WORCESTER — Cliff Rucker, the man who may bring the ECHL to the city next year, was never a hockey player, but understands that being a hockey fan can sometimes be a contact sport.
“I married a lifelong, passionate Bruins fan,” Rucker said during a visit to the city on Thursday, “a season-ticket holder, crazy hockey fan, and she converted me.”
The names can be left out of this addition to the story, but here goes:
“My wife’s father would sit in front of the TV with the family to watch the Bruins game,” Rucker said, “and he’d get so excited watching it his teeth would come flying out of his mouth, and her vision of him is him surfing under the television looking for his teeth.”
What was the call — a crosscheck or a high stick?
That’s passion taken to its highest degree, and Rucker does not necessarily need that sort of intensity to make the ECHL work in Worcester. However, he senses that there is enough hockey passion here to give some serious consideration of landing an ECHL expansion franchise to begin play for the 2016-17 season.
Rucker is in the process of finishing his homework — the legal term is due diligence, but this is hockey after all — and said that the process has gone further than just being being exploratory.
“The ECHL is aware of my interest and the DCU Center is aware of my interest,” Rucker said. “I flew down (to Trenton, New Jersey) a while back and met with (ECHL commissioner) Brian McKenna. I’ve requested and recently received the full paperwork and an application.
“It is an exhaustive process and it is due Dec. 1, so if there is to be a puck dropping for the 2016-17 season, I have 30 days to make my decision.”
Rucker would be the potential franchise’s sole investor. He is 53, married and a father of five with business interests in Eastern Mass. He was born in New York, went to high school in Connecticut and arrived in New England at age 18 to attend Tufts University.
“I’ve never left,” he said, “so I grew up in Massachusetts and grew up as a Bruins fan.”
Rucker has been a Bruins’ season-ticket holder and first became interested in possibly owning a team about three years ago. He and his family attended Worcester Sharks games and thoroughly enjoyed it, Rucker said.
“I have no previous experience owning a pro sports team,” he added, “but I have experience starting and running a business.”
Rucker finds the ECHL business model a good fit for him, he said, because teams can hire their own coaches and sign their own players.
“It’s not just a farm system per se,” he added. “I wanted to have some say in the product that was on the ice.”
Many ECHL teams are affiliated with National Hockey League teams, and ECHL players do make the jump to the NHL. A good example of that locally is Andrew Desjardins, who actually went from the Central Hockey League to the ECHL to Worcester, and last year was part of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup champion.
However, most players on a typical ECHL roster are under local contracts.
Rucker said his reception since he began to investigate putting a team in Worcester has been a warm one.
“I want to be clear,” he said, “that everybody I’ve talked to…the city, the DCU Center…has been supportive, gracious and cooperative. If there isn’t a team here, it’s because I made a decision not to do it.”
There is an unofficial consensus that the ideal business model for any pro hockey team in Worcester includes an affiliation with the Bruins. As Rucker looks ahead, he is not basing his decision on that being a given.
“At this point,” he said, “my primary focus is internal. I believe in my due diligence that this is a viable place for this business model. I’ve seen lot of positive hints from the town, the Chamber of Commerce, the city manager and the DCU Center.
“At the end of the day I have to make a decision based on my own internal compass. This is my money. It will be my responsibility to make this successful, so I’m not thinking, quite honestly, about affiliations. I’m thinking about a business model, a community and staffing.
“I can assure you of this — if I don’t surround myself with good people, I won’t be successful. That’s where I’m spending my time.”
Rucker plans on being an in-the-building owner if he decides to apply for a franchise and gets it. The city’s hockey fans should know within a couple of weeks if Christmas will come early for them this winter.
Reading through the story about hockey coming back to Worcester got me thinking about the Allen Americans ownership situation and what has transpired over the last two years. Have to say upfront this is a viewpoint from a fan with no first hand knowledge, so take it with a grain of salt. It is merely my opinion taken from reading press releases, watching press conferences and talking to others that do not have first hand information. While I have met Rodney and Brandon Steven and they were very friendly and cordial, I have never had an in depth conversation with them.
- The Steven brothers (Rodney, Brandon & Johnny) are based in Wichita and are very successful businessmen who own numerous health clubs and car dealerships. They have been in the health club business for over 20 years.
- The Steven brothers saved the Allen franchise when they bought it in 2014 and maybe saved the CHL as well. They already owned Wichita and Tulsa and were not looking for a third team. You can be assured they got a heck of a deal when they bought the Allen Americans but had they not stepped in to buy the team there may not be hockey in Allen today.
