talks to Peter Collins - Feb 2000
Originally published in the match night programme of 20th Feb 2000
How do you balance the time between your roles with Ogdens, The Storm, ISL and EHL?
"While the EHL is maybe two to three meetings a year and probably two e-mails a day, which don't always need a response, balancing my other three roles is difficult, it tends to go in cycles and whichever one is most pressing at the time gets my attention. Since September unfortunately, with Ogdens corporate position up for sale, that side has begun to take up more and more of my time and it's only fair to say that it's coincided with one of the more difficult times with the Storm. That really began with Rick Brebant deciding he wanted to leave and since then it's been one thing after another with players unhappy or us not being happy with the players. We've had the Darren Hurley and Frankie Pietrangelo situations, and while I've given as much support as I can to Kurt, I would like to have given him more. Similarly, the negotiation concerning the sale of Newcastle to Jokerit has also been ongoing, although the final talks are being carried out by Ian Taylor and David Temmie, so the balance has been difficult to maintain and I've had to make some really harsh decisions. For example, although I don't necessarily think we treated Darren Hurley poorly, he certainly didn't get as much of my time as he and I would have have wanted. Frankie came to me concerned about comments that had been made in the press conference in Sheffield and I didn't have the time to listen to what he had to say, all I could advise him to do was to sort it out with Kurt. It's like any organisation, take away the ice hockey side of it and there is a common structure. The players are all employees and there is a route of appeal if a problem can't be resolved with their on-line manager, which in this case is Kurt. There has to be some form of appeal process, so they can come to me. They expect honesty and unfortunately like I said before, all I could do at the time was to tell Frankie to work things out with Kurt. And I think it's a sign of maturity that I have faith in people to be able to say that to them and then see them carry it out".
Will Kurt be back next year?
" I had discussions with Kurt and his wife before Christmas and the indication from her was that she was happy for him to open discussions with me and I would very much like to have done the deal there and then. But with the ownership question still hanging in the air it was unfair to build up theirs and the fans' hopes, so he and I have put it aside until the beginning of March when we will hopefully be in a position to make an announcement. If I can bring him back I will and if he decides not to return we'll deal with that problem when it arises. At some stage he will go back home but it will be difficult for him to find a post that is as good as this, a fact both he and his wife recognise.
What about "the Bracknell incident"?
Kurt came to me the Wednesday before the Bracknell game and said: "I've been down there twice this season and got diddly out of the place, I've not been able to get a decent performance out of the guys so I'm going to try something off the wall, I'm not going to go. If I can't get it out of them maybe they'll produce it for Daryl". But as the result indicated we still have problems with that place! We then agreed to speak to the league together to make see we weren't overstepping the mark and they said as long as there was an official of the club in charge, which there was - Lipper is an experienced coach of many years standing - it would be OK. Although we were very disappointed with the result we were humoured to see the stupidity that came out of Sheffield about it. To be fair to Dave Simms I know he was only doing it to drum up interest in the game with us, and from a marketing standpoint it was exactly the thing to do, but at the end of the day we showed them. To the outside world Kurts' actions may have appeared strange, bug dealing with 20 players' psychologies simultaneously isn't easy and sometimes you have to admit defeat and try something different, which is a brave thing to do .
We tried it but it didn't work, would we do it again? If I thought for one second it would work course we would, but I would take some persuading. People are swift to condemn but I still remember us getting slapped 10-2 by Cardiff in the first season, but we haven't suffered that indignity since Kurt has been with us. We've had a period of relative domination of the league, we set out to be a marquee franchise and I think we've achieved that and consolidated. Kurt has brought a degree of professionalism to both the league and team that has been lacking.
It's embarrassing to lose 10-2 in Bracknell, but we've gone from bottom of the league to being over the last three seasons the most consistent team in the league. It would be fair to say we'd have looked to have been more competitive in the league. I think the drop in form of some of our star players has been a disappointment, but clearly we've been fortunate to have unearthed Alexi Lozhkin, Ryan Duthie and our best signing of the season, Mark Bernard and we're ultimately still in contention. It's a long haul and we will need help from other teams to if we are to win the league, but when we're all healthy and playing we'll be difficult to beat in the play-offs. If we walked away with two bits of silverware we'd still consider it a failure if we haven't retained the championship, that's always been the our goal. Right now Bracknell must be favourites to win it and if they do it will be a testament to the recruitment of Martin Waddell and Dave Whistle. If we were to win it it would be a testament to Kurt because he'll have found the players. Overall I think we had a consistent injury free season last time out, this season we've had ongoing injuries and that's to some extent the reason why we've not reached the same standard.
Will we see the same players back next season?
Keeping players here next year depends on what happens elsewhere. German teams are not going to be able to flirt with North American players as much as they have in the past because the TV deal currently being negotiated with the DEL clubs is a drop on this year's, which means there will be less money available, and so players won't be able to get the contracts they're getting this year. There will probably be a higher turnover of players, although having said that Mike Morin is in his fourth season with us, and Kris Miller, Jeff Jablonski, Kevin Hoffman and Troy Neumeier are in their third, so there has been a great deal of stability. If players return to North America it will be more of a lifestyle choice, and in Britain it would be hard for them to get better deals elsewhere.
When the sale of Ogdens goes through, how will it affect the Storm?
New owners could bring in a change of coach and players but I can't see c change for change's sake. Players on multi-year contracts might think twice about seeing them out, and if a player doesn't want to play for you there's not a lot that can be done to change his mind, it needs a great deal of maturity on both sides. The other side of the coin is it would cost a lo of money to buy them out of their contracts. We have one British consortium who are progressing towards a sale and we also have have half a dozen groups in the US, but the hockey club is a very small part of the operation. To buy the whole entertainment arm of the company, which is what is being asked, is somewhere in the region of $800 million. The buyers could then put the club on the market to get back some of their outlay, that's corporate life. However, negotiations with the British company so far indicate they very much want to keep the Storm as part of the furniture, which would give them the building and a product passing through it - hockey fans - and they then have their own ideas as to new products and shows based on family entertainment.
