Q&A: A Conversation With Tom Stillman
Future Hockey Hero
Forty-five. That’s the number of seasons the St. Louis Blues have played since the franchise’s inception in 1967. That’s also the number of seasons in which the Blues haven’t won the Stanley Cup. Year after year, the team seems poised to break the streak, only to come up short, and those decades of almosts, what-ifs, and coulda-beens have created a fatalistic fan base.
Tom Stillman wants to change all that. A native Minnesotan who grew up playing hockey, he moved to St. Louis, his wife’s hometown, 20 years ago. He bought a struggling beer-distribution business and took on the daunting task of selling Miller in the land of Bud. But he made it work. In May 2012, he and a group of local investors, including his father-in-law, former Sen. John Danforth, bought the Blues, assuming control of an organization on the brink of going broke. Stillman says he’ll make it work again.
How would you describe the state of the team when you bought it? At that time, we were just coming off one of the best seasons in franchise history. The Blues had compiled 109 points that year, tied for second most in the league. We had the fewest goals allowed. It was a very good year. Our head coach won coach of the year. Our general manager won general manager of the year. So on the hockey side, it was good.
But on the business side, it wasn’t? The franchise had been losing money—a lot of money—for several years, many years. We needed to right the ship and get the financial house in order. We had to change a lot of the ways that the previous ownership group was running the business. I was a member of the previous ownership group, a minority in that. Unfortunately, that did not come with much involvement or voice.
So what needed to be done? It’s a small- to medium-size local business, and it had to be run that way, from an expense level and from the perspective of being closer to its customers, meaning its fans, its sponsors, and its season-ticket holders. So we did a lot of reorganizing, restructuring, downsizing of the business side. That involved some painful decisions about layoffs.
You cut about 40 people. That’s difficult for an organization to go through. But we had to be focused on the survival of the franchise.
How else have you saved money? The previous group was paying itself more than $1 million a year as a management fee. I’m pulling down $1.
You’re making only a buck? There it is. [He gestures toward a framed check on his office wall.] That’s for last year. I’m due another one pretty soon. Our idea is not getting in here and dressing it up, so we can make a big pop on a sale in a few years. We’re 16 St. Louisans who think the Blues are good for St. Louis and want to make sure they’re here for a long time. We’re not looking to pull money out. Nobody’s asking for dividends.
So you bought the team to save it? I don’t mean to be that altruistic or dramatic, but I think to a person, every member of the group was motivated at least in part by civic considerations. There are several who are real hockey fans. In addition to that, everybody wanted to make sure the Blues are part of the landscape here.
How important do you think the Blues are to this city? The economic impact is north of $200 million a year; the tax impact is more than $14 million. We employ about 1,500 people. If you look at both the Blues and the Scottrade Center, which books world-class concerts, NCAA events, and everything, we add a lot to the quality of life here. They help to make us a major-league city. That helps us attract and retain good people here. The Blues and the arena make an important contribution to the community.
Your first season as owner was delayed by a lockout. Did you see it coming? It was not a total surprise. The whole purchase process took two years. For a good part of that process, a lot of the thinking was that there certainly could be a lockout, but the feeling was, “Gosh, the last one [when the entire 2004-2005 season was canceled] is so fresh on everybody’s minds. Is that really going to happen again?” The betting was not. As it got closer, the bets changed.
How did it feel to buy a sports team and then not get to see it play? It’s like you just had a baby, and then you don’t get to hold it. I guess it made our first game on January 19 that much sweeter.
Did the lockout put an extra financial burden on the franchise? It was an additional obstacle. Surprisingly though, because of some of the things we had done, our financial results were better than the previous year, which was a full season. Obviously, our biggest expense item is players, so we’re not paying players during that time. So you eliminate that expense, but you can’t eliminate all expenses, even all attributable to hockey.
