Thursday, July 14, 2011

Predators Skate of the Union Recap

The Nashville Predators held their 4th annual Skate of the Union last night at the Bridgestone Arena. In addition to unveiling the team's new sweater, fans were updated about what was going on in the world of the Predators during this off season.

Skate of the Union panelists, from left, Sean Henry, Chief Operating Officer; Head Coach Barry Trotz; Chairman of the ownership group and NHL Governor Tom Cigarran; Jeff Cogen, President; General Manager David Poile; and Play by Play announcer Pete Weber, the moderator for the evening.

The SOTU this year did not have any big surprises as far as player developments (you may remember that it was at last year's SOTU that Shea Weber was introduced as Captain), but there was some good information that was shared by the panelists about the team as well as the off ice operation. Here is a summary of the pertinent remarks from our participants.

Tom Cigarran

The goal of the organization is to have the number one hockey club in the NHL and the number one entertainment venue in the United States. He said that the ownership group is committed to continuing to invest in the hockey club and in hockey operations. He stated that the senior debt of the ownership group had been re-financed with Region's Bank. The ownership group is seeking to raise another $20-25 million in equity, presumably from other investors, and that all of those proceeds will be used to pay down the debt. He spoke to the potential of adding Brett Wilson, who hails from Calgary and is a personal friend and co-investor with David Freeman in other investments, as part of the ownership group. Cigarran said that the ownership group is "inching toward the goal line" and slowly making progress toward bringing him in as an investor.
Comment: Wilson was originally indicated to be purchasing 5% of the Predators. There was no mention as to whether that is still the ownership interest that Wilson will have. The fact that the debt has been refinanced is strongly positive. Interest rates are at an all time low, which is favorable to the team's cash flow, and this adds the positive element of stability with the ownership group. If the owners can raise another $20-25 million and use it to pay down debt, the positive benefits will be significant. As Cigarran said in his comments, this saves a lot of interest. Hypothetically, removing $20 million of debt that carries a 6% interest rate frees up $1.2 million per year in interest payments. Those proceeds can be used in other areas of the organization, presumably (hopefully) for player salaries.

Jeff Cogen

Cogen has arguably been one of the most valuable additions to the Predators organization in their history. Cogen is a salesman extraordinaire, and his remarks focused on growing the Predators brand. The organization is focusing on attracting more sponsors and activating the team's partnership with those partners. What the organization is attempting to do is make the sponsorships worthwhile for for the businesses that support the team. They are working to build strong relationships with those sponsors, and he cited the promotion with Pepsi as an example. Last season, purchasers of a Pepsi product that had a picture of Shea Weber could bring the can to the ticket office and receive discounted tickets. What the organization is doing is attempting to make the sponsorship relationship good for both sides.

Cogen mentioned that there were 16 regular season sellouts last year, and the goal this year is for 25. Marketing to the Nashville community will continue to focus on attracting the new fans and hooking them on the experience of a Predator game and getting them to buy ticket packages. The team is also aggressively marketing to the displaced Atlanta fans, one of which was in attendance last night and experienced a "conversion" to the Predator nation. He mentioned that within 48 hours of the announcement of the Thrashers being re-located, the ticket sales staff had put together a package to bring Atlanta fans to Nashville and were aggressively marketing those packages. The team has hired ticket sales reps in the Atlanta area to push these packages.

The relationship with Fox Sports South continues to grow. Five additional games will be broadcast by Fox this upcoming season. Cogen called these broadcasts "fan factories" as they can easily introduce the casual fan to the experience of hockey and the Predators.

Cogen also mentioned that the City of Nashville, lead by Mayor Karl Dean, is aggressively pushing to host an NHL All Star game. Cogen said that on a trip with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Dean told told the commissioner that Nashville WOULD host an All Star game, and that it needed to be scheduled.

Comment: Cogen is a consummate salesman- the man could sell ice to Eskimos. He is always thinking about how to sell the Predators, from the on-ice product to the fan experience to the relationship with sponsors. His ability to establish significant corporate relationships and make it a win for both sides is something that the organization needed to refine, and he has done a very good job of doing that. Cogen exudes confidence in his ability to make the Predators successful, and he has turned the organization into a selling machine, and this has been much needed.

