Sports players move quickly, especially hockey players who can skate faster than most can run. Dan Marrazza, well known hockey writer recently caught up with Robert Esche, former professional ice hockey goaltender who is the current president of the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League. Here’s what they discussed:
Do you know what happens when you mix the president of a hockey team, “Jay and Silent Bob,” and “Chico and the Man?”
What you get is Robert Esche.
Esche, the former U.S. Olympic goalie who enjoyed a nine-year NHL career with the Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers, now serves as the President of the Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks’ top minor league affiliate in the American Hockey League.
“Keith Tkachuk gave me the nickname ‘Chico’ when I played in Phoenix,” Esche, 38, recently said. “I was in training camp and my sticks said ‘R. Esche’ on them. There used to be Glenn ‘Chico’ Resch, who was a goalie for many years back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Keith Tkachuk made the joke of: ‘When did Chico Resch decide to come out of retirement.’ Everybody laughed. If you know Keith Tkachuk, he made sure the nickname stuck.”
“Chico” Resch originally earned the nickname because it was said he physically resembled Freddie Prinze’s character on “Chico and the Man.”
Esche was also given the nickname “Silent Bob” during his tenure in Philadelphia, due to an occasionally-frosty relationship with the local media. He had no problem opening up to us, sharing some insights about what it takes to run a minor league hockey team.
Marrazza: What is your daily routine like?
Esche: “I oversee the day-to-day operations from corporate partnerships, to ticket sales, to community relations. Anything and everything that full into the category of running a hockey club. The travel, day-to-day business operations. Then our company also controls the concessions and also controls the building, which is a separate branch. We oversee all of it.”
Marrazza: You’re going on three years in this capacity. How did your playing career prepare you for this endeavor? What other experiences did you have to prepare you for this?
Esche: “I don’t think the business is tricky. I think business is more heart and passion than it is college education. For me, if you really believe in why you are doing something, you can figure out how to do anything. But when it’s fun, it’s not that much work. I don’t think there was anything, in particular, that was overly difficult. I think this is where my heart was and it was something I always wanted to do.”
Marrazza: You not only stepped into a job, you were also instrumental in starting a new team, in your hometown nonetheless. What was the process like of getting a new franchise?
Esche: “Talking to the NHL teams, I had connections, they thought I was a genuine guy and hard worker. They figured it would translate well for them to run their team. On top of that, there’s a lot that goes into getting state funding (which we have). You have to be able to talk to the politicians and show them, through data, that this thing is going to work. You have to go through everything and show it makes sense for them. Business process, there’s a lot of balls up in the air. It’s a constant juggling match of getting state funding, getting an NHL team to commit their American Hockey League team to Utica, as well as getting the contract in place with the building.”
Marrazza: Some AHL teams are owned and operated by their parent NHL club. Utica is independently owned. How does the relationship with Vancouver work?
Esche: “I think it’s difficult if you don’t have a hockey person involved. We started down the path with the Calgary Flames and we ended up with the Vancouver Canucks. Both organizations knew I was a hockey guy. What I had to sell them on was, I may not have gone to college, but I know what I am doing. I was selling them on the business side. The relationship that NHL clubs want with their affiliate is for their players with their development. If a hockey guy is in charge of that, nine times out of 10, the hockey guy is going to take the side of the NHL organization. If it’s predominantly a business guy, nine times out of 10 he’s going to take the side of counting dollars and cents. When in doubt, when it’s between the business and the players, I side with the players. It’s a balance running your business in a way that you can sustain it, but also giving your players that you can give them.”
Marrazza: A lot of small markets financially struggle in minor league sports, especially northeastern hockey teams. You guys haven’t. What does it take for a small market to succeed?
Esche: “It’s all about your building lease and where your team is playing. A lot of these northeast markets are markets that have been around for a long time and don’t have the shot in the arm that they need, the money or the building they need. Utica has been a little different. We put state money into the building and it was a good game plan, a good business plan. It should be the model for most of these markets. You don’t need 15,000-seat, 10,000-seat arenas. What you need is to eliminate greed and figure out exactly if this is what you want to do as a human being. Do you want to own a minor league team? If you do, you better have a good building lease. We were able to do that. A lot of minor league teams fail not because they’re in the wrong market, but because they have the wrong strategy of understanding what the people in their area want.”
Marrazza: You employ a staff of 17 people. How do you decide on staff?
Esche: “I basically throw resumes right out the window. I really look at it as a conversation. I grew up in a hockey locker room and being on my own from 15-years-old, all the way through to today. I think there’s street smarts that comes with survival. I believe I am a very good judge of character and can read people well. I’d rather find out if that person believes in what I believe in. If they believe in what I believe in, I’m hiring that person. If I get a sense that they don’t, then probably not. We have two terrific vice presidents in Brittany Usmail and Keith Veronesi. Both are extremely young (both are 25). The AHL looked at me when I did it like: ‘Do you have any idea how young they are?’ I’m not worried about it. I think when everybody looks at resumes and looks at all of these things, at the end of the day, knowing your market, your people and treating your staff the way they want to be treated, is how we have been able to operate in Utica.”
Robert L. Esche is an American former professional ice hockey goaltender who is the current president of the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League (AHL). He previously played eight seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) for the Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers. Esche is married and has two children. He hails from Whitesboro, New York, where he contributes much to the community and charitable organizations with his spare time