Were you able to make up any of the lost revenue by booking more concerts? You never had enough time. Scottrade Center’s scale concerts have a long lead time. So you can’t say, “Oh, gees, we might still be locked out for the next month. Let’s get Bruce Springsteen.”
You inherited unfavorable TV and concession contracts from the previous owners, which run through 2020 and 2028, respectively. The issue in each of those cases is that contracts were entered into. There were upfront cash payments that went with them. The cash is gone. The result is that under those deals, because there was upfront cash, the revenue that we receive currently through the life of the contract is lower than it would be. Some people have overstated this. I actually got quoted, it’s kind of ridiculous, saying because of the Fox deal, we get very little money every year. I didn’t say that. We just get a lot less.
Joe Strauss wrote in the Post-Dispatch that once your TV deal expires, the Blues and the Cardinals might work together to form their own sports network. That’s speculation.
You’re making a big push to attract corporate partners. We’ve done this restructuring; we’ve cut expenses; we’ve invested heavily in the team with a lot of signings. We’re now almost at the salary cap, which was kind of unimaginable a few years ago. We are also working hard on expanding our base of support. We have to have a dramatic increase in revenue if we are going to make it here in St. Louis long-term. It’s as simple as that.
And the key to that is involvement from businesses? I’d like to get to the point where if you’re a company in St. Louis, you’ve got season tickets for the Blues. You just do that. It’s a civic asset. It brings a lot to the city. It brings a lot to your employees. Buy these season tickets. For bigger companies, a suite, a sponsorship. We need that support if we are going to make it.
Are you saying that if you don’t get that additional support, you would consider moving the team? I think that statement goes as far as it goes. I have no interest in owning a hockey team anywhere else but St. Louis. Nobody else in our group does either. But at the same time, it has to make sense here. The only way it is going to work is if the community supports it.
And hiring Blues great Brett Hull to work in the front office is part of that push? His focus is building support. There are few people who get St. Louis sports fans excited like Brett Hull. He’s one of the greatest players ever to play the game, but on top of that, he just has this personality that is very appealing, and people like to be with him. I think he can make a big difference for us.
Last season, you didn’t sell out all of your playoff games, and this season, you raised ticket prices. As far as not selling out playoff games, the ones that weren’t sellouts were barely short of a sellout. My understanding is that that has been pretty typical over the years in the first round. That is not the red flag that some people tried to make it.
What about pricing? I understand price elasticity and all that, but there is a more basic point there: If our ticket prices don’t go up, this doesn’t work. Period. When we came in, I think we had the fifth-lowest ticket price in the league. We were 30 percent or more below the average. We’re trying not to scare people away. We’re trying not to be extreme, but ticket prices have to go up. This is major-league hockey, the best hockey in the world, and it only works if admission prices are competitive with the rest of the league. You can’t take the position that “Gees, we got to get better players, and we got to sign players, but we’re going to have the lowest ticket prices.” It won’t work. It just totally doesn’t work. We can’t compete that way.
You initially made single-game tickets against Chicago and Detroit available only to your own season-ticket holders. That’s a great idea. I think it is, too. Part of it is, yeah, we don’t want a red arena. But also, it seems like fair is fair. Our loyal fans should have the first shot at those tickets. Because the day you go on-sale, a bunch of Chicago and Detroit people go online and grab tickets, and our fans can’t get them, so this is more fair.
You moved the time of your home opener this season to work with a Cardinals playoff game. Is it hard to share the spotlight with the storied team down the street? Sure, there’s a challenge. But a rising tide lifts all boats. If people are excited about the Cardinals and they’re excited about the Rams and they’re into their sports, that’s just good for everybody. For us, there is not a lot of good in trying to go head-to-head with the Cardinals.
Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III is a big hockey fan, right? We both skate with the alumni pretty regularly. I mean Chris Carpenter and David Freese were at probably every playoff game last year, and I think the year before, too. It’s a good relationship. From here, there’s a tremendous amount of respect for that franchise. It’s one of the great franchises in all of sports. For us to have that relationship with them and rub shoulders with them, that’s a good thing.