Sean Henry

Henry is the man that manages the operational side of the front office, and he is focused on the maximization of the revenue that the organization and the venue generate. Henry said that season ticket renewals were running at the highest rate in the history of the organization at 92.4%. His stated goal is to take the passion in the stands and engage it in all aspects of the organization, from the players on the ice to the experience in the arena with concessions, vendors and staff. The focus on customer service and the fan experience means that the team is constantly evaluating and seeking to improve what the fan experiences from the minute they step into the arena.

There are arena improvements that are in the offing, some that will be major, and Henry said that the Predators are funding all of the improvements. The convention center that is being constructed behind the arena changes the entire dynamic of the arena, and, as Cogen said earlier, the back door of the arena will soon become the front door. The organization is preparing for that and will make improvements that will be noticeable.

Comment: The focus of Henry and Cogen on the fan experience is refreshing and vital. Entertainment dollars are limited, and they have a keen understanding of the need to make a solid first impression, to make the Predators game an "experience" for the fan. This will attract new fans and help to retain existing fans. The fact that the team is seeing a record renewal rate for season tickets in a tough economic environment makes a statement as to the success of their effort.

David Poile

Poile spoke to the status of getting Shea Weber signed, and stated that he was hopeful to get this done soon. He said that Shea likes it here and more importantly, wants to be here. He spoke about the departing players and said that while they had been valuable contributors, last year the decision was made to turn the keys to the team over to the younger guys, because it was the believed that these were the players that would lead us to the Cup. He mentioned the youth of key members of the core group of players and how their maturity should translate into improved on-ice production (thanks, David, for reading my earlier blog post about this). He mentioned that the organization had great confidence in these young players and was looking for significant improvement out of them. He said that there were some players that looked to be ready to make the jump to the parent club, and specifically mentioned Ryan Ellis. He said that Ellis was going to be a special player.   

As is tradition, he fielded a question about Alexander Radulov, and this time, gave a surprising answer. He said that Rads looked to be close to coming back to the team, possibly next season.

Comment: Although there has been some disappointment that the team has not done more in free agency, there will still be some moves to come, in my opinion. Poile is masterful at picking his spots and getting players that can be contributors at the right price. I think he will make some additions to the line up before the season starts. Don't undersell the addition of Bergfors, who has the potential to be a solid contributor. Operating with the need to spend big money to sign Weber, and to sign Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne at the end of next season, Poile was prudent and right not to participate in a big way in this year's free agent frenzy.

Barry Trotz

Barry received a standing ovation from the fans at his introduction, and rightfully so. He has done a masterful job of developing the talent he has been given and getting good production out of them. He said that the organization looks to develop their talent as players and as people, and this ethic will not change. He spoke about several specific players, and said that Francis Buillon is making progress from the concussion he suffered and looked to be on track to return at the start of the season. he mentioned that Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Gabriel Bourque, and Craig Smith all had the potential to make the club next year. He specifically mentioned that Smith, who has said he will return to Wisconsin for another year of college hockey, has been spoken to and it was "suggested" that he consider the possibility of staying in Nashville.

Trotz was asked about improving the power play. His comment was that the team needed to shoot the puck more. He said, "You don't think I'm not listening when you guys yell 'shoot' when we are on the power play, but I hear you." He said it is something that they will continue to work on, but that the power play cannot run just through Weber alone. And they will shoot the puck more.

Comment: Trotz will have another young team this season, but a team that has a year of experience under their belt. I have full confidence in his ability to get the most out the roster. The young players are the wild card, as some have shown that they have tremendous potential. It is a transition year for Trotz and his staff, as Lane Lambert steps in for Brent Peterson behind the bench. I expect this transition to be seamless.

Although there wasn't a splashy free agent announcement, the sense I got out of this meeting was one that was positive, both on the ice and especially off the ice. The organization is moving in the right direction and has made numerous positive strides financially and especially in growing the corporate and individual fan base. There are on ice questions, but I have confidence in the coaching staff to resolve those questions and put a good team on the ice.

A special thank you goes out to Chris Parker and the Predators organization. I was fortunate to be invited in for an early preview of the uniform along with several other Predator bloggers. The organization has made a great effort to reach out to the blogging community and involve us, and this is appreciated. The organization deserves a stick tap for recognizing the role of the non-traditional media in covering the team.

Ryan Suter, left, and Blake Geoffrion modeling the new sweaters

Ben Ben expresses his sentiments after the SOTU

Is everything perfect in Predland? No. We still have some unanswered questions on the ice and all of us would like to see more offensive firepower.

After last night, however, I think it is safe to say that the Skate of the Union in Predland is solid.

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