Leader of Youngstown's CHL franchise wants to make this a hockey town.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Armed with a bag of golf clubs and a suitcase that contained his life's possessions, Grant Buckborough arrived in America's cowboy province to do the unthinkable.
Buckborough, a native of Canada, was going to sell minor league hockey to people whose main use for ice is to clink into ice tea glasses on a scorching summer day. The irony is sharp. Buckborough had to abandon the frozen ponds of Canada for the dusty dunes of Texas to live out his hockey dream.
The scene still draws a chuckle out of Youngstown's newest general manager, who sat comfortably in a lofty Wick Building conference room on Thursday with a slick suit and cup of gourmet coffee cradled in his hand. It's hard for Buckborough to believe how fast he rose in the front office ranks of the Central Hockey League. It took the 33-year-old just seven years to become a general manager. On Wednesday, it was announced he will head the yet-to-be named Youngstown CHL team.
"Things just don't happen that way anymore," Buckborough said. "I wouldn't hire somebody to come down with a bag of golf clubs and to site unseen. ... But the experience, what I learned that first year, is invaluable. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I think it's important for anybody at a management position to get their hands dirty at different levels."
Amarillo, Texas, seems like a long way away as snow drifts down outside the plate window in building in the heart of Youngstown. But Buckborough will never forget that first leap of career faith. He wasn't just arriving in a Southern town with a population of 173,000 with an average income of nearly $35,000 a year for the 1997-98 season.
He had also arrived at personal crossroads. Life at his father's company hadn't been bad. The home-cooked meals and Saturday hockey nights with cold beer, homemade pizza and wings forming a backdrop for the glow of Detroit Red Wings games emanating out of the television set was actually a sliver of heaven in Buckborough's mind.
But it was just a little too comfortable for the 25-year-old itching to carve his own way.
"I wanted a change," Buckborough said. "I was up for a challenge."
The challenge came as soon as he took an account executive job with the Amarillo franchise -- "A.K.A. lowest man on the totem poll," Buckborough said.
But Buckborough had enough charm to spark his career. What other man selling hockey tickets to football-obsessed Texans could get a car out of a ticket deal? In one of his first deals, the guy he was selling a ticket to offered him the use of his 1981 Nissan Sentra, which Buckborough drove without insurance for four months until he could afford his own car.
He spread his charm everywhere he went, according to his family.
His dad, Len, remembers traveling to Amarillo to check on his son during that first season. Not only was it Grant's first job outside of the family, it was also his first taste of American life -- in the deep South at that. His dad was worried about his youngest son.
Any fears evaporated like dew in the desert.
"When we were in one day, he was introducing us to the mayor and the chief of police, and I said, 'There is no problem here,' " Len said.
Bit by bit, ticket by ticket, Buckborough began impressing his bosses. His franchise averaged 3,367 fans in 1997-98, fueled by Buckborough's work ethic and strong belief that even in the most depressed economic and traditionless hockey areas, one can still sell a stick, puck and an arena full of games.
"Everybody's got disposable income for entertainment," Buckborough said. "I don't care if you make $15,000 a year, if you make $100,000 a year, people always have money for the movies or the theaters would be out of business."
That attitude will likely come in handy in economically struggling Youngstown. But Buckborough isn't likely to buy excuses when he begins work here.
"In all the towns here there is youth hockey," Buckborough said. "It is a hockey town. People who say it's not a hockey town -- I guess they say it's not a hockey town because there's never been a team here before. But it will be a hockey town here soon."
The strong will is coupled with the charm in Buckborough that his mother, Gail, vividly recalls from his youth. Once she gazed out the window of her kitchen and saw a hodgepodge of kids lined up with rakes and shovels. Buckborough was standing in the middle of the kid army, which was doing yard work in the neighborhood.
"I asked him what was going on and he said somebody had to take charge," Gail said.
Even as a baby, Buckborough drew a crowd.
"Little girls in the grocery store used to come up to our grocery cart just wanting to talk to him," Gail said.
Building to the future
About midway through the 2001-02 season in Amarillo, Buckborough was presented a unique opportunity to help launch a new franchise in yet another corner of the southern half of the country. He began working with the Rio Grande Valley Central Hockey League franchise, where he was eventually chosen assistant general manager and head of ticket sales. He spent about 10 months building up customers and sold more than 5,000 season tickets, he said. In its first season, the team averaged 5,114 fans, according to league figures.
But soon after establishing the team there, Buckborough got a call from Youngstown economic magnate Herb Washington asking him to interview for the Youngstown franchise GM job.
Washington, who himself rose through the ranks by starting at the bottom, was impressed with the CHL whiz kid.
"He had the energy level and he had actually done a startup," Washington said.
Buckborough is now making his way from the southern region of the country closer to Canada. The new GM, who has a Detroit Red Wings tattoo on his ankle, is particularly jazzed about the prospect of being within driving distance of Detroit. Then there is the excitement of taking on another challenge -- finding the best coach, filling a roster and launching another franchise. And don't be surprised if you find a bald-headed Canadian rubbing elbows with fans at the Giant Eagle. The thrill of the sale still burns deep.
"You never know what you're going to be good at and then you actually enjoy it," Buckborough said. "And it fulfills both of those for me. I enjoy it and I found I was pretty good at it."