Billionaire keeps local hockey in play

On Sports
by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS On Friday, Nov. 25, the arena curtains were opened at Memorial Coliseum for a rare daylight game between the Portland Winterhawks and Spokane Chiefs. An announced crowd of 7.065 saw the Hawks win 5-3.

He slips into Portland quietly at least a couple of times a month, tending to business in the Winterhawks’ office at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Los Angeles resident is the emissary of Winterhawks’ owner Bill Gallacher, a bit of a mystery man in his own right. He is Ken Stickney, 49, president of Avenir Sports Entertainment, an entity in Gallacher’s considerable financial empire. Stickney and Gallacher, 50, work behind the scenes, helping team president Doug Piper and general manager/coach Mike Johnston with the reclamation project that is Portland’s Western Hockey League franchise. Stickney has worked for Gallacher since 2008, when the Calgary oil magnate purchased a Winterhawks franchise that was the worst in the WHL by a long shot. Last week, Stickney sat down for a half-hour interview with the Portland Tribune, his first with the city’s media in more than three years on the job. “That’s by design,” Stickney says. “We try to put Doug and Mike up front. We don’t do interviews. We just want to get our business done.” Stickney, a former shortstop at Cal Riverside, is former president of Mandalay Sports Entertainment. MSE owns or manages seven minor league teams, including a pair of Triple-A clubs — Scranton/Wilkes Barre (Yankees) and Oklahoma City (Houston). Three years ago, Stickney and his father sold a majority interest in MSE to a private equity firm, and the junior Stickney joined Gallacher with the idea of similar pursuits in hockey. “I represent Bill in anything he wants to do in the sports world,” Stickney says. “His primary focus right now is the Winterhawks. He has aspirations to go beyond that.” Gallacher, who looked seriously into buying the Dallas Stars a year ago, would like to bring the NHL to the City of Roses. “I would fully expect at some time in the future that would be something we end up doing,” Stickney says. “Our aspiration ultimately is to own a hockey team at every level, and Portland has a lot of attributes you’re looking at for an entry market.” Gallacher is chairman of Athabasco Oil Sands Corp., a multi-billion-dollar business that owns leases and permits on more than 1 1/2 million acres in Alberta. The company’s reserves included an estimated 8.6 billion barrels of contingent resource in 2010. PetroChina purchased 60 percent of AOSC’s assets in 2009, “so Bill is in Asia a lot,” Stickney says. Gallacher also spends time watching Ohio State hockey. His son, Ben, is a freshman defenseman for the Buckeyes and was a fourth-round pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2010 draft. Gallacher’s other passion is the Winterhawks, though he doesn’t often see them play in person and hasn’t been to a game in Portland since the 2009-10 season. Gallacher watches some games on the Internet, though, and is in constant communication with Stickney. “Bill’s into it,” Stickney says. “We talk and text a lot. The other night, when we lost 7-6 in overtime, I got a text from him at 11:30 at night: ‘Dude, we gotta score eight goals to win?’ He’s a hockey guy.” ‘A great hockey town’ During the Gallacher era, the Hawks have gone from the worst record in the WHL to the league finals last season. They have seen a resurgence in attendance and corporate sponsorship. The scouting department has been revamped and improved. The Hawks expect to show a net profit this season for the first time in many years. Gallacher’s role has been a key to all of this, though he is not a hands-on owner. “It is more a vote of confidence than anything else,” Stickney says. “Doug is as good as it gets when it comes to hockey organization and management. Mike and Travis (Green, his chief assistant coach) are two pretty good hockey guys. (Gallacher) lets his people do their job. “Bill says very little and does a lot. I’m not sure the people of Portland understand how tremendous he has been as an owner. He has been so responsive whenever we’ve needed resources.” Gallacher, says Stickney, “is a simple guy, the most unlikely billionaire you’d ever meet. He is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t say much, but when he speaks, you listen. He’s really smart and a kind person — a good man.” Stickney and Piper are knee-deep into what they hope will be a public/private partnership with the city on a $33 million renovation of the coliseum. The Winterhawks seek an 8,000-seat multipurpose facility that would serve as their home. The Hawks propose to contribute $10 million to the project. No money will come from Portland’s general fund, Stickney says. The majority of the rest of the project would be financed through the