A look back at the Kentucky Thoroughblades with USA Hockey President Ron DeGregorio
The following is an exclusive interview with Ron DeGregorio, the current president of USA Hockey and a former owner of the Kentucky Thoroughblades, whom were the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the San Jose Sharks from 1996-2001.
What was it about Lexington that made it the destination for the Thoroughblades?
Rupp Arena was a major factor in deciding that Lexington would be a good location for an AHL team. Many Lexington people had not had an opportunity to see a live sporting event at the Rupp. Easy access to the Rupp for basketball games is not always possible. We felt hockey would provide an opportunity for people in Lexington to enjoy what Rupp had to offer on a regular basis. In addition, the original plans for Rupp anticipated a hockey rink. We felt that putting the rink exactly as original plans showed would be wonderful for fans watching hockey. We also felt that Lexington’s demographics and economics made sense for an AHL team.
I read in “Hockey Night in Dixie” that 5,000 people participated in a name-the-team contest. What made the organization choose the Thoroughblades name? Were there any names that made you go “really?”
That number is correct. We had a year to market the team before we were going on the ice. During that period, the ice was being installed and we used that time to market the team with various activities. The name-the-team contest was one of those activities early on. The Thoroughblades name was a natural for Lexington with its rich thoroughbred history. Frankly, when that name appeared, it struck us as a wonderful, strong and fun name to build a hockey team around. One of the names which provided a “really” reaction was Centurions. As I understand, a Centurion is a mythical half horse and half man. However, that name would not have had the same impact or fun as the Thoroughblades name.
I also read in “Hockey Night in Dixie” that 300 people attended the press conference where it was announced the T’Blades would be the AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. How did the affiliation with San Jose come about?
Walter Bush and I had a relationship with George Gund III, one of the owners of the Sharks. The Sharks had made a decision to move from its former location, Kansas City. We had many discussions with then general manager Dean Lombardi and the management team of the Sharks. It seemed it would be a good fit for us and for the Sharks. We liked the Sharks and their hockey operation and they liked us as operators.
The T’Blades played at Rupp Arena, which is home to the Kentucky Wildcats college basketball team. How was Rupp Arena selected and did anyone from the university have any issue with hockey being played there?
The Rupp made sense for an AHL team as we felt the Rupp was consistent with our goal to have a first class experience for our players and fans. We felt that it was important to draw attention to the quality of the players that would be playing. These players were one step away from being a major league player. As it turned out, some of those players in Lexington became premier award winning players in the NHL.
We felt that the Rupp was willing to be partners with us over a long term to allow hockey to be an option for people to experience the Rupp and help the downtown area. We felt if we could maintain a first class organization, we could establish a hockey tradition in Lexington that would compliment the other great sports traditions in Lexington.
When we first came to town, Rick Pitino was the head coach of UK basketball and was supportive. He had been at colleges with hockey teams and knew Jackie Parker, who I knew. He understood that if done right, the ice should not be a problem for the court. We worked with Tom Minter, who was in charge of the Rupp during our first three years. He did an excellent job and was very helpful to the team in making sure the basketball court would be protected. There was never a problem.
Unfortunately, it became apparent after year three that the franchise would be asked by both the Sharks and the Rupp for more money for the affiliation agreement and the expiring lease at the end of year five. The Rupp also provided to UK more revenue rights that precluded our ability to grow revenue except within the context of the original lease agreement. With the change of management at the Rupp and additional needs by the Sharks, we saw the writing on the wall.
2,700 fans purchased season tickets for the inaugural season (1996-97); the season average was 7,608 fans (second in the league) and the team set an AHL attendance record with 17,503 fans for the home opener. How did the organization get so much fan support? That home opener number is only 59 people less than the current capacity of the Shark Tank.
Our business plan was to have one year of marketing before we got on the ice. Our goal was to come out strong and continue the momentum. With minor league franchises, once you lose momentum it can be a slippery slope downward.
We had a great relationship with the newspaper in town. We invested in advertising and they were supportive with others in the community to “Try Out Hockey at the Rupp.” As a result of the relative low cost (compared to larger markets and cities) to connect with fans, we were able to invest in advertising our entry into the market.
The buzz was on for those first two-and-a-half to three years. Each year we planned a “Blow Out” event on opening night. For the five years we were there, opening nights were very good. So, we put a lot in producing and advertising the opening nights as the start of hockey season.
The 1997-98 season, the home attendance average increased to 7,847 fans per game despite the T’Blades finishing 29-39-12. In the T’Blades’ final season (2000-01), the home average dropped to 4,461 fans per game. Why did the attendance drop off even though the T’Blades won two consecutive division championships within those final three years?
As I mentioned above, once you lose momentum, it’s a slippery slope. It became apparent in the press that we would be having difficulty with the cost of our Rupp lease and a new higher affiliation agreement. I was candid about those issues. So, before the final season, I believe there was recognition that the season may well be the final season for the T’Blades. I believe there had already been discussions by the new Rupp management of bringing in an ECHL team that they had determined would be more profitable to the Rupp than the T’Blades. So, the long term “partnership relationship” needed between the Rupp and the T’Blades to grow and cement the T’Blades was no longer as strong as it had been.
In the end, there were many factors that conspired to lose momentum to have hockey become another sport tradition in Lexington. As exciting and exhilarating the first three years were, the final two years saw the momentum reverse and there seemed to be only one answer after discussions failed.
Was the attendance drop a main factor in the T’Blades moving to Cleveland and becoming the Cleveland Barons prior to the 2001-02 season? How did the move from Kentucky to Cleveland come about?
