The Blue Jackets’ Man in the Middle

Blue Jackets' President Mike Priest

While local media, bloggers and commentators have devoted thousands and thousands of column inches to the actual and prospective centers on the Blue Jackets’ top lines — the on-ice men in the middle –relatively little attention has been paid to the real man in the middle — CBJ President Mike Priest.  Priest, who just passed the three year milestone as President of the hockey club, was gracious enough to sit down with me for discussion of the organization’s views and goals on a wide range of topics — from the Arena issues, to the team’s performance last year, and the hopes for the off-season and the future.

For those unfamiliar with Priest and his background, a brief biographical synopsis is in order.  An Ohio native, Priest holds a degree in Business Administration from Ohio State. After graduation, he joined a local accounting firm, obtaining his CPA designation and becoming a partner.  He moved to JMAC in 1996 as Vice-President and Controller, and was elevated to CFO the following year.  In 2001, he assumed the President role at JMAC, and became President of the CBJ in April 2007.  The McConnells have placed a great deal of trust and responsibility on Priest’s shoulders, but he clearly relishes the challenges and has a vision for the future.

While one normally thinks of the President of an organization residing squarely at the top of the pyramid, dictating policy in a distinctly vertical direction, Priest’s manner and tone conveys a different approach — one of a man quite firmly planted in the middle of the enterprise, with a keen awareness of all aspects of the operation.   Whether the topic is the arena, public relations/media, the coaching search, the draft, on-ice issues or season ticket sales, Priest speaks with understated conviction and conveys a solid understanding of these diverse topics.  Still, while challenging himself to know as much as possible about the key issues facing the organization, he seems intent upon walking that narrow path of involved management, working with ownership to establish direction and policy, while at the same time avoiding micromanagement and allowing those around him to do what they do best.

The Arena, Finances and the Columbus Market

It has been almost one year since the Blue Jackets went public with the adverse financial impacts they were experiencing as a result of the lease agreement for Nationwide Arena.   That lease agreement, in turn, was the result of a series of events that narrowed options and windows of opportunity as the NHL neared its deadline for selection of the final two expansion franchises. (For more background, see the four part series of arena articles, accessible here).   While studies have been completed, discussions conducted and ideas generated, the pace of progress has been slower than desired.  While admitting to some frustration over the pace of progress, Priest remains upbeat: “We are encouraged.  . . . we continue to gain momentum, and all indications are that we are going to get there [to a solution].”

Priest noted that a lot of public attention has been devoted to the casino issue, both on the November and May ballots, which has contributed to the slow pace of progress.  With the casino situation resolved, he is hopeful that increased attention will be brought to bear upon the Arena situation.  He observes that Nationwide is the only single tenant venue in the NHL without some measure of public participation in the funding model.  Still, he understands why things transpired the way they did in 1997, and believes that the success of the Arena District, together with the significant amount of tax revenue, investment activity and employment opportunities it has created, merits some form of public participation. Priest noted that both Edmonton and Kansas City are looking to emulate both the Arena and the Arena District concepts, but have the benefit of significant public contribution.

Priest is quick to acknowledge the efforts of Nationwide, stating that Nationwide remains “committed to a solution” and has been “right beside” the Blue Jackets as the process has moved along.  He senses that all of the necessary players understand that a solution needs to be found , but just need the “push” to put something in place.  He acknowledged that there are a “few” solutions being considered that he views as acceptable, and is anxious for them to move forward.  Understandably, he declined the opportunity to provide details, but said that the things being considered are “quite workable.”

Priest finds comparisons between Columbus and Phoenix to be totally unfounded.  He notes that Columbus has been proven to be a solid hockey market. Other NHL executives, and the league itself, have marveled at the 2007 Draft, the enthusiasm for the 2008-2009 playoff run and the overall market performance, particularly given the relative youth of the franchise.  The facility itself, with the attached practice facility, is the envy of many clubs.  Unlike Phoenix, Columbus enjoys a stable ownership group, and drew well at the gate last season, despite a disappointing on-ice performance.

Of note was the recent agreement with Ohio State for joint management form many of the day to day operations of Nationwide and Value City Arena.   Priest observed that there are “considerable synergies with best practices” that can be leveraged under the new agreement, and is enthused that OSU is “fully engaged” in the process.  Given the somewhat tortured history between the respective organizations over the roles of the respective arenas, this can only be viewed as a positive sign, and one step to a larger solution.

Priest’s approach to the arena/finances issue is as noteworthy for what he did not say, as for what he did.  While acknowledging that the organization is prepared for “all contingencies”, Priest avoided the stark language that so often characterizes issues of this nature.  The organization appears to be adopting a measured approach, grudgingly willing to accept a slower pace, so long as signs of progress continue.  While that patience undoubtedly is not infinite,  Priest remains upbeat and optimistic that a solution will be found.

The On-Ice Product & Transition

With a background steeped in corporate finance, you might expect Priest to be highly engaged in the results achieved on the ice, but less so in the nuts and bolts of the hockey product.  You would be wrong.  While perhaps not a viable candidate for the coaching slot, Priest is acutely aware of the ins and outs of the team’s performance, as well as the various factors that contribute to the peaks and valleys on the ice.

