Winning championships is what resonates most for Bruce Hamilton from his long-time involvement with the Kelowna Rockets.
Hamilton was responding to a question from the audience about his favourite hockey memory, part of his presentation as keynote speaker at the Urban Development Institute in Kelowna on Thursday.
The co-owner, president and general manager of the Kelowna Rockets, says winning the 2003-04 Memorial Cup as the tournament host team and Team Canada winning the world junior hockey tournament gold medal in 2015 stand out as personal highlights.
“The Memorial Cup was special because we won it here and I was a manager for that Team Canada team and helped put it together,” Hamilton said.
“When you win a championship, nobody can ever take that away from you.”
Hamilton was invited to speak about lessons in leadership he has learned in his hockey business journey.
In his 22-year venture with the Kelowna Rockets, starting when the team began in Tacoma, Wash., in 1991 before moving to the Okanagan in 1995, Hamilton noted the team’s success on and off the ice can be traced to a desire to compete which resonates through the organization. From there the GM said another key was hiring quality people to carry out the vision for the team.
“You develop a plan and follow it,” Hamilton explained. “You hire people and entrust them to make decisions and you live with those decisions. Change is good as you move along but change is best in small doses so you stay consistent with your beliefs.”
From a competitive standpoint, Hamilton said his expectations for his team each year “are very high but you would expect that running any kind of business.”
He admitted to setting old ideal standards for his players without exception—being clean cut, clean shaven and dressed properly.
“We want our players to have the waist of their pants pulled up appropriately and not hanging around their knees,” he said.
That discipline, which Hamilton traces back to his Saskatchewan upbringing, feeds into his team’s philosophy.
He compares it to a baseball analogy where “the Yankees expect to win every year, the Mets hope to win.”
Hamilton touched on several other issues during his UDI luncheon presentation:
Hamilton feels hockey academies have altered the development objectives of elite players in minor hockey and imposed a sense of entitlement to players and their parents.
He says parents enrolling their kids in hockey academies comes with a high financial cost and also lends the belief their child has NHL potential.
Related: Angry parent chides BC/Hockey Canada
“The reality is only two to three per cent of players in junior hockey actually reach the NHL,” Hamilton said. “But players come out of those systems with the expectation they will be on the team rather than trying to make the team.”
He said at the minor hockey bantam level, where players are scouted by junior hockey teams, a team might have five quality players who in turn help raise the level of the other 15 players on the team.
“But if you take those elite five players and enroll them in a hockey academy program, the other 15 don’t improve like they might otherwise.”
While the hockey academies are a great business model, Hamilton said the impact they have on minor hockey for developing elite players for the Hockey Canada program needs to be addressed.
“That is something (Hockey Canada president) Tom Renney needs to address quickly, the ability of minor hockey to develop elite players for high performance.”
NHL skips Olympics
Hamilton called the NHL’s decision to skip the Winter Olympics next February in South Korea a major disappointment.
He said Rockets alumni such as Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn and Montreal Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber, both who were likely pics to play for Canada, have expressed those sentiments to him.
“I would be shocked if we don’t see NHL players taking part in the next Olympics in China.”
Playing other sports
Hamilton said the time demands of kids playing hockey should not short-change them from the opportunity to play other sports.
“I think it is good for kids to play a variety of sports for their own personal growth, to try different sports and play with different kids.”
Hamilton noted how when the team plays a softball game as an off-ice team building exercise, he is amazed how many players have never swung a bat before.
Hamilton said while attendance at Prospera Place has dipped in recent years, he said the Rockets still have one of the largest season ticket bases in junior hockey.
But with two-thirds of those season ticket holders being seniors the challenge all sports franchises face is drawing younger people to their games.
That has placed the team’s emphasis on marketing through social media to help connect with those younger fans.
Developing teenagers into successful adults
Hamilton says playing a role in the transition of 16 and 17 year-olds into adults who often end up settling in Kelowna to raise their families is very meaningful for him.
“To be a part of that development in these young men is something very special and being around them keeps me young. I might have just turned 60 but I feel like 50.”
He also noted for every year a player plays with a CHL team, they receive a year of university with their books and tuition costs covered.
There are currently 18 former Rockets who are enrolled in university this year, many of them recruited when their junior careers ended to play for a university hockey team.
“That is one side of our business I am most proud of,” he said.
Changes to Prospera Place
With the City of Kelowna set to take over the arena in close to 10 years, Hamilton said he would like to see some modernization of the facility during that time.
“I would like to see upgrades done along the way so the city doesn’t end up with a white elephant when it takes over,” he said.
He said the arena is the perfect size and the perfect location, but could see allotment for greater convention floor space to attract more trade fairs.
He also applauded the investment of $350,000 to upgrade the arena with new boards, citing it as recognition of the safety concerns for players.
“It’s been a great facility for us to play in,” said Hamilton.
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