Griffins NHL Have Outstanding Business Relationship

June 14, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Ottawa Senators President and CEO Roy Mlakar has been pleased with his club’s affiliation with the Grand Rapids Griffins, a business relationship that began two years ago, was extended last year, and enters its third and final season this year.

“It’s a fine line that you have to be able to walk, between player development and winning, and we’ve been able to do both in Grand Rapids. Therefore, the relationship has been outstanding,” said Mlakar, who also calls the shots at the Corel Centre, the home of the Senators.

Now in his fourth decade in the hockey management business, Mlakar began his career in 1970 by promoting the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League. He spent 17 years in the AHL, winning the league’s top executive award in 1983. Mlakar also ran the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League before taking over the Senators’ business reins in May 1998.

One of his first actions as the Senators president was to suspend the AHL franchise that Ottawa owned and operated at Prince Edward Island. Not only did shutting down PEI bring the Senators here, the move also allowed Mlakar to develop a business attitude that he and Griffins majority owner Dan DeVos share.

“You have to let people in the market who have a stake in the business run the business, and for Ottawa to try to run a business in Prince Edward Island was, in my opinion, ludicrous,” explained Mlakar, who plans to be here for the NHL Showcase game at Van Andel Arena on Sept. 16. “We still own a franchise in the American Hockey League, but we chose to work with Grand Rapids.”

Published reports, both here and in Detroit, have hinted that next season the Griffins may align with the Red Wings, another NHL club that owns a suspended AHL franchise, and end their relationship with Ottawa, which has provided the local club with its two best seasons. Mlakar said he understood the marketing appeal that the Red Wings have to the Griffins, and he felt that the local franchise had to look into that possible alliance.

“I don’t have a problem with that. We both have an option on the current agreement. So if they decide they want to go in a different direction, then we would respect that,” he said. “That’s business.”

Mlakar added, however, that he would like to see the agreement with the Griffins extended for another season, as he said Ottawa wasn’t planning to either revive or sell its suspended AHL franchise anytime soon. But if the Griffins do affiliate with Detroit next season, it won’t be because local management wasn’t happy with its alliance with Ottawa.

“When we signed a deal with Ottawa two years ago, it turned everything around for us,” Griffins GM Bob McNamara told the Ottawa Citizen recently. “I couldn’t think of a better arrangement.”

As for the demise of the International Hockey League, Mlakar felt the “I” spent its way out of existence. He said former Commissioner Bob Ufer was wrong to steer the IHL from its role of developing players for the NHL to competing for customers with the NHL.

But Mlakar also credited Doug Moss, who followed Ufer as the IHL’s last and likely final commissioner, with trying to get the league and the minor pro hockey industry back on its business feet. He said Moss had the right idea when he attempted to create a working relationship with the AHL.

“Doug Moss had the vision to bring it together, which made sense. He probably gets far too little credit for that,” said Mlakar. “But Doug did an outstanding job with that league. That is one of the reasons we went to that league.”

Mlakar said the top tier of the minor pro business is better off going solo with the 27 franchises of the AHL, instead of having two competing leagues. Now that the game will be played under the same rules and all the franchises will have NHL affiliations, he said the business mission has been made singular and clearer.

Still, AHL President and CEO David Andrews has his work cut out for him in trying to get all the league’s clubs on the same financial playing field. In one respect, the “A” mirrors the NHL in that it, too, has haves and have-nots, and, like NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Andrews needs to narrow a growing fiscal gap between the wealthier franchises and the poorer ones.

In June, Andrews told the Business Journal that he will attempt to accomplish part of that by cutting costs, the largest of which comes from the league’s association with the NHL.

“That business relationship is definitely the single largest expense that we have; it’s our player-supply expense. That is an area that we really need to take a look at, and do a better job of negotiating these agreements with the NHL teams that we work with,” said Andrews.

Mlakar said he didn’t feel threatened by those words. Even though there is only one top tier developmental league now, he remarked that the NHL has other options should the AHL try to become too expensive for league owners.

In fact, Mlakar was sure that Andrews wasn’t looking to do battle with the NHL over that expense. Rather, he felt Andrews was simply looking out for his 27 owners.

“I think he is trying to make sure that his franchises are healthy,” he said, “make sure that they have good relationships, and make sure that the rich and the poor are on equal ground.”

Next week: Mlakar talks about running the Senators, a Canadian passion.

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