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William Wirtz, 77, owner of Blackhawks

William W. Wirtz served as president of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team for 41 years. William W. Wirtz served as president of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team for 41 years. (ap/file 2005)

CHICAGO - William W. Wirtz, a longtime owner of the Chicago Blackhawks who was notorious for driving a hard bargain, died yesterday. He was 77.

The Blackhawks said Mr. Wirtz died at Evanston Hospital after a battle with cancer.

The Wirtz family bought the Blackhawks in 1954. Mr. Wirtz became team president in 1966. He also served as chairman of the National Hockey League's board of governors for 18 years and helped negotiate the merger of the NHL and the World Hockey Association in the late 1970s.

"Bill Wirtz was a giant presence in a giant city, his beloved Chicago, and an even greater presence in the National Hockey League," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement yesterday. "His strength, intelligence, character, and passion have been ingrained indelibly in the Blackhawks, in the league, and in me. Bill was a true icon and a great competitor."

Together with Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Mr. Wirtz helped back the construction of the United Center, which replaced the Chicago Stadium, the Blackhawk's longtime home.

But since moving there 12 years ago, the Blackhawks have made just four playoff appearances. The Blackhawks haven't played in the Stanley Cup finals in 15 years. As a result, the Blackhawks - one of the six original NHL teams - average about 12,700 fans per game in an arena that seats 20,500.

Mr. Wirtz's stewardship of the Blackhawks has been criticized over the years, with many fans blaming him for allowing too many good players to leave. At the United Center, the retired numbers of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall, and Denis Savard hang high above the ice. It has been years since players of that caliber have played for the team.

And in recent years, Chicago lost such players as Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Ed Belfour, and Chris Chelios.

There are other banners hanging from the United Center rafters, touting the many successful seasons for the franchise. One that stands out is the one representing the Stanley Cup in 1961, the last time the Blackhawks won the championship.

Mr. Wirtz often said his goal was for the team to win another Stanley Cup, but he was not known to spend lavishly on salaries. His steadfast refusal to get into bidding wars to acquire the services of the game's best players earned him the nickname "Dollar Bill." That image changed somewhat in 2005, when the club signed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million contract.

"He took a lot of heat here over the years. But people don't know him like I do," said Savard, the Hall of Famer who is now the team's coach. "He's just a family guy, and he loves his players, and loves the people that work for him."

Mr. Wirtz was known for his philanthropy.

"I think that was a great name, 'Dollar Bill.' But they forgot to put the 100,000 or million in front of it, because that's what he gave out," Mikita said yesterday. "I can honestly say from my experience, because of the hockey camp that I run, every year I got a nice check from him."

Since its establishment in 1993, Blackhawk Charities has donated millions of dollars to causes in Chicago, including the Boys and Girls Clubs.

"We have lost a great owner and a great steward of the sport," said Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who is the chairman of the NHL Board of Govenors. "No one did more for hockey on both the professional and amateur levels than he did. He will always be remembered as a dedicated leader in the sport and for the legacy he has left in his community, especially his humanitarian efforts through his foundation."

Mr. Wirtz was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.

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