What about Zoning ... will that still operate next year?
We'll wait until the end of the season before looking at the seat zoning system, we'll carry out an attitude survey, although from what I've seen it has had regular criticism on the internet. Crowds are static, absolute numbers are about the same whereas financially we are up on last year's figures. For next season we've been looking at what the effect on crowds would be if we didn't win the league and we weren't in Europe. Personally I'd be saddened if we weren't in the EHL, but Jokerit haven't been in it for two years and it's not done them any harm. Going into the Continental Cup may not be bad for us and I'd like to think we'd be asked to host one of the mini-tournaments. Sheffield and Cardiff did so this season but we'll have to wait and see. The EHL meeting will be late May, followed early June by the Continental Cup meeting If it was the Continental Cup I' think we'd get a bye through the first round, the issue for us then would be getting past the mini-tournament round.
The TV screens on the scoreboard need some attention, when will it be fixed?
We took a management decision to keep the scoreboard going as best we can until the end of the season. To replace the whole set of screens would cost north of £100,000 and we can't make that decision until we know where we're going in terms of ownership.
Has the ISL wage cap worked?
I believe the wage cap has worked. At this stage last season the race was between two clubs, Cardiff and us, this season with the wage cap in place any team from five can still technically win it. As for the Storm, we kept our side of the bargain so it didn't make much difference. I've been a strong supporter of it and we suggested it at the end of the first season when we finished last and we were voted down by the other owners. So when I saw it come in this season it was a wish fulfilled. The building and the team are run together but while the building makes a decent profit the team doesn't, so capping was a solid measure but it won't really be effective until the players are contracted to the league, and that probably won't happen until more US owners come in.
New venues are being built in the UK for ice hockey; will we see Coventry and Belfast in the ISL?
Coventry don't have the infrastructure to support a quality team Planet Ice intend to go in their as an event venue first and have a look at ice hockey later. Belfast have paid their franchise fee, Leeds won't be in next year but could be the year after and that would be important fore both Sheffield and ourselves, it would generate derbies that are good for the game. Personally I'd like to see another team in the Midlands, also Guildford would be good too. I don't see them winning the BNL year in year out being good for their gates. If they they entered ISL and were competitive and say finished mid-table their gates would go up. They are managed by a very shrewd owner and I'd like to see them join us and although he has not so far indicated he wants to move up I can't see their business plan being sustained by winning the BNL every year, it's not as stable a league as people think. I think you can count Dublin out but the Jokerit takeover of Newcastle is going ahead.
Does the EHL have a future?
The Swedes and Finns pulled their faces last year, although if they do carry out their threats to pull out it would be the end of the EHL. The issue is finance and the level of sponsorship, particularly from Skoda, although a lot of it is positioning and posturing on the clubs' part. Both countries have structural problems particularly the cost of trips to other European cities due to their northerly location and we are looking hard at improving sponsorship. Moving games to weekends would make a big difference, but I can't see the the Swedish and Finnish national associations wearing it. It would be easier in Britain. The owner of Jokerit is sold on the idea of the EHL becoming a European Conference for the NHL and it would work in Scandinavia and Russia, but Manchester versus Stockholm would not be as big a draw as say Manchester versus Sheffield. So if they asked us to be in a European league as opposed to a British league the answer would be no. We're an island race quite happy to entertain European aspirations but not at the expense of a local derby. Ask United fans, I'm not convinced their supporters would feel better about playing the likes of Juventus and Barcelona week in week out as opposed to Liverpool and the age old rivalries that go with such a game.
There was talk of an NHL game at Manchester and/or London ... any chance of that actually happening?
The idea of an NHL exhibition game is really dead in the water due to the economics of hosting such a game. The Japanese can guarantee huge corporate sponsorship. It's not to say we couldn't get big sponsorship here but it would have to be a quantum leap. US companies over here are modest in size compared to their North American parents, consequently they would not be prepared to pay a North American charge on European turnovers. We were offered a game two years ago but no matter how much we tried to make the economics work we were really only just making money on the last two hundred tickets, and all we'd have needed would have been for say Man City to have been at home on the same day and you're not telling me people would rather have paid our huge fee for a one-off game than going to see City's first home game of the season. I'm sure some people reading this will be thinking 'God, this man never takes risks!" But it ain't my money and my name's not Nick Leeson! My duty is to the share holders in America. If it won't work in London , which is in theory the second or third biggest financial capital in the world then I can't see it working up here. So timing and conditions would have to change a lot for such a game to come about.
Where will you be in a few years time?
My future is tied up with the sale of the club, but I've got to think about my wife and children, so I've got the same worries as anyone else. They deserve the best future I can give them. People have been making very supportive noises but I've been out of work before and supportive noises don't always turn into job offers. I'd like to think I'll remain here, I want to stay here, we've invested too much time and effort to move on just yet.
And what about the Storm next season?
I actually think there'll be no discernible change come September. The fans will see consistency both in the coaching and in the team. What happens the summer after that when the new owners have had a chance to sit back and take stock, I can't say, that's the time you should see changes. The sale should go through by the tail end of the season and I suspect it will be done very quickly and if one particular company takes over there will be no changes at all, the company name would not even change , it would simply be a share swap. So I can't see us going from a finesse team to a team of out and out thugs, any changes will be subtle although we did try to bring a thug in this year but it didn't happen, in any case I'm not in favour of thuggery for thuggery's sake.
Peter Collins 2000