This past season was “a major disappointment”, in Priest’s view, particularly given the high expectations that followed the club’s initial playoff appearance. Those expectations were only heightened by a 12-6-2 start to the season – a phenomenon that Priest says was misleading.  “I talked to the coaches and they were scared to death.  The play was too loose  . . .it was unsustainable.” He acknowledged that it was certainly an entertaining brand of hockey, but could not produce the kind of consistent effort that was sought.   He points to problems at the back end – the blue line and in goal – as creating vulnerability.  From there, it was a “snowball effect” that crushed the team, and ultimately the coach.  “One of the biggest changes we went through was the transition to a very young leadership group.  When adversity hit, we missed the presence of a Michael Peca, for example, who could be a steadying influence”, Priest stated.  He noted that Hitchcock lacked a veteran “translator” who could assist in carrying the message to the younger players.

The demise and fall of Ken Hitchcock clearly troubled Priest, as did the team, which “clearly underachieved”. In his view,   “. . . there are no excuses for the caliber of product we put on the ice last season.  The fans are our life blood and we disappointed them and ourselves.”  By the time Hitchcock was dismissed, Priest said that the change was “inevitable.”   The club continues to believe that winning hockey begins at the back end and progresses outward. However, he also acknowledges that a top team needs to be able to play varying styles at appropriate times.  The transition game, the shut down defense and the possession game all need to be part of the arsenal. It is that type of team the organization seeks to establish in Columbus.

The Off-Season and Beyond

Despite the difficulties of the 2009-2010 campaign, Priest remains fiercely optimistic about the organization, the team and the approach to building from within.  He is clearly confident in the stockpile of young talent the club has accumulated, and believes this off-season provides some opportunities to put in some of the missing pieces.

Priest points out that the draft is a treacherous process, with often uncertain results.  “This is not going to Giant Eagle and buying a gallon of milk”, he says, with more than a touch of irony in his voice.  “We have not been “bad enough” to get one of the top two or three picks, except for the year we acquired Rick Nash.”  He observes that immediate contributors are seldom found outside the top two or three slots in most drafts, and that developing the other young talent obtained in the draft takes time.  He acknowledges that the organization has, in the past, done a poor job of managing fan expectations concerning its younger players, but also observes that regardless of any statements or actions by the club, fan expectations are increasingly focused on rushing young would-be stars to the NHL level.

One of the organization’s primary goals for the off-season is to establish a top-to-bottom structure that emphasizes player development, with consistent standards and goals.  The transition of the AHL franchise is part of that effort. The new coach, once selected, will have control of his own staff at the NHL level, and input into the selction of coaches for the Springfield affiliate as well. “We want to be sending the same message to our players, whether in the NHL or the AHL,” Priest stated.

Understandably, Priest would not comment specifically on the coaching search, which falls under GM Scott Howson’s purview.  However, he has participated in the second interviews for both Kevin Dineen and Scott Arniel, and has an articulated vision for the coach and the team emerging from the off-season.  “We want a coach who will be with us for a long time” he stated, “ We want to see a model where the players take over the team – where they are accountable to each other and rely on themselves and their teammates for motivation and support.  The head coach facilitates, this, but the players are accountable in the final analysis.”

He bristles a bit when confronted with the assertion that the Blue Jackets are a “budget” team, with the implication that they are unwilling to spend money to bring in talent.  He observes that the Blue Jackets have a significant portion of their talent signed for solid long term contracts, and have maintained room within the cap for signing the young stars emerging from entry level deals – Jake Voracek and Steve Mason being foremost in that group.  He believes that they are fiscally responsible, yet are willing to spend the necessary money, where warranted, for talent that will help the team move to the next level. He emphasized: “There has never been a move that the GM wanted to make that he was unable to make because of money.”

Priest is markedly optimistic about the future, while acknowledging that challenges lay ahead.  One of those challenges he concedes, is operating in an atmosphere unfamiliar with the long grind of professional sports, and possessing a “win now” mentality.  He notes that a survey of the league shows that a franchise’s development is seldom a straight line of improvement – there are ups and downs, and missteps along the way.  However, he understands that it is difficult to market “patience”, and is confident that the model is sound.  While he concedes that season ticket sales have “softened”, many fans are waiting for the coaching decision and some player acquisitions before making their moves.  He also understands that fortunes at the gate are tied directly to the performance on the ice.  “As we get the winning formula back, the fans will be there.  This is a solid market, not only in our opinion, but in the opinion of the NHL and the other owners.”

Mike Priest has a unenviable job in many respects, having to juggle the expectations of fans, owners, players and coaches – not all of which will align.  It requires vastly different skills to master the financial aspects of the organization, while simultaneously dealing with the subtleties of media and governmental relations, customer service, and the intricacies of hockey at the highest possible level.  Despite these challenges, he approaches it with an understated confidence and a keen grasp for detail.  Though not often in the public eye, Mike Priest is most assuredly the Blue Jackets’ most valuable Man in the Middle.