With all eyes in the hockey world focused on the Chicago Blackhawks this week, a former Winnetka Warriors house and travel league youth player who later tended goal in an Illinois High School Hockey State Championship Game is front and center for, arguably, the biggest draft pick in team history.
Daniel “Danny” Wirtz, who helped the Ramblers win state as a senior in 1995, took over as the Chief Executive Officer for the Chicago Blackhawks on December 16, 2020, and serves as alternate Governor to the NHL.
“It’s so exciting – from the lottery to the draft,” Wirtz said in an exclusive interview with AHAI days before the two-day NHL Draft on Wednesday and Thursday, June 28-29, in Nashville. “A draft of this magnitude is significant for our future. We’re excited to get in there, make the pick and get going.”
Danny is the latest Wirtz family member to skate the Blackhawks into the future. His high-ranking hockey post is the natural next step of sorts for this hockey lifer, especially for his hometown NHL team.
“I have never lost my passion for the team, the love for the sport, the desire to win, the desire to see a winning team. That never goes away and it’s important to never forget that,” said Wirtz, who admitted he never truly envisioned his power status for the team and the league.
“I always knew I would love to be in the hockey world, contributing in some way. I never actually thought I’d be sitting at the desk, so to speak, and be in the position to make decisions on behalf of the organization. It’s still very humbling despite what most people would assume was sort of an obvious thing.
“I don’t get to, sort of, enjoy some of the moments, but I try to remind myself to pretend I am 14 years-old again and have the privilege of sitting at the draft table and contribute to decision-making for the organization. These are incredible opportunities that not a lot of people get to do – and I know, as a kid, it would have blown my mind to have been in the conversations that I’m in. I never lose sight of that and never take it for granted. I have to pinch myself at times.”
Wirtz’ game-night schedule is routine, quite similar. He often hosts and entertains in his United Center suite – be it partners, clients, season ticket members and others. He also ventures onto the concourse level to engage with fans. He visits United Center bars and restaurants, talking with employees and regulars. Plus, he visits concession stands, signs autographs and more.
The United Center was once Wirtz’ hockey destination as a player, too.
In fact, when his Loyola Gold team won state in 1995, it was the first championship won at the then-new United Center.
The memories of high school hockey are still vivid for Wirtz.
“Having played in the state finals at the UC, I know what it means to every high school player who has had the opportunity to play at the United Center. It’s an absolute once-in-a-lifetime thrill,” he said. “It was very important to me that we sort of reset that expectation – for that to be the pinnacle of competition of high school hockey. That’s important to me and to our organization. Having that be the goal for every high school player is a thrill you can’t replicate elsewhere.
“I think there is so much opportunity to enhance that experience, not just for the players but the students, the fans, the families and everyone associated with high school hockey.”
Wirtz attended the Illinois Girls High School Hockey State Championship Game this past March at the United Center, ultimately presenting the victor’s banner to Barrington.
“It was a great experience, brought me back (to my high school days),” he said.
Wirtz’ Loyola Gold team stopped arch-rival New Trier Green 1-0 in the 1995 state championship game. Kevin Keady started the game in goal for the Ramblers; Wirtz finished.
That 1994-95 season was “one of the best years of my life,” Wirtz said. “Our team was an incredible group of players. We won every tournament we played in; we traveled to Switzerland to play. We were a dominant force on the ice and really galvanized the school. We did a lot to get the whole student body behind our team.
“High school hockey is just such an amazing experience. The friendships and bonds that were made (are lifelong), just very special.”
The 1995 game was replayed, of sorts, when both teams returned to the ice at the United Center in 2015 for a 20-year reunion game.
Wirtz said a 30-year reunion game is forthcoming, too.
“Loyola taught me aspects of team and camaraderie. The Loyola experience really balanced the off-ice values of service to others, which carries through today,” he said. “Winning state was an absolute thrill that I never will forget.”
Wirtz and the Blackhawks are committed to growing the game locally – from Learn To Skate to high school and beyond. “As an organization, I can assure you, youth hockey is an absolute priority for us. We want to be partners and supporting all different aspects of the youth hockey journey,” he said. “We obviously are committed to growing the sport, building programs and more in communities that traditionally have not been exposed to hockey. The commitment is not just within the community relations department, it is across the board – every department of the Blackhawks has a component of growing the game of hockey in Illinois.”
And youth hockey is life for many others in the Blackhawks organization, not just for Wirtz. Case in point, team president of business operations Jamie Faulkner is hockey mom, who drives kids to their games and practices, travels to out-of-town tournaments, and more.
“I think we can continue to do more in partnership with AHAI to continue to grow the sport,” Wirtz said. “Local youth hockey is core to our business, not just a charity (position) or to check a box, or a feel-good (stance). If we’re going to grow and diversify the sport, we know we have to expose the sport to more kids across the board. We want Illinois to have a home for hockey. I want to make sure it continues strong in the state.”
Wirtz still skates, playing from time to time, and when the team has its annual staff game, Wirtz dons the goalie pads as club employees rip shots at their boss. He stands in goal with pride, though it’s the hockey version of a boss-in-the-dunk-tank.