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AHL's Andrews a worthy Lester Patrick winner

by Lindsay Kramer
Every March, American Hockey League president Dave Andrews puts the heat of the league's playoff races and the headaches from its problems behind him and goes sailing for a week in the Caribbean.

The cell-phone service out there is spotty, and Andrews doesn't care if those nagging little bars disappear altogether. His league will get along fine without him, he reasons, and certainly will be right there when he returns to port.

"A lot of things go along nicely when I'm not there," he said.

To the extent that Andrews is correct in that assessment, it may be the greatest indicator of the job he's done with the league. Entering its 75th season, the AHL never has been a more bustling place, with its 30 teams at last aligned one-on-one with an NHL partner and a geographic footprint that stretches from Manchester to Norfolk, San Antonio to Abbotsford.

"I think Dave Andrews is one of the premier sports executives in this country, without question. What he's built with this league is incredible. As an owner, it's just a great comfort knowing this guy is calling the shots. When you have a guy like this in charge, it really helps you sleep at night." -- Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon

Almost every positive development that's unfurled in Andrews' 17-year-tenure can be placed at his feet. Yet at the same time, he's done so well positioning his league for unprecedented success that his extended management team can change lines on the fly without him being anywhere near the office.

"I can't claim I'm over-worked and can't manage it," Andrews said of his job.

While Andrews, 62, comes up short in the department of self-valuation, few others who benefited from his vision fail to recognize his historic worth to the league. As perhaps the greatest nod to those contributions, Andrews will be honored Wednesday in Boston as a recipient of the 2010 Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

That award is a tribute to a career of accomplishments that could fill a game program. He's helped establish markets big and small and assuage the demands of owners with widely varying game plans and bank accounts. He's directed the AHL to record levels of attendance and exposure and re-instituted the All-Star Classic.

Andrews sailed the league into eras of labor peace. He's been an embracer of the new -- in 2001 he oversaw the seamless inclusion of six teams from the folding International Hockey League. He's also a protector of the old -- some of the league's most viable franchises are stalwarts such as Rochester, Hershey, Portland, Providence and Syracuse.

"I think Dave Andrews is one of the premier sports executives in this country, without question," said Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon, who has worked with Andrews for 17 seasons. "What he's built with this league is incredible. As an owner, it's just a great comfort knowing this guy is calling the shots. When you have a guy like this in charge, it really helps you sleep at night."

That's a glowing review for someone who initially never sought the job and then never thought he'd be chosen to do it.

Andrews had worked as director of AHL operations for the Edmonton Oilers for seven years, including the Cape Breton Oilers' 1993 Calder Cup season. He said he never considered moving into the league office until Macgregor Kilpatrick, then the AHL's counsel, suggested he run for president.

Andrews said he told Kilpatrick that he wouldn't have the widespread support for such a jump because he was perceived as a staunch ringleader of the Canadian-based teams' platforms. Kilpatrick said the very things that made him passionate and strong-headed about those issues were the traits needed by the AHL as a whole.

At the time, it was a dicey era for the AHL. The league was competing with the IHL for an aging player population and for NHL affiliations. Andrews figured he'd take a run at the top spot, and went into his interview with team owners armed with a five-year plan that he worked on for a year. Kilpatrick proved prophetic, and the owners agreed that the tell-it-like-it-is Andrews was their man.
"I think if there's one thing that works, it's being honest," Andrews said. "I don't think over 17 years I've misled anybody. You never really have to worry the next day what you might have said to somebody that wasn't quite true. All of our teams, everyone has different agendas. And they are different objectives. Someone has to pull together the objectives the league has in itself."

The power to forge a consensus grew from several branches of Andrews' history. Prior to joining the Oilers, he worked as a senior consultant with SportCanada. In that position, he was responsible for providing direction to five national Winter Olympic sport organizations in the development of the national team for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.

He also served as coach and director of hockey operations for the Victoria Cougars of the Western Hockey League from 1982-84, and he worked as an assistant coach for the Cougars when they represented the WHL in the 1981 Memorial Cup. He also was the coach of the 1982 Canadian National Under-18 team and was an assistant coach at the 1985 Canadian Olympic Hockey Team training camp.

The organization and attention to detail harvested by such a wide range of experiences are traits that owners point to first when they discuss their faith in falling in line behind Andrews. Myriad issues -- ranging from lease agreements to affiliation deals -- often land on Andrews' desk with the conflicting parties simply agreeing to follow whatever course he recommends.

"He's very balanced. He understands his positions and he looks at everyone else's position," said Tom Mitchell, executive vice president of operations for Binghamton, who has known Andrews since the mid-1980s.

"This guy has every 'I' dotted and 'T' crossed. He's prepared. He's thorough. There's not a question he can't answer," Dolgon said. "You know this guy is living, breathing the league 24/7. I've never seen him not be able to deal with something."

Andrews said that hard-earned trust is what bridges the widely disparate perspectives that must be molded into a unified business model.

"If I've done anything right, it's to build that trust level so that when a crisis occurs, the people having that dispute, they almost always say, whatever Dave does, we'll go with," he said. "Most of the time, I have more information than anyone else. The more information you have, the more enlightened decisions you can make.

"I've always believed I've treated everyone the same. Some owners would say I've treated them equally badly. No one is getting any favors. Decisions are made because they've been in the best interest of the league."

With a recent contract extension that runs through the 2014-15 season, Andrews will be pulling those levers on behalf of the AHL for several more years. He still occasionally will chart a course for some calmer personal waters, but he remains driven to stay close to his main port of call.

"Every day is a challenge. We'll never be in a position where we'll say, we're done, it's great, it's time to leave," he said of his staff's efforts. "You have to continually innovate and look to see how we can get better. There are times you take great pride. At the same time, every week or two, you are looking at something and saying, we have a long way to go."
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