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William Wirtz, who became team president in 1966, died in hospital on Wednesday. ((Bruce Bennett/Getty Images))

William Wirtz, the longtime owner of the Chicago Blackhawks who was notorious for driving a hard bargain, died Wednesday at 77.

In an announcement on the team's website, the Blackhawks said Wirtz died in hospitalin Evanston, Ill., after battling cancer.

The Wirtz family, led by Arthur Wirtz, purchased the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954. In 1966, William Wirtz became team president.

Wirtz was chairman of the Board of Governors of the National Hockey League 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.

"His 41 years as president of the Blackhawks and 18 years as chairman of the board leave an incomparable legacy of contributions to the game and to the league. 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, Wirtz helped back the construction of the United Center, which replaced the Chicago Stadium, the longtime home for Blackhawks.

But since moving there 12 years ago, the Blackhawks have made just four playoff appearances — only two since 1997. The Blackhawks haven't played in the Stanley Cup finals in 15 years. As a result, the Blackhawks — one of the Original Six NHL teams — average about 12,700 fans per game in an arena that seats 20,500.

Wirtz's stewardship of the Blackhawks was long questioned, with the criticism becoming more vociferous in recent years. Many fans blamed him for allowing too many good players to leave over the years, and for his refusal to televise most home games.

Wirtz often said his goal was for the team to win another Stanley Cup, but he was not known to spend lavishly on the team.

His steadfast refusal to get into bidding wars to acquire the services of the game's best players earned Wirtz the nickname "Dollar Bill." That image changed somewhat when the club signed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million US contract in 2005.

Despite his reputation for paying close attention to the bottom line, Wirtz was known for his philanthropy.

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

Wirtz's interest in sports extended beyond the NHL. He served on both the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympic Committees. And for his efforts on both the professional and amateur levels, hewas inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.

In addition to being president of the Blackhawks, Wirtz's business endeavours extended to real estate, liquor distributorships, catering, parking lots, banking, hotels and the travel industry.

Wirtz is survived by his wife, Alice, five children, and seven grandchildren.