Portland Development Commission, however, including more than $7.5 million in Oregon Convention Center Urban Renewal Area funds. The Trail Blazers, who manage the coliseum, would offer construction management services, but no cash. Winterhawks officials say that contribution is huge — a value in the seven figures. Portland’s City Council has approved the concept, but a final vote is expected to come in January. Nearly two years ago the coliseum was named to the National Register of Historic Places, and is designated as a memorial for war veterans, meaning it won’t likely be demolished. The renovation project “has to get passed,” Stickney says. “From my standpoint, the only way you lose is if you do nothing. You have a building that needs renovation.” Key parts of the proposal include enlargement of seats from 19 to 22 inches and a state-of-the-art scoreboard. “If we do nothing else but those two things, it would be fantastic, but we plan to do a lot more,” Stickney says. “We want to rebrand the coliseum. A lot of people have made up their mind not to go there. They’ll only go to the Rose Garden, but the coliseum can be a neat place to watch hockey. “We want to create an intimate, different experience from the Rose Garden, which is a magnificent building — as good as any NHL building in the country. But (the coliseum) can be really cool. If not, we wouldn’t get involved.” The Winterhawks’ coliseum lease expires after the 2013 season. If the renovation project is approved, the team will look to extend the lease at least through 2023, Piper says. The Hawks want the coliseum renovated because they have to compete for dates in the Rose Garden with the Blazers and many other shows, including concerts. “We could play (all) 36 (regular-season) games in the Rose Garden,” Stickney says. “But having Tuesday dates there — does that work out as well as having Saturday nights in the coliseum?” But what if the coliseum gets renovated, and a year or two down the road, an NHL franchise goes up for sale, and Gallacher buys the club and moves it to Portland? “We believe we would continue to operate the Hawks out of the coliseum,” Piper says. “There are lots of markets that have major- and minor-league teams.” Piper points to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver as examples. All, of course, are in Canada, where hockey is the national sport. Stickney says it could work in Portland, too, envisioning a situation such as in Los Angeles, where the Staples Center and Nokia Theatre work in tandem for events. “Portland is a great hockey market,” Piper says. “The Buckaroos were here before the Blazers, and they were extremely popular.” Without Paul Allen? The Hawks purchased the Valley Ice Arena in Beaverton last year. “We’re trying to resurrect hockey here,” Piper says. “Five to 10 years from now, we see five more skating rinks in town and 5,000 kids playing youth hockey. “We believe the Hawks could play in the coliseum and an NHL team in the Rose Garden, and both teams could do well. It wouldn’t kill the Hawks by any stretch to have both.” I’m not sure I agree with that. My other concern is whether an NHL team not owned by Paul Allen could make it in town. He owns and operates the Rose Garden and controls all proceeds from events at the building, including parking, concessions and souvenir sales. But Stickney says it works in other markets in North America, and a deal could be cut in Portland that would allow for Gallacher to own an NHL team and use the Rose Garden as its home arena. “We have talked to the Blazers conceptually (about bringing an NHL team to Portland), but nothing in depth,” Stickney says. “You couldn’t make any moves to bring the NHL here without their support.” Allen has had chances to land an NHL franchise and has always resisted them, ostensibly because he believes it would provide competition for fans and corporate support. The Rose Garden, though, would be a plum site for an NHL team. There’s no argument about that. “It’s a Class A-plus building that’s hockey-ready,” Stickney says. “There aren’t a lot of those around that don’t have NHL teams.” There are a lot of moving parts involved, and time will tell if it comes together if and when an NHL team goes up for sale. “Timing is everything,” Stickney says. “If something opens up, you have to be ready. There are a multitude of things that have to fall into place. “But I’m not getting any younger. I’d like to see it happen sooner rather than later.” For now, Gallacher and Stickney are focused on the Winterhawks — again one of the WHL’s top clubs — bettering their performance of a year ago. “We plan on winning the Memorial Cup this year,” Stickney says. “We don’t think about it in terms of rebuilding. We’re going to reload every year and go after it. “A lot of teams run cyclically; we’re not looking at it that way. Our goal every year is to win it all, and we have a good shot this year.”