Hockey fans are known for being small in number, but great in loyalty. Very loyal and very passionate about their sport and their team. [He grins.] It’s another world.
Is changing Blues fans’ downtrodden outlook on your to-do list? Yeah, that would be a very good thing to change. There have been a lot of ups and downs for fans over the years. It would be great if the organization as constituted now could be the one that would end the drought.
You’ve said your goal is to win not only the Blues’ first Cup, but multiple championships. Everybody wants to win a Stanley Cup, because they want to win and that would be a great thing for St. Louis. It would also be great for the future stability of the franchise.
You’ve been aggressive in signing free agents and re-signing your own players. Are you going all in on finally winning the Stanley Cup right now? Our payroll is up about $10 million. It’s the biggest increase in the league from last year to this year. When we came in, we said we were committed to putting a contending team on the ice that would ultimately win the Stanley Cup. You can’t do that if you’re not going to invest in it.
In the end, will that help with your business goals? I guess I see it as just in keeping with our commitment. We have two overriding goals: No. 1, win the Stanley Cup; it’s time to do that. The second is to make sure the Blues franchise is stable and sustainable here in St. Louis for years to come. No. 1 would help with No. 2.
It sounds like you see yourself more as a steward of a public trust than as the owner of a business. That’s the word we used when our transaction was announced. We see ourselves as stewards of the franchise. It’s our job to ensure that the franchise stabilizes and is here for a long time to come.
Last season, some in the media picked you to win it all… Did you know The Hockey News picked us this year to win the Cup?
But last time, it didn’t work out. You followed a good regular season with another playoff disappointment. The first-round exit is, in the end, very tough to swallow. It was disappointing for everyone, from the front office down across the board. I don’t know that people outside saw how upset people were here about that. Believe me, that was a tough one.
Did you break anything or throw stuff? I didn’t. I refrained from that. At the same time, I believe we made a huge amount of progress last year. Now, people want to say, “Well, the previous year, you got to the second round. Last year, first round. Therefore, no progress.” I don’t see it that way.
Why not? Because the previous year, we had a first-round win, and then we played the [Los Angeles] Kings. They just dominated us. Last year, we drew the Kings in the first round, and we fought them toe-to-toe. We were one or two plays away from dethroning the champions. The view around the National Hockey League is that that was the closest, toughest series of the entire playoffs. And that what we should be taking from that is, boy, you’ve taken big steps, and you’re right there.
The Kings are a tough matchup for you guys. They’re a tough matchup for anybody. That is a really good team. And they just learned how to win. So you come in with that learning and that swagger. It also if you remember, what the Kings did the two years before winning was lose in the first round. That’s pretty typical. You lose in the first round. You lose in the second round, a lot of disappointment. Then you learn. You learn not only how is the game played in the playoffs, but how deep you have to dig in the playoffs.
Coach Ken Hitchcock went through a similar process when he was in Dallas. It’s eye-opening. [President of Business Operations] Bruce Affleck tells a story about the Oilers, before the Oilers went on their run. They were eliminated the year before their Stanley Cup by the Islanders, who won four in a row. After they were eliminated, the Oilers players were walking out, and they walked past the Islanders locker room. They looked in there, and in the middle of the locker room was family and kids, all celebrating. Every Islanders player sat there completely spent, absolutely nothing left, beat to shit. The Oilers were like, “Oh. So that’s what it takes.” It’s several levels deeper. It takes some time to learn that. But I’m comfortable that our players are learning and improving.
You’ve had the same group of players together for a couple of years now. Is it time for them to take the next step? I think we are ready to take the next step or steps. I think we are definitely ready to go further. I believe, as the hockey guys like to say, our window has opened. We are now in a window during which we can and will seriously contend for a Cup. . It’s hard to say it’s going to be this year or that year, because things happen. But I think we’re ready to do a lot more damage this year.
