- As seen in the game program
Jeff Fishbein, BEARS Staff Writer
For the coaches, players and the folks at the rink, getting ready for the hockey season can be accomplished in the middle of summer. For the front office, it's a never-ending process, from ticket sales, to marketing — everything related to the operation of the franchise takes time, all year long.
For HERSHEY BEARS General Manager Doug Yingst, that process has been, of late, a successful one. In three seasons, he's overseen the transition of National Hockey League affiliates from Colorado to Washington, and engineered the team that developed a number of players who helped the Capitals back into the Stanley Cup playoffs. The teams he put together here made back-to-back trips to the American Hockey League finals, winning a Calder Cup. The BEARS have been league leaders in attendance, and have set internal records for audience sizes in that time.
Is it any wonder the AHL in 2008 bestowed on Yingst the Thomas Ebright Award for career contributions to the league?
With the Ebright on his shelf, Yingst becomes just the second executive in the league — the other is Springfield president, general manager and part owner Bruce Landon — to win the trifecta of executive hardware in the league. He previously was selected for the Ken McKenzie Award, given for outstanding promotion and marketing of a franchise, and the James C. Hendy Memorial Award, presented to the league's top executive each year.
Yingst also is one of just two execs who have taken home the Hendy Award twice — the other being Hershey legend Frank Mathers.
Landon said one reason he and Yingst have been able to pile up the accolades is because they've managed to stay around so long — and to do so many things in their respective tenures.
"We started when you didn't have big staffs, and you sort of wore a lot of different hats," Landon said. "You learn to do everything at the ground level and you work your way through it, whether it was public relations and marketing and sales, then more into management, then starting to get more involved in the hockey side of the operation.
"The little difference is that I was a former professional player and went right into the front office after playing. Doug went into the front office under different circumstances."
Yingst, who has coaching experience in lieu of play — he runs one of the teams associated with the Junior Bears program, and has twice stepped behind the big bench, as recently as last November when Bruce Boudreau headed to the NHL and Bob Woods was promoted in Chocolate Town — and, Landon points out, had the benefit of good mentors, most notably Mathers.
"We learned what the business is all about. You don't just specialize in one area," he said, which is not how the league works today in many cases.
"As the leagues grow, and staffs start to grow, people are coming into the business really specializing in one area, maybe two if they're lucky," Landon said. "Doug and I were wearing all kinds of hats. That's what's allowed us to be around to win various awards in different categories."
And then there are just the qualities that make men like Yingst and Landon stand out among their peers — much like the men for whom these awards are named. Although McKenzie was not an AHLer — he was co-founder of The Hockey News, with which he was long affiliated — Hendy and Ebright both were successful AHL leaders whose success warranted recognition not only for what they did, but for the way others emulated them.
"I think a great advantage is to have a passion for the game and good knowledge of the game as well as solid business acumen," AHL president David Andrews explains. "Most of the executives in our league were on the business side, generally are focused on the business side only. But some of our teams — and Hershey is certainly one of them — know the relationship between the (team) and their National Hockey League affiliate, and decisions about who the affiliate will be, and how the player supply will be determined each year. The BEARS themselves have a large say in that.
"The chief executive of the team needs to really have a good feel for the game and a good knowledge of players that are out there. Doug certainly has that," Andrews said. "He's very close to the game, and he stays close. He has a strong network of connections in the sport. He really has a tremendous mix, and there are few people in our league that have it, that have a strong mix of the hockey background, being a hockey person, as well as very solid business sense."
Landon points out that Yingst is a people person — he relies on his interpersonal skills and ability to build relationships as a means of constructing a successful hockey franchise.
"And then certainly under Frank he was able to get more into the hockey side of the business," Landon said. "Hershey's such a great place for players to play, and they want to play there also because of Doug and the way he treats people. I think that's what really jumps out to me knowing Doug as long as I've known him."
As Yingst moved up the ladder in Hershey, Andrews' career took him from Cape Breton — where he was an executive with the Oilers — to the top position in today's AHL. He said that the passing of the torch in Central Pennsylvania from one good leader to another has been key in the success not only of the franchise, but of the people running it.
"My relationship with Doug got much closer after Jay (Feaster) moved on, and over the years that I've been president of the league. I have a lot of respect for him, I have a lot of respect for the job he does in Hershey," Andrews explains. And like Landon, he sees a leader in Yingst who is easy to work with.
"He's a very personable guy. He's a great guy in the community and a great guy in our league," Andrews continues. "He really respects the game (and) he has a passion for the HERSHEY BEARS that's unmatched. When you look at the transition from Frank to Jay to Doug, Hershey has really benefited from wonderful leadership."
