On Friday just after 12pm after Peter Karmanos straggled in a bit late due to travel delays, an interesting group met with the local media to discuss the sale of the Carolina Hurricanes to Tom Dundon and take questions.
On the far left side of the table was President Don Waddell followed and former, now minority owner, Peter Karmanos. In the middle was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. And to the right was new owner Tom Dundon and General Manager Ron Francis.
If you missed it, my top level thoughts on the transition can be found in my article from first thing Friday morning.
That article also provided a pre-press conference spoiler for what I expected to be said at the press conference which was pretty accurate.
The expected motherhood and apple pie per my morning article
At a basic level, the press conference was largely without surprise. All of the stuff from the standard formula sheet were included and discussed as expected.
From my article in the morning…
Will you consider moving the team?
No. The team is not moving. Per my comments above on the NHL terms, that is 100 percent true for seven years…
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman yet again addressed this detail repeating what we have heard for years. That was always just rumors…The team is staying in Raleigh…It’s a great NHL market and the league loves it… Etc.
More significant than the latest batch of words are the two things that I discussed this morning. The team is now locked in for seven years per league terms for the deal. That makes for a sizable runway to get the team where it needs to be such that staying in Raleigh is because it makes business sense not because of the stubbornness of the original plan.
Will you invest more in player salaries to try to make the playoffs/win?
Dundon will obviously say that he plans to do what it takes to win. There is no other answer for this question…
Dundon multiple times used the word “impatient” which (see deeper analysis below) could be significant, but I think people make too much of Dundon saying that he wanted to build a winner, win now, etc., etc. At a press conference starting a new era for a team, is there really any other possible answer to this question. Per my comments this morning, the real read on the situation comes possibly at the trade deadline but more so over the summer when we get some kind of indication of budget and willingness to spend a bit to expedite the positive transition that is already in progress.
How active will you be in making changes?
Dundon will likely balance talking about ‘building from the positive foundation’ or similar with talking about the ‘need for change’…
To some degree Dundon lined up here, but I think how aggressively he spoke about making changes, improvements, etc. stood out to me as one of the most significant takeaways from the press conference. His aggressive and forthright tone in this regard suggest that he could aggressively take the controls and that the transition in terms of marketing, business operations and customer experience could be pretty abrupt.
Recap/highlights from the press release
As noted above, the vast majority of what was said during the press conference at least by Tom Dundon followed the expected and really only possible basic script. I said on Twitter during the press conference that I thought it might have benefited from having someone like John Forslund or Chuck Kaiton moderate it to steer it a bit. I am not sure Don Waddell even got a turn to speak. Ron Francis made only a few standard-ish comments. Tom Dundon mostly said what one would expect from him. And then maybe not surprisingly, the other two players, Peter Karmanos and Gary Bettman hi-jacked the show at points and made the message a bit all over the place and disjointed.
On Peter Karmanos
Gary Bettman started the press conference by speaking at some length about Peter Karmanos vision, legacy and contribution to NHL hockey in North Carolina. I think this was appropriate and important. Now with more than 20 years as a member of Peter Karmanos’ hockey family (I think I can claim that from being an original fan of the team), our time together has had its ups and downs. But at the end of the day, I, as a fan, appreciate everything that he has done for Carolina Hurricanes hockey. We have nothing as a fan base if Karmanos does not have his vision for professional hockey in North Carolina. And in the now 20+ years since then, Karmanos has been at the helm of an organization that has brought me as a fan far more joy than negatives.
As with any family with different personalities, twists and turns in life and events along the way, I could nitpick Peter Karmanos for any number of imperfections as an owner just the same as he (if he knew me) could nitpick me for my imperfections as a fan given 20 years of history.
But that is water under the bridge, and it is not the point especially on a day like today.
For both better and for worse, Peter Karmanos is one of us in the Caniac Nation and he has earned his rightful place in the team’s history.
On Gary Bettman’s comments
At the most basic level, I think Gary Bettman takes too much spotlight whenever the slightest opening to do so presents itself. Friday’s press conference was no different. Per my notes above, his comments on Peter Karmanos’ legacy were on point, appropriate and important. But from there, he talked in more detail than necessary about the suddenly legitimately quieted relocation rumors and took every other opening to yammer on about whatever such that the person who most needed to talk, Tom Dundon, had to find his spots in between all of the other side stuff.
