The on-ice success of the WBS Penguins is a result of the off-ice success the team has enjoyed over its 15-year lifespan. The team regularly finishes among the top AHL teams in attendance, including a league-record 144-game sellout streak, and has one of the league’s strongest and most loyal fan bases.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton may be a minor-league affiliate, but everything about the organization is major league. The team plays in a beautiful venue, Mohegan Sun Arena, and has a state-of-the-art facility, The Ice Rink at Coal Street Park – which features a beautiful locker room, weight room and players lounge. The facility is also the home of the organization’s front office.
And the man at the head of it all, from the very beginning, is Jeff Barrett.
|WBS Pens CEO Jeff Barrett |
Barrett, 51, helped build the WBS Penguins into the AHL’s model franchise from the ground up. After the Pittsburgh Penguins signed a deal with the city of Wilkes-Barre to be the location for their startup AHL affiliate, Barrett was one of the people assigned to get the project up and running.
Barrett, who was operating in a dual role as the vice president of ticketing for the Pittsburgh Penguins and as president of the WBS Penguins, faced many difficult challenges from the beginning. The biggest obstacle was the fact that the parent club in Pittsburgh had filed for bankruptcy, creating uncertainty in both Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre about the future of the organization.
“While the (Pittsburgh) team was in bankruptcy we were trying to keep Wilkes-Barre afloat, hoping that when we came out of bankruptcy both teams would be healthy and able to move forward,” Barrett said. “Trying to steer that ship through those waters was a little bit difficult.”
The difficulties continued, even up to the moment the puck dropped for the first-ever home game in franchise history, a Nov. 13, 1999 matchup against the Kentucky Thoroughblades in which the Penguins won 4-2.
“We went through 13 months of a difficult time and to actually have the game,” Barrett recalled. “It was sold out. We were 500 seats short. We didn’t get our labor and industry license to occupy the building until 20 minutes before the gates opened. There was a bench-clearing brawl at the end of the game. Our star player got kicked out. The Zamboni broke down during the first ice cut. It was absolutely crazy. Everything that could go wrong went wrong, but it turned out to be a terrific event and terrific game.”
The following season, 2000-01, the “Baby Penguins” turned their fortunes around. The club finished second in the Mid-Atlantic Division and qualified for the postseason for the first time in franchise history. The Penguins won their first three playoff rounds, including a 4-0 sweep of rival Hershey in the conference finals, for their first-ever berth in the Calder Cup Final. Despite falling short of a championship – they lost the series 4-2 to Saint John – the season was nothing short of remarkable.
“The second season we sold out every game, plus we made it to the Final. It was a pretty big turnaround from worst to first in one season,” Barrett said. “Having the community embrace us the way they did, supporting the team, luckily we had the talent and coaching to get to the Final.”
Barrett won the James C. Hendy Award in 2003, given to the AHL’s Executive of the Year. In 2004 he was promoted to CEO. This past summer with the team heading into it’s 15th fruitful season of operation, Barrett was recognized for his career contributions to the AHL by being named the winner of the Tomas Ebright Award.
“It’s a great honor because I was fortunate enough to know Tom Ebright before he passed away,” Barrett said. “(Ebright) was a former owner in this league. Early in my career I was fortunate enough to work with Tom. He had some businesses in Pennsylvania. To win an award named after Tom, who had such an impact on the game of hockey, is very special. I was very honored to win that award.”
The award comes as no surprise to Barrett’s colleagues. At the AHL’s yearly meetings in Hilton Head, S.C., people from the league’s office and other teams pick Barrett’s brain because he’s a great source of information.
“When I heard that his name was brought up, I was shocked that he hadn’t won it before,” Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill said. “When he received his award it was ‘Classic Jeff.’ All he talked about was nothing what he accomplished, but how proud he was of all these people that had gone on from Wilkes-Barre and had success in the National Hockey League level and other endeavors. That’s a true professional, a true manager and a true teacher.”
The Penguins honored Barrett at Friday night’s game against the New York Islanders, presenting him with a jersey autographed by players and Pittsburgh staff that had previously worked in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
It’s a fitting gesture since one of Barrett’s major goals with WBS isn’t just player development, but individual development in every facet of the organization.
“It’s not just players, it’s coaches, front office staff,” Barrett said. “Currently there are four NHL coaches out of 30 teams that coached in Wilkes-Barre (Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh; Todd Richards, Columbus; Michel Therrien, Montreal; Mike Yeo, Minnesota). Those are the things that we’re proud of, getting our players and staff and coaches up to the next level.
