I met with Sean Henry on Friday, May 26. For those that do not know I am a home grown Tennessee boy and do not know anything else. Lately, the Nashville Predators have been all over the news for their Cinderella story, and it truly is remarkable.
When the Predators first came over to Nashville back in 1998, a lot of people thought it was going to fail. Then in 2007, there were talks about moving the team out of Nashville and into Canada. I mean hey, who in the south cares about hockey right!?!? Well, as it turns, a lot of people care.
In 2007 the fans basically step in to save the team, and I am sure glad they did. Now Bridgestone Arena is one of most enthusiastic stadiums not just in hockey but all sports. Sean Henry and I sat down and talked about many things from the fans to the front office to the Stanley Cup.
Before we jump into the interview, let us take a quick look at who Sean Henry is. He has a very impressive resume, that extends to way past his time with the Nashville Predators. Before joining the Predators in 2010, he worked for the Tampa Bay Lightning. When he first joined the Lightning’s front office, they were a team that was struggling on and off the ice. Within a couple of years they turned themselves around, and boy what a turnaround it was.
They won the Stanley Cup in 2004, and became one of the most successful franchises in hockey. Then after an ownership switch, Henry got a call from the Nashville Predators inquiring about an executive position. He would soon leave the beaches of Tampa and put on his cowboy boots to join the Predators in Nashville. Since being in Nashville, he has basically done the same thing he did with the Lightning back in 2004.
While talking to him, I was very impressed with how he down to earth he is. He is someone who is no stranger to hard work, as he had to work a full time job all while paying for his college degree. Because of that hard work, he sky rocketed through management positions which ultimately led him to where he is today.
Q: When the team first came over to Nashville back in 1998, some people wrote that the team was not garnishing that much attention from local Nashvillians. In Game 3 of the Conference Finals however the fans set a record for being the loudest crowd in an indoor arena. Why do you think we have seen such a change and Nashville, and what you go as far as to say that this is a home court advantage for our players?
A: Well I think the difference from when we came here back in 1998, we had people who were fans of different teams before they moved to Nashville. The hockey fans that were here followed a team like the Stars or the Flyers, or maybe just a player who went into to the NHL. It opened up a whole new market, so when we played a team like the Red Wings the fans might be split.
As the years go on, we start to see a whole new generation that has known nothing else but the Predators. So regardless of what team your parents might cheer for, you are a Predators fan. Because of that, your parents will ultimately root for your team to some degree.
For example I am a Yankees fan by the grace of God, but one of my son’s is a Cardinals fan, so just because of that the Cardinals become my second favorite team. It is kind of the same thing with the Predators.
Over a course of 20 years, I think most people came for the big event. People also made the excuse that our rules are very hard to follow, but they are not as complicated as people think. Our rules are the simplest thing, the only problem is we give them such complicated names. Once people learn the rules, you stop hearing the excuse I can not follow the puck on TV.
I think in a handful of years that passionate core we had just continued growing and growing and growing. Now we are 20 years old and have been to the playoffs 10 out of the past 13 years. We are one out of only like five or six teams to have done that, and it is just core now. We have had some the most passionate fans in sports, and now I say very loudly that we have the most passionate fans in sports.
ESPN rated us as the best venue experience in all of sports, and they also rated us as having the best fan relationship in all sports. That is a byproduct of when in 2007 the team almost left, and the fans came in to safe the team. So the team is kind of theirs. So with that when you watch a family member play a sport you are more protective and loud. I think it is the same thing here with our fans. Our job here is to get out of our fans way and let them celebrate, and maybe to do a few things to sprinkle a little more excitement.
Last night was a great game, as we saw Pittsburgh and Ottawa faceoff in overtime in Game 7. It was weird that I could hear the announcer in Game 7. You watch our games during those playoffs, you could not hear the announcers because of our crowd. We are a passionate city. I always say we are beneficiaries of hockey fans mixed with SEC football fans mixed with a little European soccer, and it is a cool thing that we have.
Q: Going into the playoffs this year, the Predators were ranked with the No. 16 seed, but now the team is going to the Stanley Cup Finals. How was it being the underdog, and do you think being the No. 16 actually motivated the team to make it this far?
A: This has been kind of an odd year, because for the first time ever a lot of the national experts were picking us to be one of the final four teams. That has never happened before for our franchise in almost 20 years, so because of that there was a lot of talk about our team all summer and going into training camp. Everyone was saying when the playoffs started “Oh well we are playing Chicago”, and I just kind of laughed. We were playing the best opponent for us. I always say the best way to build rivalries is in the playoffs. I have always considered the Blackhawks as rivals, but I do not know if they did. We are rivals now, because we beat them in the playoffs. We have played in the playoffs the past three years, and we have won one and they have won two.
