By Gregg Drinnan | Kamloops Daily News
At first glance, Doug Soetaert and Bob Tory wouldn’t seem to have much in common.
On one hand, you’ve got Soetaert, the general manager of the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, who always is the picture of sartorial splendiferousness. On the other hand, there’s Tory, the Tri-City Americans’ general manager, who, like some of us, naturally carries the look of the rumpled grandfather, even when wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. (Not that either of us would know that feeling.)
And yet, when you get to know these two men, you come to realize that they have a whole lot in common . . . at least, professionally they do.
When people talk about the 22-team WHL and its flagship franchises, the conversation usually starts with the Calgary Hitmen, Kelowna Rockets and Vancouver Giants. There are others — perhaps the Brandon Wheat Kings, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades and Spokane Chiefs — on the fringes of that conversation.
And yet no one has done it any better than the Americans and Silvertips over the last few seasons.
Tory picked up a dying Tri-City franchise and revived it, turning it into a championship contender in the process. Yes, he has had help, and he’ll be the first to admit that, but it has been his game plan. The fans in the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland have responded, too, and now the Americans are one of the 60-team CHL’s top organizations. They have finished atop the U.S. Division each of the last three seasons, have won at least 47 games each of the last four seasons and are coming off the franchise’s first appearance in the WHL’s championship final.
In Everett, meanwhile, Soetaert entered the WHL as the general manager of the Bill Yuill-owned franchise, Yuill having walked away from the Seattle Thunderbirds in order to purchase an expansion franchise.
All the Silvertips did in that first season (2003-04), with Kevin Constantine as head coach, was finish atop the U.S. Division, at 35-27-8-2, and go on to reach the WHL final, where they were swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers.
To get there, the Silvertips scored a memorable seven-game victory over Marc Habscheid’s Kelowna Rockets.
Talk about setting the bar high! Still, even with expectations unbelievably high since that first season, the Silvertips haven’t disappointed their followers.
But more than their proven ability to put solid teams on the ice, Soetaert and Tory share another trait, one that a good many other hockey people would be wise to adopt.
Soetaert was a stellar goaltender through four seasons with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings and a pro career that included 193 NHL starts over 12 seasons. He won a Stanley Cup with the 1985-86 Montreal Canadiens.
Tory, meanwhile, patrolled the highways and beat the bushes in a search for players for a lot of years before climbing the executive ladder.
They are lifers in this business. And, as a result, they understand that the WHL is only as strong as its weakest link.
Yes, it’s a cliché — but those two men know it’s true.
They understand that the WHL — indeed, any hockey league — is all about what happens on the ice. But both also know it’s more than that. And that’s why you are able to visit the Americans’ website and find a graphic showing the name, age, hometown, etc., of every player on their 50-player list.
What? You don’t believe me? Hey, get on your mouse and get on over to www.amshockey.com/team/prospects/.
It’s why the Americans have people on their email list who aren’t full-fledged members of the traditional media. Tory, as well as anyone in hockey, understands that there are fans out there who thirst for knowledge about their favourite league, team and players. And he understands how important it is to keep the ticket-buying public informed, to build and maintain a relationship if you will.
Soetaert, meanwhile, spent one season (2006-07) as assistant GM with the NHL’s Calgary Flames. He returned to the Silvertips after that season. Since then, he has captivated Everett hockey fans by bringing in an NHL exhibition game — the Phoenix Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lightning played before 7,800 fans in the Comcast Arena on Sept. 22, 2009.
He followed up by getting the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to travel to Everett to play in a six-team preseason tournament in September 2010. From all reports, the Everett fans were thrilled.
“I hope they continue to bring in teams from other leagues,” one fan wrote on the blog Taking Note. “It was awesome to see the Soo come into town. Sort of like a preseason Memorial Cup.”
Another fan wrote: “Makes me wonder why both leagues don’t hold regular-season tournaments? I went to the Beanpot Tournament in Boston a couple of years and the atmosphere was fantastic.”
Soetaert, for his part, isn’t sure what will be on tap come the summer of 2011.
“With our fan base here and how well they jumped on board with us. . . . They want us to do something again next year,” he says. “Whether that happens again, I don’t know.”
He does admit, however, that “sometimes you have to spend money to make money.”
Yes, sometimes you do. And some hockey executives understand the needs of their fans better than others.
Gregg Drinnan is the sports editor of the Kamloops Daily News. You can email him at email@example.com. Visit his blog (Taking Note) at gdrinnan.blogspot.com, and also follow him at twitter.com/gdrinnan.