Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Five Magical Seasons Cont'

It didn't take me but two or three weeks after my first day to realize that I was exactly where I belonged. I was in a place where amazing things were going to happen and I felt perfectly at home, even if I didn't know the first thing about hockey.  It is a little strange right?

You see there is something very unique about the Monsters and the people that work for our team. There is a undeniable bond that permanently ties us all together.  It creates an environment with energy permeating from the walls, and passion pouring out of the people that work within them.  Our culture is one that manifests itself in the successes that we have accomplished together. We're a team, from top to bottom, which is the only way we know how to be.  We achieve success individually only through the achievements of our team as a whole.  We love each other, plain and simple.  That doesn't mean we're all best friends, but we have a profound respect for what we all have to go through every day to have success. That is how I knew so quickly I was in the right place.  And even though we had crazy challenges in front of us, we were going to make magical things happen inside Quicken Loans Arena and in the Cleveland community.

How does it happen?  Could it be great leadership?  You better believe it. Since the day we started we've had leaders running this business that cared just as much about the success of our team, as they did of themselves in their personal careers.  But that isn't everything.  Could it also be talented team members?  there is no question about it. None of our accomplishments would have even been remotely possible if we didn't have some of the best in the business working for us. But again, there is just more to it.  There is something else that has driven this franchise to successes that most in Cleveland thought were impossible, just a pipe dream of a rich owner with money to spend.  It is a really difficult theory to articulate, but I'll do my best..... 

You'd think in a town full of such passionate people that a new team, albeit hockey, could attract some of that undying love from the people for their sports teams.  But we're "minor league".  We're not the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cleveland Browns or the Cleveland Indians.  We never will be.  Those teams have been here for decades and have an unbelievably loyal following in this region.  A group that is unwavering in their support of the home town teams. It's one of the things I love about this city.  Thick and thin, win or lose, we are all connected through the support we show our teams. The Monsters could never possible crack into that category, right? We're minor league, in a major league town, and we're a hockey team.  Undoubtedly the least popular sport of the four majors.  (Aside from all you die hards! You know who you are.  I know how much you guys love this sport!)

Let's talk about a couple more things working against us. The Monsters resided in a building where the mother ship was and always will be the Cleveland Cavaliers.  At that time there was not a more popular team in town.  Sorry Browns fans, it is true.  Lebron James and the Cavs packed the house with 20,562 fans night in and night out.  Our staff and front office were focused on capitalizing on every single ounce of energy that followed this team during the Lebron era, and trying to make our business the best it could be.  Along with, of course, trying to win a championship.  So how the hell were the Monsters going to get any attention in a town where there are three beloved sports teams, and one with an otherworldly superstar who dominated the headlines every single day?  Well the answer was simple, we didn't.  Not even really in our own building, and not even from some of our own team members that weren't working directly on the Monsters team. (No names, please).  At least not at first.

So guess what?  It just might be that we all quickly developed a, "small", chip on our shoulders about doing everything in our power to grow this franchise. You could even probably call it a complex.  Maybe we feel like we are on a mission to prove every single doubter wrong about how successful a minor league hockey team could be in Cleveland.  Maybe since our opening night on Saturday, October, 2007, we've expended every last ounce of energy we had in our bodies to build this team into what it is today?

None of those things are a maybe......

Every single time from the day we started this thing that someone has doubted us, we have used that as fuel.  Honestly we didn't give a damn whether or not people thought we could make this work.  We've heard it all before.  In fact, just to give you an idea, here are some of my favorites that we heard repeatedly:

"Hockey has no chance to succeed in Cleveland"
"You're minor league, I'm not interested in minor league sports"
"Call when we get the NHL"
"Who are the Lake Erie Monsters"
"I have no interest in hockey"
"I went to a hockey game in Cleveland in 2005, there were 500 people in the stands, no thanks"
"This is a three horse town, and we don't have a racetrack so their is no room for a fourth" (actually I just made this one up but I wish someone would have said it!)

Well....Five years later and it is difficult for me to sum up what we've been able to accomplish, but these statistics should give you an idea.

Year One - We finished 11th in attendance.  Our first year.  Expansion franchise. 
Year Two - We finished 9th in attendance.  Already a sign of growth after only one year
Year Three - We finished 6th in attendance.  Still doubting us?  Good.  Keep it coming.
Year Four - We finished 6th again. Leveling off?  I don't think so. We fought through a year where our entire leadership team changed, and our business still grew.
Year Five - WE FINISHED 3RD IN ATTENDANCE.  That's right. 3rd.  Guess what our goal is?

Just for a little perspective, there are 30 teams in the American Hockey League. Some having been in operation for 60 or 70 years. We routinely have crowds of 10 to 12 thousand.  Sometimes I look at those numbers and I don't even believe them myself.  How did we possible make this happen? 

Belief.  We never for one second had doubts on whether or not we were going to make it happen.  Man did we go through stretches where it was tough.  I can remember distinctly walking out into the bowl in our first year and there were probably 1,500 bodies in the building.  I said to myself, what is going on? What are people going to think?  But we just kept driving.  Along the way we fought each other, sent nasty emails, yelled at each other in conference rooms, but all the while we maintained our focus on the goal.  To be the best AHL franchise in the league, and have one of the best organizations anywhere in sports.  At any level.  That belief is what carried us through all the adversity we have faced.

It is what has allowed us to become an integral part of the community. We donate thousands of tickets back every year so that the less fortunate can come out to a game and take their mind off every day life. Our players and front office make hundreds of visits out in Northeast Ohio every year to try and give back to the community that gives so much to us. It's not just about selling tickets for us. It is about building something special in Cleveland that we can all be proud of, and something we can all have pride in. A place where you can create memories with the people that mean the most to you, and not have to break the bank to do it. An environment that you can come to just sit back and have fun. Novel concept right? A sports team that allows people to simply enjoy life spending time with their friends, family or coworkers.

I could write for days, and pages upon pages about everything that has happened over the last five years. But I'll spare you the painful details, and I can assure you, they were painful....
A short (I promise) conclusion coming tomorrow......


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