Then we get a chance to play the Blues, and we have never played them in the playoffs before, so I like where we sat in the second wild card spot. We do have a home ice advantage, and it is one thing for our players to talk about it. But when you hear the opposing team talk about it, and the opposing players to talk about what it is like. Coach Hitchcock when he was with the Blues always said “You do not go into Nashville and win on a Saturday night. It is like going to the Roman Coliseum.” When you hear the opposing team in post game interviews and they say “We do not know what the fans were cheering about. We were up two to nothing leaving the second period and they gave them a standing ovation. We are down two to nothing, our fans pretty much boo us off the ice.” It is real, so I do not think that much about the second wild card spot.
With that being said, we are the first sixteenth seed to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals in a hundred years of hockey. Something I love about our league is that in other leagues you can predict who will go to the finals and be right about 80% of the time.
In ours it is very often the lower seeds that win, because the rosters are so close.
Q: You came to accept the job as Predators’ CEO about 7 years ago. What was it about this city and this team that made you want to come here?
A: We had a great run in Tampa. We took a team that was probably the worst team in sports and turned it around pretty quickly. Won a Stanley Cup and lead the league in one of the busiest stadiums in the country. When it was none of those things prior. We won an NBA Championship a week after we won the Stanley Cup. Only team to ever do that, and only owner to ever do that and it was real special. Unfortunately, we sold the team, and I was consulting for the new owners.
This opportunity came up just as we were transitioning new ownership when Tom Cigarran called. I saw what we had in Nashville with great ownership and Tom Cigarran as chairman, a market that had not been completely tapped into before, the best GM in sports with David Poile, and I realized just how great of an opportunity this could be. Honestly, an opportunity to pretty much repeat what we did back in Tampa. All it took was one conversation with Tom Cigarran to know just how special this could be, because his vision is on my wall. It is the exact same wording, that hung on my wall in Tampa.
For me it was a no-brainer, but I did not realize just how special Nashville was. I was coming over for a great opportunity, a great ownership group, a great chairman and the best GM in sports. I thought to myself that this could be really really cool. Then you get here and see how wonderful this community and city is.
Q: David Poile has done a great job as GM for the Nashville Predators. He has been here since the franchise first started up back in 1998. In sports we see not only players, but management and front office personnel continually be moved around. How important is it to have someone that has been with the team from the start?
A: It is important for success. Anytime you look at successful teams, normally what you have is consistency. You have an ownership group that is going to put people in charge and let them run. You also have an executive that is going to hire a good coach and be patient. You can not hire a coach and fire him a year later, because all you are saying is that you did not hire correctly. You normally hire a coach when things were not going as well as you wanted them to, so when you hire a new coach you need for them to set their blueprint out in front of you.
If you look at David’s success, it is partially do with patience with his coaches. Just look at the success Barry Trotz had here. David is the most successful expansion coach in league history. Look at some of the early success they had with Barry and their early partnership, and they are now replicating with Peter. The best part with David is that our team is built with big bold trades, with strategic trades and building from the draft. It is not unique to a winner, but it is unique to all sports teams. When you look at successful teams over time, you will normally see consistency in the executive sweets and in the locker room as well.
Q: You came over to Nashville as Chief Executive back in 2010. How much have you seen hockey grow here since coming over?
A: Well we built the Ford Ice Center a couple years ago, and it has been the busiest ice rink in america. The good news is that it is the busiest ice rink in america, the bad news is that we can not build the next one fast enough. Playing hockey is fun for the kids, and the more success the Predators have the more those kids want to go out on the ice and wear that gold jersey. We are a hockey market and a great hockey market. We will be an incredible hockey market when a young man learns to skate here, and plays all of his hockey here and then is drafted. We have more kids starting to play hockey than any other city as far as growth is concerned and it is tremendous.
Q: There is a quote you had in a Forbes article in which you said “If we are not failing every day, then we are not being as aggressive as we should be”. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what you meant when you said this?
A: I mean there are a lot of people that play it safe, and when things are going well people will continue to do the same things they have been doing. When things are not going well, people are afraid to hop off that path.
The thing is that if people have been doing something the same way and the result has always been this, and you want the result to start being better and stronger then you need to start looking for new ways to do things. In our industry technology is always changing and if you are not trying to measure that and play with it and catch up to it then your failing. We are very proud that the first multi-year season ticket package was here. I thought it was a foolish idea, but it was probably one of the best things we have done in this organization. And I love to be wrong. If he had put that together and failed, then it would have been this is what your goal was, let's try to achieve it a different way.
Once you start doing that, it is a pretty powerful thing. I have been with a few organizations were something has failed, and you have a meeting to find out who’s fault it was. I remember being a young guy and thinking that is crazy. I am never going to be wrong, I am going to work my hardest to never be wrong. We need to have the mentality when something fails of what could we have done differently instead of who’s fault was it. Once you do that three or four times, everyone else in that room sees that they can try new things.
One thing that I say that bothers a lot of people, I never say no to someone’s idea. The only rule is that if you have an idea you better execute it. Ideas are cheap and they are easy, the execution of your passion is harder.