The junior hockey club that is based out of the Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco, which also houses the Dallas Stars’ premium practice facility, is now under new management. It was announced Friday that Consolidated Sports Holdings USA, led by president Bill Yuill, has completed the acquisition of the Tornado from Schlegel Sports Group.
Yuill and his group brings to Texas extensive experience operating sports franchises, as they have owned numerous minor league baseball and hockey clubs over the past 30 years. They recently gave up control of the Central Hockey League’s Arizona Sundogs, and currently run the Everett Silvertips junior hockey squad in the WHL, so they know the territory well.
“We’re familiar with the model, we’re familiar with the age group,” said Yuill, who is also CEO and Chairman of Consolidated Sports Holdings’ parent company, The Monarch Corporation, which is a private investment company headquartered in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. “We’re delighted to be here in Frisco, we love the market and this facility is second to none. It’s just a wonderful building, and we’re extremely excited to work with the Dallas Stars. We have a tremendous respect for the organization and we really look forward to working with them for many years.”
“The reason we felt this was a great opportunity for us,” noted Gary Gelinas, executive vice president of Consolidated Sports Holdings and the man who will oversee Tornado operations, “was not only the vibrance of what is going on around this area, but the support that the corporate community and the fan base has shown - that’s really critical to our success. We want to be the premier junior hockey franchise in the United States.”
The Tornado returned to the North American Hockey League last season after taking a one-year hiatus while the Dr Pepper Arena was being renovated and finished the 2009-10 season with a 25-28-5 record. That landed them in third place in the Southern Division and a date with the second place St. Louis Bandits, who were the NAHL’s three-time defending champions, in the first round of the playoffs. After improbably winning the first two games of the best-of-five series on the road, the Tornado dropped the next three, including Game 4 in triple overtime and the deciding contest also in OT.
While impressive, it was not quite up to the standards the organization set earlier in the decade, when they won four Robertson Cups (2001, 2004-06) as playoff champions of the only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier II Junior A league, which now boasts 26 teams across North America. For Tornado coach and general manager Tony Curtale, who was around for the glory years and remains in place under the new ownership, that’s just not going to cut it.
“Technically, as an expansion team again, it was pretty good, but it’s not up to our standards,” Curtale said regarding last season. “I’m very competitive and I want to do well every year and I want to be the best and I want our players to be the best and I want our coaches to coach the players the best. We have our own internal pressure, that’s what we expect. It was difficult last year to be under .500, but with the circumstances, that was probably pretty good.”
The new regime is also committed to restoring the Tornado to their prior level of prominence. In fact, it is a primary component of their business plan.
“Our policy in hockey, as I tell the boys up in Everett, we really have three rules,” Yuill said. “Number one is that we want a competitive team. We want a team that wins more than they lose. We want a team that has at least a 51 percent winning percentage. The other policy we have is that we want to have home ice advantage in the playoffs. So win more than you lose and have home ice in the playoffs, and number three is just get us into the second round of the playoffs. That’s what our coaches understand, that’s what our sales guys understand. It’s very important. It’s pretty tough to run a franchise that doesn’t win. Somehow those fans find other things to do.”
Of course, winning isn’t the only goal. The Tornado, and the NAHL in general, aspire to graduate their players on to higher levels of hockey, whether they land NCAA scholarships or play professional hockey or even make the NHL someday. Just this season, four former Tornado players appeared in the NHL, while the organization has also moved over 100 players on to NCAA teams or professional minor league hockey.
“I think what it does is provide an opportunity, for Tier II players to go to Tier I,” Yuill said of the benefits of playing in the NAHL. “At that age level (from 16-20), kids mature at different times, so if they don’t hit a certain level at 17, they can stay in the game until it comes around in a year or two. It’s about the players, that’s why we’re here - to develop these players, to give them a chance to move up or get that college scholarship or get drafted by the NHL.”
A key aspect to the Yuill ownership agreement is the relationship they have with the Dallas Stars, who control the Dr Pepper Arena, where they also house their offices and state-of-the-art practice facility.
“They understood the model we wanted to create,” Gelinas said of the Stars. “They understood that we wanted to be a partner with them, that it’s really important that together we have success, because if either one of us don’t, the model won’t work. What I’m really encouraged about is that we formulated a partnership. I don’t know what existed in the past, but certainly in the creation of the lease in our discussions, we’re going to be partners moving forward.”
“We will reduce fees and we will increase profitability the more people they have in our building,” explained Jeff Cogen, president of the Dallas Stars. “So as opposed to renting the ice, we say, ‘Rent the ice for a small amount, cover our costs, and we’ll share in upside relative to food and beverage and parking and other miscellaneous-type revenue streams.’ A little more of a partnership than a landlord/tenant relationship.”
And both clubs will focus on - and benefit from - increasing the widening spotlight on the sport in the Metroplex.
“It’s all kind of building and growing and developing, and this league fits that model beautifully,” Yuill said of the sky-rocketing growth of hockey in the area. “It’s got a place in there and that’s why it attracted us. And when you look at the facility and you look at the market, it’s really exciting.”
“It’s kind of the Little League Baseball model,” Cogen said. “When I was seven years old, I had a bat in my hand, when I was in high school, I took dates to baseball games and when I graduated from college, I bought baseball mini-plans.
“So our thought is, if you put a stick in a kid’s hand or a skate on a young lady’s foot, you engage them with our brands. They watch the games, they buy our t-shirts, they bug mom and dad to take them to the game, they bring a date to the game and when they graduate from college, they become season ticket holders. After 15 years, we’re actually seeing that cycle.”
Interestingly enough, just the day before, Consolidated Sports Holdings and Yuill were also granted an NAHL expansion club in Amarillo to begin play next season. While a bit odd that one group would own two different teams, having another squad in Texas that’s relatively close will hopefully create a new rival for the Tornado.
“When that opened up, we wanted to get the market locked up, get the lease on the building signed and help the league expand in the area,” Yuill said of the as-yet-unnamed Amarillo team. “We’re hoping for another four or five markets in this area anyway, so we can have a tight league, get some rivalries, make it easier for players’ travel. If we’d lost those markets, they’d be gone, and who knows when it would open up again?”
“With Mr. Yuill’s background, with the way they’ve operated clubs and the way they’re professional and the way they do business, they wanted to make a big commitment for the Texas Tornado and the division was also able to grow,” noted NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “These guys have met and exceeded all of our expectations and we’re really excited to have them on board. I think they’re going to do a great job here and I’m sure their model will be replicated in Everett and in Amarillo and here. We’re excited to have that model in our league.”
Frankenfeld also indicated that he wasn’t at all worried about any issues with having one owner run two different clubs, noting that there are certain conditions Yuill and his group needed to satisfy.
“There are rules involved - no trades and each organization has to be its own entity,” Frankenfeld said. “They have to have separate staffs, they have to have separate recruiting staff - each group obviously have to qualify for ownership on their own merits. You’ve got to keep in mind, too, that Mr. Curtale is a very competitive guy and the coach they hire in Amarillo is going to be a very competitive guy. Everybody’s like, ‘They’re going to load up one of the teams.’ You’re just not going to see that, it’s not in their nature.”
Icing a competitive team is in their nature, though, and there’s a fresh new sense of excitement and stability surrounding the Tornado now and their prospects for success in the coming season. Things are getting underway in that area quickly, as the club just held their first tryout camp on Friday and are also preparing for the NAHL draft coming up on Wednesday.
“We got such a late recruiting period before we got re-instated (last year), so that really put us behind the eight-ball,” Curtale noted. “It’s going to help this year that we have more time to get things done. We look forward to this year, to getting back where we need to be."