Of substance, Bettman maintained his consistency with the ‘the team is not leaving’ mantra, and he did play an important role in crediting Peter Karmanos’ contribution to Carolina Hurricanes hockey.
Peter Karmanos’ last turn
In a good and bad way, Peter Karmanos’ role in the press release was a fitting ending to his time in a spotlight role for the team. As has been the case regularly of late, he was a bit all over the place with his comments going to down memory road, pulling in some memory lane type stuff and firing sort of a last shot alluding to the Alexander Semin contract that seemed to have finally become water under the bridge.
On Tom Dundon’s comments
Finally, getting to the meat of the day’s festivities is Tom Dundon’s comments. Per my pre-press conference spoiler, Dundon’s high-level comments were mostly as predicted. Because people want to and need to lean optimistic right now, I think a little bit too much will be made of Dundon’s comments on wanting to win and other basic ‘duh’ questions that more or less offer a ‘do you want to be good?’ or ‘do you want to be bad?’ choice as far as answers.
Yes. The team wants to win, and yes, he will do what it takes to win. Yes. The team wants to improve its business, fan experience and everything else. For those types of things, the proof is in the results looking out a year or more after the burst of optimism has subsided and the honeymoon period is over.
To be clear, I do not mean to undermine the HUGE importance of the transition point at the most basic level. The old way was not working and was not changing at a pace anywhere close to fast enough to rectify that. So anything new and different at least has the potential to be much, much better. But that is something that must be earned and accomplished; it is not something that is just automatically granted.
But all of that said, Tom Dundon’s comments did provide insight into his personality, general approach to how and where he hopes to make improvements and to some degree what might happen next when the real work begins in earnest.
THE most important point of the day
Words commonly being bandied around right now are words like “transition”, “change”, “improvement” and others that suggest that the ‘new’ Hurricanes will in some way be different from the ‘old’ Hurricanes.
A short five-minute burst could not more clearly have illustrated what I think that might be.
First, in talking about the transition, Peter Karmanos talked about selling more season tickets. The team does need to do that obviously, but Karmanos’ perspective, especially when compared to Dundon’s which followed, was absolutely striking.
Dundon followed by saying (paraphrased slightly), “…The most important thing we need to do is figure out how to give a great fan experience, so fans want to tell their friends and come back.”
Dundon followed later by saying, “If we don’t sell more tickets, it’s not the fan’s fault. It’s our fault.”
He also said, “What we’re doing today is not good enough. …we need to be better than yesterday.”
At first glance, the Karmanos and Dundon are both saying that the team needs more fans in seats. But when you consider what they said based on perspective and focus, the comments are very nearly polar opposites. Karmanos talks about “selling more season tickets” which is internally focused and seems to point at some combination of the sales team and even to some degree the fan base who needs to buy more tickets.
Dundon, on the other hand, comes at the same problem completely from the other side mostly coming at it from the angle of improving and/more creating a more appealing product and focusing on the fans. I think Dundon’s product and customer-centric viewpoint is the focal point and driving force of what needs to happen on the business side to cut from the past and chart a new course forward.
Other quick hitter notes from Dundon’s comments
Hands on approach on the business side — At least initially, I get the impression that Dundon will be quite involved and have a hands on approach. He did not talk about delegating, the team doing stuff or other vague commentary that suggested he would be hands off. It is more impression than specific comments on what specifically he will do, by my interpretation of it is that he will be very involved at least initially.
Mostly hands off on the hockey operations side — All indications on Friday and also prior are that Dundon will mostly leave the detailed management on the hockey operations side to Ron Francis. He did make comments to the effect of adding resources staff (analytics, etc.) in a digital letter to fans posted after the press conference. That seems to suggest that Francis will be left to run the hockey team pretty similarly to how he does now possibly with an infusion of a bit more budget to add resources to help the team.