- Unlike some ownership groups in AA hockey the Steven brothers did not get into hockey because of their passion for the game. When they bought the Wichita Thunder in 2011, Rodney Steven was quoted in an article as saying a primary motive for purchasing the Thunder was the brothers' fear that someone else would buy the team and move it out of state. At the time, their health club company (Genesis Health) had recently assumed operations of the city-owned Wichita Ice Center, where the Thunder play exhibition games and sometimes practice. The advantage of local ownership was emphasized and it was stated in the article that one of the three brothers would be attending every Thunder game.
- When the Steven brothers bought the Tulsa Oilers in 2013 an article in the Tulsa World said the brothers knew the Oilers were struggling and felt they could step in and save the financially strapped team. It also stated in the article that the brothers will be in Tulsa a lot. At the press conference announcing the purchase, the importance of a good on ice product was talked about as well as the importance of some local ownership in the team.
- When the Steven brothers bought the Allen franchise in 2014 just as the Americans were winning their second championship, it was a low key affair but the news release quoted Rodney Steven, "We are excited to give this team all of the tools it needs to continue their success and grow their already great fan base." There is little doubt the Allen purchase was a distress sale and the Steven brothers interest was driven by a concern about the viability of the league.
- What does all of this mean for the Allen Americans and their fans? It is very clear the current ownership group runs the three franchises based on their success in the health club and auto dealership business. The three teams are run independently so each one has its sales goals and everyone is held accountable. Since somewhere around 70-80 percent of revenue comes from ticket sales all you have to do is look at attendance to compare what kind of budget each of the three teams may be dealing with. Here is the average attendance over the last three years.
5479 - Tulsa
5007 - Wichita
4096 - Allen
5089 - Wichita
4986 - Tulsa
4216 - Allen
5599 - Wichita
4166 - Tulsa
4157 - Allen
- Each team has just two home games this season with the average attendance at 6528 for Tulsa, 5430 for Wichita and 4649 for Allen.
- The bottom line is if all decisions are made strictly on dollars and cents it appears the Allen Americans are in a much bigger budget squeeze than the other two franchises even though they are the most successful on the ice. Each time the Steven brothers bought a hockey franchise the first thing they emphasized was the key to success is a good on ice product. You can only hope the budget doesn't impact the quality of team that coach Martinson can put on the ice.
- You certainly can't blame the owners for approaching this as a business and wanting the Allen Americans to be profitable but as a fan you also want to be assured the players, coaches, front office staff and fans are being treated well. This brings me back to the Worcester situation and what I think is very important for success in AA hockey. Having owners who have a passion for hockey, are involved in the local community, and are seen at the home games mingling with fans is certainly more desirable than absentee owners who measure success strictly by the bottom line.
- My guess is the Steven brothers would agree with the value of local ownership as that is precisely what they said when they bought their hometown team back in 2011. I am sure for the right price they would be willing to sell the Americans to local interests but being successful businessmen they would want a good return on their investment. My fear is that the quality of the on ice product deteriorates, attendance goes down rather than up, employees decide to leave before the team is sold to local ownership at a reasonable price.
- When you only see the ownership group in Allen a few times a year, it gives the impression they are not involved with the fans or the team. I heard from several players who are no longer on the team, that after Allen won the Kelly Cup championship last season the owners, who were in attendance at the game, didn't even stop by the locker room to congratulate the team. As one player said, "As soon as the game was over they just got on their plane and headed back to Wichita."
- The current owners have every right to do whatever they feel is best for the Allen Americans and their business interests as they are the ones who have all the monetary risk associated with owning an ECHL franchise. But as a fan, I love this team and can only wish for local ownership who loves hockey, is more concerned about winning than turning a profit, attends all of the games as a fan more than an owner, knows the players by name as well as all of the wives, girlfriends and children. Yes, it is pie in the sky, but one can hope. Are you listening Mark Cuban?
DID YOU KNOW: Owning a professional sports franchise in the DFW metroplex can be very rewarding. Mark Cuban bought the Dallas Mavericks in 2000 for 280 million dollars and was said to have overpaid for the team. Today the team is worth over a billion dollars. Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1980 for 140 millions dollars and was said to have overpaid for the team. Today the Cowboys franchise is worth over 4 billion dollars. Spending a few million on the Allen Americans sounds like a steal.