Published June 6, 2008
Youngstown SteelHounds owner Herb Washington walked into a room Thursday filled with media and various hockey/Chevy Centre folks.
As it was an event geared toward addressing the expunging of his struggling team from the only struggling league it has known, the mood in the room could best be described as guarded and somber.
Herb sized it up and cajoled the group: This isn’t a funeral, folks. It’s hockey.
He laughed a bit.
From there, he did his best to keep the mood light. But it was clear, this was a guy who’s had enough of this situation. Or has he?
Disappointed. Cheated. Angry. Vengeful. Optimistic. Resilient. Unsure.
You got it all from Washington in a 30-minute session. And all of it delivered in a calm demeanor through an ironic wide, toothy grin — like a guy who likes a good fight. As this was a gathering about hockey, which thrives a bit on its fighting lore, his style was fitting.
All the emoticons Washington displayed Thursday are worth exploring:
Disappointed: You didn’t hear much from Washington about mistakes he may have made in his four-year hockey marriage. But I think he gets a pass at that because, ultimately, he’s the one who stepped forward with his cash to get the team going. Sure he got loans, cash, incentives, etc. to run the team. But no civic startup — from a tech facility to a sports team — is without such assistance. In the end, his cash was still spent — and lost. He laughed about his lost dollars, asking that media don’t tell his wife (It was a dollar figure he never did share).
You could easily dismiss his cash losses as “he’s the businessman, he took the risk.” But he could have easily risked his money on something more controlled and more personal than a public sports franchise to better the community. In the end, he put up. He deserves that credit.
Cheated, angry, vengeful: I think Washington got set up by those who sold him this town as a hockey town. Sure, his business instincts could have kicked in as he was shown other minor league hockey towns and offered various numbers projections. There are certainly plenty of cities where hockey has failed. But he was offered numbers from experts in the business. I think those experts did a horrible job of profiling this region.
My guess is the “experts” concocted some collage of blue collar roots, hardscrabble nature, eastern European heritage, Ray Mancini and probably some ratio of cash advance stores to annual wine sales, and looked up from their calculators and announced: “A HOCKEY TOWN!”
I hope Washington’s more than half serious about buying Global, the biggest antagonist in this whole puzzle. I believe in payback being a — well, you know. While I believe getting kicked out of the CHL wasn’t a complete surprise to the SteelHounds, I do believe the CHL did it in a way that was most painful while simultaneously addressing lingering wounds from its fallout with the city.
Optimistic, resilient, unsure: After this three-year marriage, most of us would walk away from the deal. Cut your losses. Washington said that’s a possibility. But most of his talk was about what’s next. I’m hopeful for Washington’s role. He could be best suited for what’s next. To borrow a bit from the plane travel legend that the safest day to fly is the day after a plane crash, he could be the best person for a second chance at hockey because he's the person who just got burned — lessons learned, motivation not to repeat, etc.
So what is next? Should there be a next? That’s where this debate becomes more than just a question for the few hockey fans in the area because it is also about key tenants for the Chevy Centre.
Without hockey, the Chevy Centre could survive under proper management. The goal would be a lot more sold-out gigs like next week’s Carrie Underwood concert and a lot fewer struggles like the Kenny Loggins experience. That’s a risk. And it gets riskier with every gas price jump and every layoff.
So establishing anchor features like pro hockey or pro football helps protect against fickle concert/show trends. So what sport will draw? There are other pro sports, too: lacrosse, soccer, basketball.
But it will take more than just well-meaning owners and market assumptions. The Thunder have proven that by becoming a football team struggling in a “football town.”
Success takes culture and cultivation.
I was worried last year with the Thunder’s first season. I thought the team’s price for the cheapest ticket was not cheap enough to lure the masses in a “football town.” No masses, no culture.
Similarly, I think you can look to some of the SteelHounds’ early moves as steps that worked against cultivating a hockey culture.
The SteelHounds came in on the heels of Bruce Zoldan’s Mahoning Valley Phantoms, and the two owners at the time were at odds instead of uniting. (They’ve since united in their hockey thinking, the degree to which remains between them).
Locking out indoor football that first year might have seemed wise to limit entertainment dollar competition for the SteelHounds, but it also cut into Chevy Centre buzz and traffic. How much of that first-year football traffic would have bought a cheaply-priced hockey ticket at some point?
With stronger culture and cultivation, this can be a hockey town. I say that as a hockey guy from Buffalo. I’ve seen it from several sides.
I’m part of a lifelong hockey passion — fan, player, dad, coach, organizer. I’ve introduced and watched hockey flourish where hockey did not previously exist — Nebraska, to be specific. It’s an addicting sport once you get a family’s attention. It combines the speed of basketball, the hitting of football, the grace and thinking of baseball and the “everyone touches the ball” mentality of soccer.
But hockey is by no means an “if you build it, they will come” venture, regardless of the town. I saw it struggle as a sport two hours outside of Buffalo. When I moved to Nebraska in 1993, people looked at me freakishly when I said I grew up playing hockey. But by the time I left Nebraska in 1997, a junior hockey team was drawing 3,000-4,000 people in Lincoln, and kids were in roller hockey leagues in eight towns and Omaha had ice rinks filling up and its own junior and collegiate teams in the works.
They built a hockey culture. They didn't just launch a hockey franchise. Nebraska grew a hockey culture in four years — from nothing to top junior and college teams, on the legs of youth programs in many cities.
In Rockford where I last lived, 3,000-4,000 folks watched minor league hockey in downtown Rockford. Underneath that popularity, there was a youth program of about 1,000 kids playing hockey. That’s more than 2,000 parents, more than 2,000 siblings. Minor league players guest-coached youth teams. Youth teams shared ice with the minor leaguers. That culture is only about 10 years old. Rockford is nearly identical to Youngstown in size and demographics, right down to being a “high school football town.”
There are not 1,000 kids playing youth hockey here. I think there are about 150 kids, 200 at best.
For SteelHounds-type hockey to succeed, a culture of hockey as a local sport needs to be developed that has kids as young as 3 and 4 years old playing, and their parents supporting it, and their siblings and grandparents watching it.
Until then, the current marquee hockey teams here will continue to be these somewhat recognized and respected organizations with a bunch of guys from Canada, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere. But they will not necessarily be organizations that resonate with the people who buy tickets and fill seats.