“Not patient” — If I had to make a list of words that jumped out from the press conference, “not patient” would be near or possibly at the top of the list. Dundon used that terminology more than once. The motherhood and apple pie of ‘we want to win and win soon’ was expected and not in itself newsworthy. But I think the emphaticness and choice of words were at a level above the standard script and therefore more noteworthy. One of the more interesting inter-plays (ranking well below my thoughts above on viewpoint/perspective for improving ticket sales) was Dundon’s mention of “not patient”combined with Karmanos’ thinly-veiled reference to the infamous Alexander Semin contract and the potential pitfalls of being impatient in this business.
I could/might dedicate an entire blog to this patience versus urgency balance as relates to Ron Francis’ tendencies and wheel house as a general manager thus far, what the fan base/community needs and now the new owner who comes from outside professional sports. The short version for now is that I agree with Karmanos that impatience can very much be a double-edged sword in terms of managing a professional sports franchise, especially its roster. Thus far, Francis has leaned way toward patient, methodical, cautious and whatever else fits at one end of the spectrum. Part of this is based purely on the task (rebuilding) in front of him, but I also do feel from watching Francis for more than three years now that there is an element of his natural tendencies at play too. We will need to wait to see how Dundon’s verbal lack of patience manifests itself in day-to-day and long-term management of the team, but perhaps he provides just the right amount of push to spur Francis at the right times. Or alternatively, the two styles could clash. Or…At a minimum, I have this sort of noted on my watch list as things unfold.
“Emotional attachment” — In a very similar vein, Dundon spoke of an “emotional attachment” and talked about being in a bad place when the team lost. At the most basic level, I love the idea of an engaged general manager who cares about the team and its success at a deep level. I would not have it any other way. But similar to the patience versus urgency spectrum, “emotional” is not a word that you want creeping into descriptions of long-term strategy on a regular basis. Dundon is an accomplished entrepreneur and businessman but is brand new in the professional sports owner realm. Businesses, especially startup companies which Dundon has experience with, do have a roller coaster element to them with ups and downs that must be managed in terms of decision-making. But by my estimation (I have the startup experience but obviously not the sports experience at least at an ownership level), the emotional swings of a sports team are much more dramatic and often sudden. So lumped in roughly with the “impatience” thing, seeing if and how Dundon’s engaged ownership manifests itself in his decision-making, strategy creation and management style is worth watching.
A seemingly clear cut ownership-wise? — With Karmanos still owning 39 percent of the team, he is obviously not completely out of the picture. As noted above, he might have completed his last Hurricanes press conference, and he clearly is not the decision-maker anymore, but he does possess a vast amount of experience owning a professional hockey team in Raleigh, North Carolina. The tricky sorting challenge for Dundon is to try to collect the useful part of Karmanos’ experience but at the same time look at the current operations without bias to identify areas for potential improvement. Most notable in how this plays out from the press conference was when Dundon said of Karmanos, “To the extent I want to talk about things, he’s available.” (again paraphrased slightly from notes) It is purely interpretation, but that coupled with no other mention anywhere that I can find about how he and Karmanos will work together suggests a pretty clean cut with Karmanos maybe in the role of an adviser via an occasional phone call or meeting but not part of the day to day process.
Local goodness plus previous badness — Addressing the ‘the team will stay in Raleigh’ required portion of the event was primarily handled in Bettman’s opening comments. Dundon did say later in the press conference, “This is a market that has supported the team and loves sports…This is a winning place…I know we can fix it.” There is a lot to unpack there. On the surface level, it was important that Dundon be complimentary of his new home and fan base. Those comments do not inspire me as much as many simply because they were part of the obvious script, but I do acknowledge that they were necessary and would have been a bit conspicuous if absent. But the final sentence where he used the word “fix” was one of many places where Dundon chucked the current and past status of the team under the bus much more aggressively than I would have expected. Perhaps this is simply his seemingly direct communication style, and/or perhaps it is more commentary on his relationship with Karmanos and the old guard.
Optimistically, I hope to re-listen to the press conference again over the weekend to see if anything else jumps out.
Since much of this is personal interpretation and what jumps out to each individual, I would love to hear the impressions’ and thoughts from others who were able to listen in to the beginning of the next era of Canes hockey at lunchtime time.