It was indeed one of the factors. At the expense level needed to continue positive momentum, revenues needed to be at or near the level of the first years. So, it was obvious that due to the expenses required to remain in Lexington and with the Sharks, a sale needed to be made. Cleveland made the most sense as the Gund family owned the Cleveland Cavaliers at the time and needed a hockey team to meet certain obligations to basketball season ticket holders in Cleveland.
The Gund family owned the Sharks, who were our affiliate. We had a relationship with management and owners of the Sharks and Cleveland. We knew once a sale was the only solution for our group, the probability of movement was extremely high. For our group, there seemed to be no other solution based on our discussions with the Rupp and the Sharks concerning future lease and affiliation expenses.
I found an archived article online where Kevin Faris said that “hockey did not fail in Lexington, the Kentucky Thoroughblades failed.” Is it fair to say the T’Blades were a failure?
No, I don’t think the T’Blades were a failure. There were many great games, players, fans and memories that are a part of those wonderful five years. Hockey in Lexington became a reality. The excitement and energy in the city produced by the T’Blades was undeniable during the early years. I believe it’s fair to say the T’Blades, Rupp Management, City Leaders and the Sharks couldn’t come up with solutions that would’ve maintained the T’Blades as a growing tradition in the city. The hope was that we could provide a solution to maintain a high quality sports entertainment option at the Rupp.
How would you describe the Lexington hockey fans to someone who wasn’t around during the T’Blades era or to someone who was around but didn’t pay attention to them?
The fans were loud, fun, and wonderful to watch and be with. We did not have the scoreboards with video when we were at the Rupp. We did have fans dancing in the seats and who created entertainment with the help of our mascot Lucky, Walle Gerdts, who produced and directed our game production, and other members of our great staff.
Lexington is a wonderful place for families. It’s a wonderful place for a high quality hockey experience. They’re fans who can appreciate the value of this family sports entertainment option.
I was with Bob Hartley, the Calgary Flames head coach and former head coach of the Hershey Bears, last week. He spoke glowingly about his memories of Lexington and playing the T’Blades at the Rupp. It was “unbelievable” he said during those years. So, the fans were just great and above all else, my regret is that we could not find a solution in year four or five for those great fans.
Current Sharks defensemen Dan Boyle, Scott Hannan and Rob Davison played for the T’Blades as did former Sharks Shawn Burr, Jonathan Cheechoo, Evgeni Nabokov, Vesa Toskala, Ray Whitney, Steve Guolla, Jarrod Skalde, Alex Korolyuk, Mikka Kiprusoff, Mark Smith and Wade Flaherty. Even current Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara played for the T’Blades. Seeing the success those players have had in their professional careers, does it give you a proud fatherly feeling?
Yes, I do feel proud of the T’Blades and those who were part of that group. I was privileged to see some great hockey during those five years and some great players. I really believe the AHL was a great fit for the Rupp and Lexington. For those five years, fans and others were treated to some of the best hockey outside the NHL. I loved being in Lexington and loved the people who were there.
Jim Wiley was the head coach for the T’Blades’ first two seasons and then Roy Sommer became the head coach prior to the 1998-99 season. How was Coach Sommer, who was the only Barons head coach and has been the only Worcester Sharks head coach, selected and what would you say to those who’ve felt for the last few seasons that its time Worcester had a new head coach?
I cannot answer that. San Jose under our agreement handled the staff, players and made all decisions on personnel. But, I know Coach Sommer is among the best development coaches in hockey. When we were together, I was impressed with his attention to detail and commitment in developing his players. San Jose is very fortunate to have someone like him to nurture young players for the major league.
Hockey returned to Lexington for the 2002-03 season in the form of the ECHL Lexington Men O’War, who lasted one season at Rupp Arena (2,368 fan average) and were revived for the 2005-06 season as the present day Utah Grizzlies. Do you think Lexington today could support a pro hockey team in either the SPHL, ECHL or AHL?
Yes, I think with the right situation, hockey can be revived in Lexington. I think the hockey group that brings hockey must be a first class LOCAL group. The group must have the support of Lexington City leaders and Rupp management. It will take time to build a tradition of hockey there. But, this time there needs to be stronger, longer term ties with the City and Rupp leaders with the ownership group for a tradition to endure. So, with local ownership with substance and a right situation, hockey could provide another sports entertainment option for Lexington families and fans. It’s a great city with great people.
Why was Evgeni Nabokov called “John”? I even found a hockey card on eBay that lists him as John.
Haha, I don’t know but I do remember at one point calling him Evgeni and he said, “Mr. D, just call me John.” So, I think he decided to be called John when he was in Lexington but you would need to confirm that with him.
What did you think when seeing the photo of Backstreet Boys member Kevin Richardson sporting a T’Blades jersey?
I recall the many different groups and events Walle Gerdts and other staff members orchestrated as part of a T’Blades game production. The Backstreet Boys were one of the attractions and the excitement for them at the game was enormous. But Walle and her staff knew we had 40 events to put on each year and at every event there would be a hockey game.
What would you like hockey fans to remember most about the T’Blades?
I hope they remember the fun and entertainment they had at each game. I hope they feel good they were able to see some “first class” hockey with so many players that have become premier major league players in the NHL. I hope they remember how much our great staff did to please the fans: from the best of mascots, Lucky, to the game night crew under the leadership of the incomparable Walle Gerdts, producer and director extraordinaire, to the high performance players who loved Lexington and its people. It was a magical time both with triumphs and tragedies but I hope the fans remember the fun that was the Thoroughblades.
Posted on March 28, 2014, in Sports and tagged AHL, American Hockey League, hockey, Kentucky, Kentucky Thoroughblades, Lexington, NHL, Rupp Arena, San Jose, San Jose Sharks, Sharks, T'Blades, Thoroughblades, Worcester Sharks. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.