Photo via: Kamil Krzaczynski/ Associated Press
Last week, the Chicago Blackhawks held a town hall event, open to fans and media members. The meeting was led by broadcaster Eddie Olczyk and three top executives: CEO Danny Wirtz, President of Business Operations Jamie Faulkner, and Chairman Rocky Wirtz. The theme of the event was the future of the organization and its search for a new general manager.
Sadly, the future of the organization cannot be thoroughly discussed without mention of former Blackhawks player, Kyle Beach. In May, Beach filed a lawsuit, alleging that he was sexually assaulted by then-Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich in 2010. The Blackhawks released a statement shortly thereafter saying, “based on our investigation, we believe the allegations against the organization lack merit and we are confident the team will be absolved of any wrongdoing.”
In June, the Blackhawks hired law firm Jenner & Block to conduct an independent investigation. The investigation revealed that several high-ranking members of the Blackhawks organization met in May 2010 to discuss the allegations. No action was taken until at least three weeks later, after the Blackhawks had won the Stanley Cup. The report also found no evidence of any investigation or contact with human resources before June 14; this delay constituted a violation of the Blackhawks’ sexual harassment policy, which carried “consequences,” according to lead investigator Reid Schar.
Nevertheless, Aldrich was allowed to travel with the team and celebrate its Stanley Cup victory. The day after clinching the Stanley Cup, Aldrich made an “unwanted sexual advance towards a Blackhawks intern.” The organization eventually gave Aldrich the option to be subject to an internal investigation, or to resign. After choosing to resign from the Blackhawks, Aldrich was convicted in 2013 of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a Michigan high school student, and is now facing a lawsuit in response to this incident. This past December, the Blackhawks and Beach reached an undisclosed settlement agreement.
Notably, the investigation found no evidence that either Rocky or Danny Wirtz were aware of the allegations before the Beach lawsuit’s filing was brought to their attention. The Blackhawks have since “cleaned house,” and are in the midst of a transitionary period, leaving the father-son duo to be the club’s de facto spokesmen. In a letter to Blackhawks fans upon the release of the Jenner & Block report, the Blackhawks discussed, generally, the implementation of “numerous positive changes throughout our organization” and “best practices,” “…ensuring that the failures of the past will not be repeated.”
At last week’s town hall meeting, Mark Lazerus, senior Blackhawks writer for The Athletic, asked CEO Danny Wirtz about how these policies, procedures, and practices will accomplish this goal. Rocky Wirtz, Chairman and Danny’s father, interjected, and the following exchange ensued:
Mark Lazerus: My question is for Danny. I know we’re looking forward here, but I think we have to look back, also. I think much of what happened to Kyle Beach stemmed from the power imbalance between a coach and a player and the powerlessness of a player in that situation. So what are the Blackhawks doing, what have the Blackhawks done, what will the Blackhawks do to empower a player in a similar situation to make sure that doesn’t happen again?
Rocky Wirtz: I’m going to answer the question, not Danny. I think the report speaks for itself. The people that were involved are no longer here. We’re not looking back at 2010, we’re looking forward. And we’re not going to talk about 2010.
Mark Lazerus: I’m not talking about 2010.
Rocky Wirtz: I know. I’m not, either. We’re not going to talk about what happened. We’re moving forward. That is my answer. Now, what’s your next question.
Danny Wirtz: I can pick up, too, what we are doing today, and I think —
Rocky Wirtz: No, that’s none of your business. That’s none of your business. What we’re going to do today is our business. I don’t think it’s any of your business.
Mark Lazerus: How is it not my business?
Rocky Wirtz: Because I don’t think it’s any of your business. You don’t work for the company. If somebody in the company asks that question, we’ll answer it. And I think you should get on to the next subject. We’re not going to talk about Kyle Beach. We’re not going to talk about anything that happened. Now we’re moving on. What more do I have to say? You want to keep asking the same question? Ask the next question.
Mark Lazerus: You said enough right there.
Lazerus’s question appeared to be in the spirit of “ensuring that the failures of the past will not be repeated,” and he seemingly did not unfairly dredge up the past. Allowing, and subsequently covering up, a coach’s sexual assault of a player obviously raises massive questions about the culture of the organization, and its future handling of such issues. Dismissing a question regarding how positive change is being enacted to revise this culture is objectively unsettling.
The Blackhawks’ letter to their fans also included mention of being “committed to continuing to earn [your] trust.” Wirtz’s “you don’t work for the company” comment causes considerable skepticism with regards to the ability to earn this trust, as well as the general transparency of the organization’s actions in this space.
Wirtz’s comments are especially worrisome because it is precisely this dismissive attitude that has plagued hockey culture as a whole. All too often, personal and legal issues that supersede the game are swept under the rug in favor of maintaining a “winning culture,” not “creating distractions,” and “toughing it out.” By limiting transparency in the Blackhawks’ relevant updated procedures and policies, the organization has, either directly or indirectly, perpetuated these outdated ideals. Instead of definitively empowering and incentivizing employees to speak up about and report issues of sexual harassment or misconduct, Wirtz chose to be secretive and restrictive in the information that he provided. Perhaps, this was just an “emotional moment” for a “frustrated” owner, as Gary Bettman opined. Perhaps, the Blackhawks have made significant changes behind closed doors and the culture has been drastically altered.
However, this was an opportunity for the organization to expressly share with the public its specific plans and procedures to ensure that the failings of the past will not be repeated. The Blackhawks, understandably, find themselves at the heart of the conversation surrounding scandals in the hockey community. They could have taken this opportunity to inspire confidence in the work that they have done and are continuing to do. Wirtz’s comments seemed to have had the opposite effect, though.
Of course, these comments raise concerns with respect to employees reporting future incidents, and having the faith that they will be handled appropriately. These comments also present potential legal concerns for the organization, as an additional failure to properly handle and report, or an attempt to cover up, such incidents could have massive ramifications.
Rocky Wirtz issued a statement a few hours after the town hall event, apologizing for his words, saying that he “crossed the line.” He issued a second, longer apology on Friday, in which he expressed regret for answering the question directed to his son, as he “suddenly felt incredibly frustrated as [I] perceived we were looking back instead of looking forward.” CEO Danny Wirtz also announced specific initiatives aimed at preventing another sexual assault and subsequent cover-up. These include mental health services, an updated reporting process that ensures that “any reports of non-compliance are investigated immediately,” and “an employee-led committee focused on aspects of culture.”
The future of the organization, and the future of the hockey community, depend on the open acknowledgement and discussion of the scandals that have recently tainted the game. The Blackhawks have exhibited a reactive, rather than a proactive, approach throughout the Kyle Beach saga. Wirtz’s reactionary response Wednesday night further entrenched this approach. The hope, of course, is that the initiatives that Danny Wirtz announced have been effectively implemented and are effecting change within the culture. Rocky Wirtz’s town hall comments cast doubt over the organization, though, and present the concern that it is back to “business as usual” in Chicago, once again.
3L at University at Buffalo School of Law; BSELS Co-Vice President
MBA in Marketing;
In pursuit of a career at the intersection of sports law and sports business, specifically in professional hockey.