Landon, who still has to look at Yingst across the ice, sees a fierce competitor as well as a friend and colleague — one who can work with an NHL club to build a roster comprising quality veterans and young prospects.
"Fortunately for us lately, because our team has not been as good ... we don't play the BEARS too much," he jokes. "Finding that right chemistry and that right mix is so important not only in developing the young players, but also to win hockey games and keep the fans in Hershey happy."
Andrews points out that winning an award like the Ebright — or for that matter, any of the executive awards — demands the ability to show your peers that you are worthy of the trophy. Although the AHL Board of Governors makes the final selection on winners, the nominations have to come from another team.
"So, someone on the board would have nominated Doug in each instance," Andrews said, the latest being the youngest award among the three — Yingst is just the 11th winner — but also is one that can not be won by someone who has not devoted significant time and effort into the growth and success of the AHL.
"It speaks to two things: One, obviously, longevity in the league, but more importantly, the contribution that person has made to the growth and success of the league over the years," Andrews said.
"Doug certainly has served in a lot of capacities," including time on the board and as a member of all of its committees. "He brings a lot to the table and he's a very dedicated person to the American Hockey League and I think that was recognized this year, as well it should have been."
Yingst joins an elite club that includes not only Mathers and Landon, but other executives — mainly from the oldest AHL cities, where teams have been in place long enough to allow an executive to build the resume that puts someone in the top tier. It's a unique blend of hockey knowledge and business acumen, Andrews says, something that only a few have been able to put together.
"Frank was one of the best players who ever played in the American Hockey League, arguably the best defensemen who ever played in the American Hockey League over the period of his career, coached and was a general manager, and brought those things to the front office when the time came," Andrews begins. "Bruce Landon similarly played in the WHA, was an outstanding player. He worked his way through the organization in Springfield, beginning in public relations and advertising fields, working his way to general manager and also becoming an owner of the team.
"Doug similarly didn't start at the top of the Hershey Bears
organization. He worked his way through it and has experienced virtually every aspect of the business," Andrews recalled. "There aren't a lot of folks in the American Hockey League who have had that sort of background and that sort of experience."
And then there's success on the ice, certainly an aspect when it comes to one of the awards — the one that Yingst and Mathers have shared four times between them, one that has come to Hershey more than half a dozen times, one that Andrews himself picked up before moving into the league's front office.
"To win the Hendy Award you have to have a hell of a year. If I look at Doug's career, there have been a number of them," Andrews said. "He's had the Bears in a position of being very, very competitive over the last decade and also led the transition into the Giant Center
, which was not easy. To go from Hersheypark Arena
, which was such a historic building and a legendary part of the American Hockey League — how was that going to go when they moved into a new building in terms of the impact on the fan base, etc.? Doug did a wonderful job there," not to mention the move from Colorado to Washington, which Andrews noted "took a lot of foresight and a lot of work on Doug's part.
"Doug is a guy who's brought a lot of success pretty quietly in terms of the way he goes about his business, but he's brought great success to the franchise."
Seemingly at the pinnacle of success, is there anything left for a Doug Yingst? Frank Mathers had the chance to go to the NHL, but decided instead to keep his family here. Landon, similarly, is settled for the long haul in Massachusetts.
"We're still young people. There's no question in my mind that if the opening was there and Doug had the opportunity in the National Hockey League he'd do a wonderful job," Landon said. "I can't speak for him, whether or not at this time in his career, his family (established in Hershey), whether he'd want to make that move.
"For me, it's a decision that I made a long time ago. I didn't want to become a hockey gypsy," Landon said.
"(Buying the team) sort of put an end to my aspirations of going on to the National Hockey League," he said, adding that he's happy where he is today. "I think Doug feels the same way. He's very happy to be running such a great franchise. Whether he has aspirations to move on, that's a question for Doug."
Andrews admits that a step up the AHL ladder might be a possibility for Yingst, who could even take Andrews' job some day.
"Well maybe he will — hopefully not too soon," he said, laughing.
But, he said seriously, there will be one more non-hockey award that both Landon and Yingst should see in their futures.
"At some point, I think guys like Doug and Bruce Landon certainly will be candidates in time for the AHL Hall of Fame," he said — just not yet.
"With their contributions and the success they've had, I think retirement is not imminent; I don't think they'd like it to be imminent," Andrews said. "I think the most important thing for Doug is to win cups. That's what it's all about. If you gave Doug the choice of winning all three of those awards or winning another Calder Cup or two, I know what he'd choose.
"That's the legacy of everyone who's involved in the game. I suspect they want to get right back at it and get into the finals again this year."