It’s no secret the players are what sell the game and draw in the fans. They are compensated handsomely, as they should be, yet despite NHL organizations spending upwards of $75 million on player payroll, it’s only one part of a much larger business operation that’s at work behind the scenes.
According to Forbes’ 2018 data, player salaries make up, on average, 55 percent of an NHL organization’s expenses, and for some it’s less than half. Outside of the hockey operations, teams have other departments to run the rest of the organization, including communications, marketing, customer service, community relations, finance, game presentation and ticket sales.
Although those who work on the non-hockey operations side rarely get recognition from the media, they definitely do from the executive level. Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle gave out 150 Stanley Cup rings to full-time employees after the franchise’s 2017 title, while Capitals owner Ted Leonsis provided 500 employees with Cup rings in 2018.
Here are a few of the hidden sides of an NHL organization that keep each team running on a daily basis:
Managing the media is the most visible part of the job for communications reps. On game days, they come to the rink before 9 a.m. and often don’t leave until close to midnight. It starts with putting together daily press clippings, game notes and stats packages that get distributed to the press box. With more media-access points throughout the day – pre- and post-morning skate, pre-game, game, post-game – there is less time to spend in the office and more required to manage the dozens (or hundreds, in the case of large markets) of media members who work games. “Doing our best to understand all the different types of new media that there are today, and social media in particular, only makes our department that much better,” said Jeff Moeller, the Los Angeles Kings’ senior director of communications and heritage. “We do our best to put ourselves in the shoes of each media member we work with. We try and figure out how we can make it work.”
And that’s just 82 days a year. The other 283 require nearly as much work. Even an off-day has practice and media availability. On those rare occasions when there’s neither practice nor a game, it’s a great time to catch up on paperwork.
The workload and strategy of a media department varies depending on a number of factors, including the market, time of year and position of the team. A franchise like Toronto or Montreal will spend much of the year weathering a tidal wave of media requests, while public-relations employees in Carolina or Florida will work on creative ways to get their team into the local or national eye.
While most attention is focused on the stars, teams often like to push the lesser-known players into the spotlight. “Sometimes the best stories are the ones that nobody initially knows about,” Moeller said. “Due to the amount of time we spend with our group, it gives us a good opportunity to learn a lot about them as people.”
The department works closely with all members from hockey operations. During the season, contact is mostly with the players and coaches, but in the off-season it’s skewed toward the front office. More often than not, they’re keeping players and staff updated on news around the league while absorbing daily information from the players and executives to disseminate to the media. “News never sleeps,” Moeller said. “It is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, especially in the digital age.
“The job is certainly not typical. Look at the team’s schedule and you will see so many nights, weekends and holiday work with an incredible amount of travel. It is a 12-month job. Anything, good or bad, can happen at any moment and your ability to communicate effectively is imperative.”
For most organizations, the travel planning begins the day the season’s schedule is released in the summer. The team-services department meets with the GM, his assistants, the coaching staff, trainers and equipment managers to determine a travel strategy. If you’re Dallas and you’re playing in Los Angeles on Tuesday and Vegas on Friday, do you come home between? Do you stay an extra day in either city? Do you go elsewhere for a team-building trip?
Many organizations use an app such as Teamworks, which is loaded onto the phones of every member of the team. Naturally, each trip is subject to change, and the app, currently used by 10 NHL teams (as well as hundreds of professional and college teams in North America), allows management to update the schedule at any time and send push notifications to inform the players. Before each month of the season, the team’s schedule must be sent to the league office to ensure compliance with the collective bargaining agreement.
Some small-market clubs, such as Carolina, combine the communications and team-services departments. Although most teams separate the two, Mike Sundheim, the Hurricanes’ vice-president of communications and team services, feels it’s part of what makes the organization run so smoothly. Other clubs have a dedicated administrator who stays in the home city all season. But Sundheim travels with the team, allowing him to always be by the players’ sides when they need something. “It makes sense for us,” he said. “It may not work in New York, Chicago or Toronto, but it works for us.”
By working with the players for media availability, team personnel learn more about each one of them. This allows them to better provide for every player off the ice, whether that means a preferred pre-game meal, a favor for their family or something else. When Sundheim goes the extra mile for the players, they’re more amenable when he requests their presence at team-sponsored events. “Most people don’t know that we help our players get tickets to Hamilton, to a Duke basketball game,” Sundheim said. “We do as much as we can.”
The team-services department also is responsible for getting newcomers acclimated to the organization. The department reaches out to the player to help get him and his family to the city quickly. They discuss housing options, realtors, hotels and any other information they may need to feel comfortable as possible. The process helps introduce newcomers to the organization while giving the team’s staff the ability to learn about the new face in the dressing room.
While many fans are familiar with their team’s charity or foundation, most clubs also have a community-relations department. The programs each organization offers vary, but generally teams go into their local communities to raise awareness of the club, while providing a service to schools and underprivileged or special-needs children.
The Flyers are known for their extensive work in the Greater Philadelphia area. Former player and current team ambassador Bob Kelly hosts school assemblies, in which he and the community-relations staff go to schools to speak with students in Grades 1-5. The program focuses on the importance of teamwork to achieve success. The organization also runs its Face-Off for Fitness program, in which staff teach students the importance of a healthy lifestyle through nutrition, physical activity and behavioral choices.
Calgary is another team that has a presence in local schools. Through the Flames’ Reading…Give It a Shot program, they encourage students to read by sending players and staff members to schools. They read books to students, get interviewed by students and provide motivation for kids to pick up a book and further their education. “It’s very important here,” said Scott Boyd, the Flames’ coordinator of community relations. “You can go as far as saying that it fits a need. When players come to the team, they see this right away. The new guys that have come in this year, they see what (Mark) Giordano, (Travis) Hamonic and all the veterans are doing, and it goes a long way.”
Most organizations conduct similar activities within their city. In Columbus, the Blue Jackets host Hockey in the Classroom, a collection of programs that include literary advocacy, teaching science, technology, engineering and math using hockey examples. They also have their Student Achievers program, which gives two tickets to a home game for any student who earns straight A’s or improves by a full letter grade.
Hockey operations rule a large chunk of each team’s budget, but the department is just one part of a larger framework. Sure, the players, coaches and managers make up the sexiest part of the team, but hundreds of staff work doggedly throughout the season to keep the back end running smoothly – so that the stars can shine on center stage.