Scott Howson has some business to take care of before his focus can shift to his new post.
Unanimously elected to become the next president and CEO of the AHL, Howson is preparing to take the reins from David Andrews, who has spent the past 26 years in the position. But for the next two months, most of the 59-year-old’s attention won’t be on what’s coming next and instead what’s in front of him: the trade deadline, a post-season push and a bit of off-season preparation for the Edmonton Oilers, for whom Howson is director of player development.
“It's really 95 percent Oilers right now,” Howson told The Hockey News days after he was announced as Andrews’ successor.
As of April 15, however, Howson will be able to close one chapter and prepare to begin another in his new role as the AHL equivalent of Gary Bettman. Though he’s not officially stepping into the gig as league president until July 1, Howson intends to be Andrews’ shadow come May and learn the ropes throughout the AHL post-season. Howson will be present and experience the league’s spring meetings, get to know everyone on the staff and experience the inner-workings of North America’s top development league. He is quick to add, though, that he’s going to be able lean on Andrews, who Howson has known for nearly 30 years, beyond the first few months on the job.
“(Andrews) is going to be there for three years afterwards on a consulting agreement,” Howson said. “So, he's going to be a phone call or a text or an email away. He's done this for almost 26 years and there's not a lot he won't have seen, so he's going to be a huge resource. It's very comforting for me to have him there to help me through some of the things I haven't seen yet.”
As Howson prepares for the next step in his career, the current Oilers front-office member, former Columbus Blue Jackets GM and one-time AHL GM spoke with The Hockey News about pursuing the opportunity, challenges ahead, the AHL’s responsibility and not getting another chance to run an NHL club:
The Hockey News: You've said previously you had your eye on the job knowing David was going to be leaving. But how do you go from having an eye on the position to actually landing the job as president of the American Hockey League?
Scott Howson: Well, it was a very extensive process. Dave talked about leaving for the past three or four years. He never said he was going to leave, but he had talked about it, and then he kept going year by year. Last May, he announced this was going to be his last year, so I knew there was going to be a process involved.
I talked to Dave before the summer and said, 'What's the process going to be?' He told me, 'Nothing is going to happen over the summer. We're going to send out an email, widely distributed, and it's going to invite applications for the job.' That went out Oct. 1, I applied, along with quite a few other people I'm told, and then they narrowed it down, asked for a written submission on some questions and then did an interview in early December. I think they interviewed seven people, then narrowed it down to two or three, the final interviews were in January and I had a third interview – I was the only one that got the third interview – in early February. Then they offered me the job.
THN: At any point throughout the process, did you question whether this was a step you wanted to take?
SH: I can't say I had many doubts about if this was a step I wanted to take. I had doubts about whether I was going to get the job. (Laughs.) It was an extensive process and I should also point out that in the final interview they asked for a case study, so they gave us six issues to deal with and that was the second interview. They were difficult questions. Very difficult questions. I put a lot of work into it.
So, no, I didn't have the doubts throughout the process about wanting to take the step. It was whether I was going to achieve it. It was very competitive. There were a lot of good people involved and a lot of qualified people trying to get the job. I'm just fortunate I was the last one standing.
THN: You said six issues. Can you give readers any insight into what the issues were?
SH: They were all business oriented. What they decided was they were comfortable with the last candidates' hockey (knowledge), so they wanted to make sure they had a grasp of the business issues. So they centered around enhancing the AHL brand, generating revenue from sponsorship, what we're going to do with broadcasting, digital content platforms, social media platforms. They were all directed at the business of the American Hockey League.
THN: Is it difficult to think in those terms given your experience is primarily in hockey roles as opposed to business roles?
SH: I found these issues challenging. I think they're challenging even if you've worked there for the past 20 years like Dave has. Trying to grow revenues from sponsorship is an ongoing issue. I think he's done a fantastic issue with the brand. The brand has a prominent place in the hockey world. We know what we are: we're the development league of the National Hockey League. We develop coaches, players, referees, executives and we're very comfortable in that role. But I talked to a lot of people, some people that work in the NHL, some people that work in the AHL, and I put together a presentation.
THN: What is it that you've learned about the AHL from your time around the league and time in the NHL that makes you feel best prepared for this next step?
