Owners of professional sports teams are like holiday toys. It’s easy to tell the good from the bad. A good toy stretches a child’s imagination and doesn’t include materials that might cause little Johnny to slip into a lead poison-induced coma should he accidentally eat it. A good owner hires competent people to run the operation and disappears into the shadows of a club suite.
Someone taught Charles Davenport well.
Here’s guessing it wasn’t Daniel Snyder.
The Wranglers aren’t skating toward their first championship by accident. They aren’t favored to be the ECHL team that will eventually lift the Kelly Cup due to some inexplicable phenomenon. They’re not the best local franchise solely because of a fancy arena and tasty polish dogs.
This latest remarkable run — a league-record winning streak that stretched to 17 following a 3-2 playoff series-clinching win against Phoenix on Saturday night — is the result of years of preparation before a puck was ever dropped. Davenport is the San Diego businessman who did more homework about Las Vegas and its unpredictable history of wannabe sports franchises than a graduate student studying for final exams.
The city always has been like that Motel 6 commercial when it comes to welcoming any team with more than one set of uniforms and dreams of establishing residency. The lights always have been kept on, but few have had the stability and common sense to survive those first difficult nights. The Wranglers did four years ago, which is why they have stuck and succeeded.
It’s a popular rule of business, the idea that whoever is in charge micromanages everyone else. It’s also a really bad way to run a sports franchise, where control freaks are rightfully detested more than personal seat licenses.
“Find good people and let them do their jobs,” said Davenport. “I don’t want to give them an excuse to fail. I’d rather them succeed and fail on their own merits and at the end of the day, look in the mirror and know that it worked or didn’t work.”
Billy Johnson is the team president who likes the reflection right now. So does coach Glen Gulutzan. So does a team that might lack the experience and overall skill of last season’s club, but substitutes for both with an unrivaled resiliency not to fail.
These people just know how to run things. They charge the highest ticket prices in the league and don’t apologize for it. They play defensive hockey and don’t waver from it. They don’t blow many opponents out, but always seem to give themselves a chance to win. They never have adopted or accepted a gimmick label usually assigned minor league teams. They went out, hired an excellent coach, assembled a bunch of good players and trusted the product would stand on its own. Has it ever this season.
It’s not of the same world as the Lakers winning 33 straight. But any time you win 17 in a row in anything at the professional level and include in that run a 4-0 sweep to open the playoffs, it’s a notable achievement.
In their two previous postseason appearances, the Wranglers lost to the league’s eventual champion. Maybe that will help this time. Maybe it won’t. Maybe that idea about having to lose before you can learn how to win is a bunch of nonsense, and it’s better just to have the best team. Yeah, that last part sounds about right.
“You know,” said Gulutzan, “I think the mood is a little lighter than it was a year ago at this time. That’s not to say the boys want to win any more than last year’s team, but there doesn’t appear to be that feeling of pressure in the air. You can’t get into the heads of the other team, but I do think (the streak) gives our guys a little extra confidence.”
They get some rest now, both players from the ice and fans from cheering as they did wildly at the Orleans Arena on Saturday. In a league that re-seeds its bracket following the first round of the playoffs, the Wranglers still are unsure of which opponent is next. But if how a franchise is run from the top has anything to do with determining the team’s immediate fate, that Kelly Cup is at least within visual distance.
“(Davenport) trusts his people,” said Johnson. “It’s a quality you find throughout the entire organization. It’s no accident we’ve been able to win so much.”
From the shadows comes a bright and refreshing approach.
Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS