Stealing the title from that 1980s cinematic hit, “Back to the Future,” to headline a story about hockey might seem a bit confusing. Obviously, Marty McFly and the whole tricked-out DeLorean have little to do with the game, and you can bet there’s no time-traveling alongside lunatic scientists to delve into.
Yet, never has a play on words fit the bill better than when describing the return of Jeff Cogen to the Dallas Stars. He’s back, all right, with knowing eyes staring squarely towards a very bright future.
“I think Jeff coming over to the Stars now to sell tickets and revitalize the team, keep it fresh and keep it going, it’s the right thing to do,” said Jim Lites, who served as President of the club before moving to Hicks Sports Marketing Group in November. “He’s got all this background in hockey, and he was with the Stars for all those years. I think it’s very natural for him.”
Which is somewhat surprising considering the fact that up until 1985, Cogen had never even been to a hockey game. “Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, growing up in Virginia, there was no such thing as hockey,” he admitted.
Even though he didn’t grown up with the game, what he soon discovered, almost by accident, was a passion for promotion. After graduating from Old Dominion University, he accepted the first real employment offer he was ever given. He, quite literally, ran away with the circus.
“I got out of school in the Carter recession, and I was candidly happy to get a job,” he said. “It just so happened to be with Ringling Brothers, doing marketing and promotion. I got my doctorate on the road with the big show.”
“The funny story is, his very first job was in the Kmart sporting goods department,” said Cogen’s wife, Jill. “He was the manager. That lasted about two weeks when he realized he didn’t know anything about fishing and all that. That’s when he interviewed for Ringling Brothers and took the job.”
He couldn’t have asked for a better education. Traveling to cities in advance of Ringling Brothers’ two productions, the circus and Disney on Ice, Cogen was responsible for everything from booking the arena to handling public relations to finding sponsors to actually selling tickets. In other words, if JoJo the clown and his 20 friends came barreling out of their car to a half-empty venue, guess who got a phone call.
“There’s nothing like being by yourself in Lake Charles, Louisiana, at the Days Inn and the show is coming in five or six weeks,” Cogen said. “Tickets go on sale and you get a ticket report the next day and it’s like, ‘Okay, we sold 5,000. I guess that’s good. But there are 40,000 more to go. What are we going to do about it?’ I got the best training in the world.”
Cogen’s travels, and there were many, would take him through Detroit several times each year, as he helped to get shows ready for Joe Louis Arena. That just so happened to also be the home of the Detroit Red Wings, a team that while a model franchise for the NHL now, was borderline pitiful back then.
“They were called the ‘Dead Things,’” remembered Cogen.
Lites had begun the turnaround of the Red Wings franchise when he joined the organization as an executive vice president in 1983. But with the team already owning the arena and having just purchased the Fox Theater there in the Motor City, he was looking for some marketing help.
“I had met Jeff a few times,” said Lites. “I used to run into him when the show was in town. He always had on an old, beat-up Baltimore Orioles hat. He was the guy with the hat.”
Two of their most memorable meetings are probably two they’d both just as soon wish had never happened. One year, Joe Louis Arena had the opportunity to add another Prince concert to their schedule, which meant Disney on Ice would have to wait an extra day before they could set up.
“We gave him access to the building 24 hours later than we had told him we would in the contract,” explained Lites. “So, the first show had the [hockey] lines on the ice. They didn’t have time to paint over them. He was really angry.”
The second time, the tables were turned. During a weeklong run of the circus, a few of the workers decided that breaking into the Red Wings’ merchandise warehouse would be a good idea. The group’s plan included hoisting one of the show’s midgets up through the rafters to get the job done. They, of course, wound up in jail.
“I got a call in the middle of the night that said they had arrested these guys,” said Lites. “Jeff had to go and bail them out and then come down to the arena and do the mea culpa with me. He said, ‘My thieves won’t ever steal from you again.’ We laugh about it to this day.”
Those encounters, however, led to Cogen being offered a job as a marketing assistant with the Red Wings in 1985. Engaged to Jill with a wedding looming, he was tired of life on the road and was ready to settle down, as it were. There was just one problem.
“I said, ‘Jimmy, I’ve never seen a hockey game,” recalled Cogen. “He said, ‘Great. I want somebody to treat it like a widget.’ I didn’t know any better. I knew that I wasn’t going to travel and I was going to get married and I had real job. They actually gave me a car, a Sundance. It was great for me.”
“He had become friends with Jim and the Ilitch family (owners of the Red Wings), and so they offered him a job,” said Jill. “But really, the intent was we were about to get married and he didn’t want to travel.”
Together, Lites and Cogen, who was soon promoted to director of marketing, laid the foundation for what would eventually become known around the NHL as Hockeytown. By the time the team reached the Western Conference Finals in 1987, the Red Wings were the hottest ticket around, and over the next five years, sold out every game during the pair’s tenure with the club.