Your primary goaltenders—Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot—each had moments of brilliance as well as struggles last season. We’re very strong in the goalie position. Last season is a tough season in which to judge goalies. If you look at goalies around the league who were not playing in Europe, most of them struggled. If you can imagine that you’re a goalie, and you spent all the way from September through December basically playing summer hockey. That doesn’t prepare you for what you have to do as an NHL goalie. You could see the effects of that on both Halak and Elliot. But let’s remember, they were one season removed from winning the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the league. They’re still those goalies. Now, Elliot has more experience under his belt. Halak has more experience and a very different level of conditioning and strength from this summer. He spent the entire summer here. His body fat went from like 14 percent to 9 percent or something like that. He added a lot of muscle. So I feel good about that situation.
In the NHL, you’re not allowed to mandate off-season training. They know that the first day of camp they’re going to be tested, but it’s really always the player’s decision how much he is going to commit to training over the summer. To a man, our players committed big time. At the end of last season, there were sit-down meetings with each player, and each of them had basically homework. This is what you need to work on. It’s conditioning, both strength and cardiovascular, but also skills. The coaches have said every person did what he was asked.
Perhaps that early playoff loss motivated some guys to do their homework. Right. You realize that “OK, if we’re going to dig deeper, we’ve got to be able to have some reserves when we get there.”
Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz had solid rookie seasons. Do you expect them to become stars? I think both Tarasenko and Schwartz are really exciting players. They both had great rookie seasons last year. Obviously Vladdy’s was interrupted by the concussion, so that sort of broke up his season. But I think it will be really exciting and interesting to watch them as they develop further this year. They’re both very, very talented players.
The NFL recently settled a big lawsuit with former players who sued because of head injuries. Are you worried about something similar happening in hockey? The entire league is concerned about concussions. It is a very top-of-mind, top-priority issue in the league. It’s one that a lot of work is being put into. I think we’ve made some improvements, but there’s a ways to go still.
Do you think the NHL’s track record could make it susceptible to a similar lawsuit? I’ve got to tell you, as one of the newcomers in the league, I am not going to opine on our liability. I don’t know. I do think that the league has taken the issue very seriously. Why wouldn’t we? We’re all human beings. These are good guys. I don’t want to see them lose their marbles. Also, they’re the most important asset of the business. The fans want to see them play. They don’t want to hear that Sidney Crosby or Alex Pietrangelo is out with concussion symptoms. That doesn’t help anybody.
What are some of the solutions that have been proposed? There has been a ratcheting-up of the rules against hits to the head. It started with a rule just against blind-side and lateral hits. Now it’s been broadened to any hit that principally targets the head. So that’s an advance. My guess is that sooner or later—probably sooner—we will go the next step, and go to what’s basically the international rule, which is you just can’t hit the head, unless there is some mitigating circumstance. You just can’t hit the head.
What about equipment? Some of the equipment had such hard shells, like elbow pads, that they became weapons. So some of those have been softened and edges brought down. Also, some of the hitting from behind, which often means the head goes into the boards, that is being much more strictly enforced, although you still see it way too much.
Where do you watch the games? I watch mostly from a suite, but I move around some. I’m going to try to move around a little more this year. I’ve often watched the second period from the Zamboni door.
Why? You really get so much more of a feel for the game up close, the closer you get. People who haven’t watched a lot of hockey, I’ll bring them down there, and they are stunned. They stand back for a moment. “Wow.” It’s so fast. It’s so quick. It’s so hard-hitting. And there’s so little room. You just get much more of an appreciation. I would also like to get a feel for different areas of the arena and fans in different areas and just be around. I might do some of that this year.
Do you do that stupid power-play dance? Now, I’m not going to call that stupid, because a lot of fans like that. It’s the Ameren dance, one of our wonderful sponsors. But I can’t say that I am a power-play dancer.