpful links to schedules and rosters:
Needless to say, the favorite for the gold medal in Women’s Hockey is a toss up between Canada and the U.S. Sure, Canada has won more gold medals, but the U.S. most recently won the gold in 2018. The two teams — both currently undefeated — play a preliminary game at 11:10 pm ET on Monday night.
As for the Men’s tournament, the favorite will probably be the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR), whose roster is mainly comprised of KHL players. What will be really interesting is what team will get to the gold medal game against OAR. Will it be Canada and its group of mainly minor pro players, or the U.S., with its collegiate-heavy team?
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■