So impressive was the turnaround of the Detroit franchise that in 1993, when Norm Green decided to move his Minnesota team to Dallas, he called upon Lites to lead his new organization as president. Lites, in turn, had no intention of making the move to Texas without Cogen alongside as vice president of marketing.
“I can tell you he was more enthusiastic than I was about coming to Dallas,” said Lites. “He felt we could do great things here. He had been to the market with the circus before. And, I think he wanted the challenge of starting a team fresh. I did, too, to be honest with you.”
So, south they moved. But not only did they change locales, they also changed their thinking. Before they were marketing towards a fan base steeped in tradition that had just grown disinterested in the team. Now, they were introducing hockey to a brand-new city that knew little to nothing about the sport.
“The Red Wings were good, and so we sold every seat. It wasn’t a problem. The marketing standard for us was how do we sell everything else?” said Lites. “Dallas was really getting back to ‘How do we sell hockey tickets?’ That was our focus every day, all the time. ‘How do we establish the game here?’”
“We had an education process,” Cogen stated. “I remember the first ad campaign was, ‘It’s a lot like football, except on ice.’ That’s how we sold it. There were times when we had 6,000 seats sold [in 1993], but I remember this. We struggled in October, got a little better in November, and by February you couldn’t get a ticket. That lasted for years.”
Over the next few seasons, with Tom Hicks taking over ownership of the team in 1996, the Stars became one of the elite franchises of the NHL both on the ice and off. They won division titles, conference championships and the Stanley Cup in 1999, while recording 150 consecutive sellouts and spreading the game at a grassroots level throughout the Metroplex.
“I always tell people that I get some credit and Jim gets some credit for that,” said Cogen, “but [former General Manager] Bob Gainey made us look like geniuses.”
When Hicks purchased the Texas Rangers in 1998, the logical move seemed to be combining his two sports entities under one umbrella. In doing so, Lites became the president for both organizations with Cogen taking over the marketing duties for each as well. Hindsight being 20/20, trying to run two teams simultaneously was really not optimal for anyone involved.
“Some things you can do for both teams, which we’re doing now with Hicks Sports Marketing Group,” explained Lites. “Selling advertising, human resources, accounting, for instance. But the selling of tickets, the game presentation, the culture of the sports are different, and they require different looks and different approaches. So, they need to be separate to a degree.
“But, Jeff and I did three years of that and tried our best. It was driving us both crazy. You didn’t have any spare time. It was hard on our families. I think we both said, ‘This isn’t going to work.’”
The first to make a change was Cogen, who after 17 years of reporting to what had become one of his closest friends, was hired in August of 2001 to be the chief operating officer of the Florida Panthers. Seven months later, Lites was on his way to Phoenix to serve as president of the Coyotes.
Neither one particularly enjoyed the experience. Just nine months later, Lites was back in Dallas as president of the Stars. Within two years, Cogen had returned to take over the reigns as president of the Rangers.
“It was fun while we were there, but we were happy to leave,” replied Jill, who made the move along with twin daughters, Kendall and Taylor, and son, Matt. “Actually, when we were moving down there, our girls just cried and cried. But coming back, they were fine.”
“I had worked for Jim for nearly 20 years,” said Cogen. “Moving to Florida was an opportunity to be number one, and it was a move I felt I had to make. I think I had to maybe take a step up and maybe two steps back to end up four steps up.”
“Tom came to me and I said, ‘The Rangers have a big ticket-selling need, Jeff likes baseball, consider bringing him back,’” said Lites. “The moment he came back, the world seemed right. We were working for the same guy in the same town.”
Because of the baseball team’s performance on the field, Cogen had perhaps his toughest assignment yet. But whereas most cities might see a drop-off in attendance as a result of several sub par years, the Rangers attendance stayed basically the same. Even some in the media regarded the marketing efforts of the club during the 2007 season as impressive, considering the won-loss record in the standings. In fact, the two lowest-average attendance marks for the Rangers in the last 12 seasons occurred during Cogen’s two years spent in Florida.
This knack for spreading the word and getting people out to the game is exactly why Hicks asked Cogen to return to the Stars this past November. He felt Cogen had put the personnel in place for future success on the Rangers side and, with Lites moving over to another branch within the company, wanted his expertise on the hockey side.
Although he admits he was somewhat surprised by the move, Cogen is excited about the new challenge, knowing that when it’s all said and done, he has one job to do – fill the seats.
“We want to create a positive fan experience, create maximum revenue and have the team stand for the best brand in the market and in the league,” said Cogen. “Those are the goals, regardless of whether it’s indoor football or major league baseball or anything in between. It’s the communication of a vision and the execution of that vision, regardless of whether it’s the best team in the world or the worst team in the league.”
With that kind of dedication to success, there’s no mistaking that the corny play on words from that ‘80s movie mega-hit certainly does describe the return of Jeff Cogen to the Dallas Stars. He’s back, all right. Back to the future.