“It’s like being a benevolent dictator. You try to help everyone get ahead. Everyone that works here knows that our goal is to get them to advance in their career. If anyone is here for more than four or five years then they’re not doing their job. My goal is to get people to the next step in their career.”
One such staffer is Penguins assistant equipment manager Teddy Richards, who worked full time in the equipment field for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for 10 seasons before joining Pittsburgh for the current campaign.
“I owe so much to Jeff,” Richards said. “A lot of people don’t know this story, but when my father passed away, the day before the team left for the Calder Cup in the second year, Jeff stepped up and took care of myself and my younger brother at the time. I was 18 and Josh was 11. He stepped in and made sure we were looked after.”
Barrett set up a scholarship fund to help Teddy and Josh attend college. He later hired both to work as the team’s equipment managers.
“I would say he really went above and beyond to look after us,” Richards said. “He’ll always hold a special place in our heart for that. Even though I left I call him and we still talk.”
Stories like this not only show the character of Barrett, but also the closeness of the organization as a whole.
“Jeff starts it all. Jeff has built the culture in Wilkes-Barre,” Botterill said. “It’s the American Hockey League. There will always be turnover there. The fact that we can have a constant, and the person leading the charge as that constant is such a huge advantage in trying to set up the culture there. That’s the beauty of Jeff. He wants to see these people move on and have success at the next level.”
But the most important development in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is on the ice, and the team does everything possible to ensure that the players have the best chance to succeed. That goes from having an open door policy to helping players find housing to providing them with the best facilities in the AHL.
“He’s a great guy. He’s one of those guys that will do anything for a guy that plays for his team,” said forward Zach Sill, who has played five season with WBS. “Whenever you needed anything you can go right into his office and just talk to him man-to-man. I’ve been in his office many times talking about things for the team and for the guys.”
The WBS Penguins want to win on the ice. But they also understand that developing talent is their first priority and that’s something that Barrett understands better than anyone.
“Jeff always understands the big picture and the importance of the American Hockey League in development,” Botterill said. “We all want to win. Winning is a big part of development, too. But he always takes the big picture. The No. 1 goal is to get players, coaches and staff members up to Pittsburgh and the National Hockey League.”
An example of that big picture occurred after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. The following season, the marketing slogan for WBS was “Where Champions are Born.”
“I love that slogan and it’s dead on with his mindset and everything down there,” Botterill said. “The focus on developing for the next level and to not just be at the next level, but to have success at the next level.”
One major initiative that Barrett headed was the building of a state-of-the-art practice facility and front office space at The Ice Rink at Coal Street. The players, coaches and hockey staff have the same amenities as an NHL team. And the rink has helped grow the participation and love of amateur hockey in the region.
“Myself and (WBS CFO) Greg Petorak were the two people who worked with the city,” Barrett said. “It took us five years to get them to agree to do the project. We were the ones who took the bull by the horns and worked with the city and the mayor of Wilkes-Barre and found a way to get this project done. It was a very difficult project. The city had some hurdles to jump through, we had some hurdles to jump through. We all worked together. It’s been a terrific part of the community and terrific for our players and coaches, giving them the tools to get to the NHL.”
“The Penguins organization top to bottom does everything the right way,” forward Beau Bennett said. “Even the practice rink in Wilkes-Barre is top notch. We are lucky to be here. It’s privilege having the management that we do.”
Spend any amount of time around with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton organization and it’s easy to see why Bennett feels that way.
“Wilkes-Barre has been the top-class organization in the American Hockey League in almost every aspect,” Bylsma said. “There are other great organizations, but from the fans to the attendance to the building to the team on the ice, the facilities are as good as the National Hockey League level, it really is a cut above the rest. That’s their mantra. They want to be the best. They want the players to feel like it’s the National Hockey League.
“It’s a strong, tight family group from the community to the organization to the team on the ice and Jeff Barrett is at the head.”
And Barrett has been at the head from Day 1.
“He has such a huge influence on everybody down in Wilkes-Barre. He’s such a calming influence,” Botterill said. “He has touch points on every part of the organization in Wilkes-Barre: hockey ops, business side, within the community. He is a person that is extremely passionate about winning, but also very passionate about development. He wants to set people up for success. He understands that it starts in Wilkes-Barre. It’s not just players. It’s players, coaches, broadcasters, front office people. He’s extremely proud of working with these people and setting them up for success down the road and moving up into the National Hockey League.
“Whenever anything goes wrong or there are difficult times, he’s an absolute rock. He always looks out for the best interests for Wilkes-Barre and will try to help out players and employees in any manner possible.”