SH: I’ve got lots of experience in the AHL. I managed an AHL team at the beginning of my career in two different locations on behalf of an NHL club, the Oilers, in Cape Breton and Hamilton. And then when I was manager in Columbus, we were affiliated with two different teams in two different locations, so we didn't own the team like we did in Edmonton. This was strict affiliation, and that was in Springfield and Syracuse. So, I've seen what's important from both sides.
When Seattle comes in with Palm Springs, we're going to have 20 teams that are owned by NHL clubs, and their interests can sometimes differ from what the independent owner wants. (The independent owner) is more business directed and the NHL owners are usually more focused on whether the hockey is good, the development is good, are we doing enough for our kids. You have got to balance those interests, so I think I've got good experience. I've run a business in the AHL, I've seen what's important to the independent owners, and I've been attending meetings.
The Oilers, (former Edmonton GM) Peter Chiarelli and (Oilers CEO) Bob Nicholson, were gracious enough over the past three or four years, I said, 'Hey, look, I may want to do this job. Can I attend some of the meetings and reconnect with some of the people?' And that's what I did and they said, 'Go for it.' So I've seen what goes on at the Board level the past three or four years, I know most of the people and yet I still know that until you get inside the walls, there's a ton I'm going to learn. I'm going to know a lot more about this job if I talk to you a year from now than I do now.
THN: You mentioned striking the balance between developing the AHL as a league, making sure it's competitive, high-quality hockey, and making it a good development space for the NHL. How difficult is that balance to strike?
SH: I don't see it as being difficult. The AHL has a history of trying out new rules and we're certainly open to that, but you've got to take care of your own product first. We've got to make sure our product is competitive, fair and safe. Those are the three things that I really will emphasize, and I think it is all those things right now. We have to make sure it stays that way.
Sometimes the interests differ and certainly you don't want to get too crazy with trying things, but that's where you have a close relationship with the NHL, you work together and find solutions. If they want us to try some things, we're open to discussing it.
THN: Some fans will probably recognize you most from your time with the Blue Jackets. You didn't get another shot to be a GM in the NHL after your time in Columbus. Is that something you wish you would have had?
SH: I interviewed for two GM positions that I didn't get after I was let go in Columbus, but I'm a thinking forward guy. I've moved forward. Certainly, you'd like another crack at it. I would have liked another crack at it. But that didn't come. That's just the way it works. I got focused on this job last May, went hard at this job and put everything into trying to get this job. I was fortunate enough to get it and I'm really looking forward to it. It's a great position, a great league, it's great people and it's a really exciting position for me to tackle.
THN: When you look at the league, what challenges stick out as things you'll need to address?
SH: There’s a lot of talk about the unbalanced schedule, and that's an issue that I'd like to find out where all the parties stand on it. That's something that stands out. And the overall health of the league. The league is generally very healthy, and when you have the ownership that we have, both independent owners and NHL owners, you've got strong, strong ownership. There is always going to be two, three, four, five franchises in any league that struggle and you've got to see what you can do to help those. Those would be the challenges I see right now.
THN: How important is it to have the team balance between the AHL and NHL, 32 teams in each league?
SH: It’s crucial from an NHL perspective. The Oilers at one point suspended their team and couldn't find a place to put it and we had to share teams, and I think when the financial landscape of the NHL changed and the salary cap was brought in, everyone realized how important development is. You've got to have young players who are ready to play and come play at a cost-efficient level. I don't see any other way. You've got to have your own team, and it's important that if there's 32 NHL teams, we have to have 32 AHL teams.
THN: If we look ahead to the next five or 10 years, what do you hope to accomplish or what mark do you hope to make on the AHL?
SH: The league is in a great place right now. It's got a strong foundation and Dave has done a tremendous job, but it's time to seek new opportunities, try some new ideas and generally grow the league and make sure the brand stays strong. There are probably more things we can do to enhance the brand and hopefully drive more revenue for the teams and keep the product great. We've got a great product, we're important in the communities we're in, provide affordable entertainment and I want to expand on all of those things and make sure the league stays really healthy and really relevant.
Want more in-depth features and analysis? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.