Original Story: freep.com
Peter Karmanos Jr., the Detroit businessman and longtime hockey supporter, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 9.
Karmanos, 72, has been involved in the sport for four decades. He co-founded the Compuware youth program in the 1970s. It has produced 16 national championships, 34 state championships, more than 200 NCAA Division I scholarship players and 14 NHL first-round draft picks. He founded the first U.S.-based OHL franchise in 1989 and ultimately sold the Plymouth Whalers in 2015.
His Carolina Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup, and his Florida Everblades won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup in 2012. He is already a member of the U.S. Hockey and Michigan Sports halls of fame.
Among the honors he has received: the Lester Patrick Award (outstanding service to hockey in the U.S.), the Bill Long Award (outstanding contributions to the OHL) and the USA Hockey Distinguished Achievement Award.
Free Press sports writer George Sipple sat down with Karmanos and gathered his thoughts on several topics, including his unique hockey background, his pursuit of Sergei Fedorov and his rivalry with Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.
On entering the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder: “When you look at the players going in, Fedorov and (Nicklas) Lidstrom especially, sort of feel a little insignificant from the hockey point of view. But, really along with Mike Ilitch, I think I was responsible for building the amateur hockey program in Michigan — something very unusual nationwide and that’s been going now for over 40 years, Compuware hockey. ... I plan to put a significant amount of money back into that to improve it even more.”
On what has kept him so passionate about hockey for so long: “It’s such a fast-moving game. It’s a very physical game. It’s also a very smart game, all right? The same plays that occur in soccer that have soccer fans loving the game occur in hockey, except it’s faster than soccer and it’s far more physical. We don’t have many players laying on the ice complaining that someone hit them too hard. I like the aspect of how creative the game is as it is going on. Sometimes a little two-foot pass creates a beautiful play. It’s always changing.”
On his mother’s influence on his love of hockey: “She came back (to Detroit after living in Greece) right at the start of the Depression in 1930, went to Central High School. She was a field hockey player, and she turned out to be a classic bowler as well. She was a pretty good athlete. I had stumbled downstairs one time back in the early ’50s. There was this game on TV that my mother was watching on an 11-inch round Zenith TV set. Quite sure it wasn’t HD back then. Just happened to be the Detroit Red Wings playing the Montreal Canadiens at Olympia. And right as I started watching the game, Ted Lindsay got into a fight with Maurice Richard, and I thought, ‘This is really cool.’ I just watched the game and was fascinated by it.”
On how much he reflects on winning the Stanley Cup: “Not much. I don’t live in the past. That’s what I keep telling our guys, too. That was 10 years ago.”
On his quest to break the perception that a U.S.-born player couldn’t go far in hockey: “Oh, yeah, that was my main goal. I remember, very ironic, talking to a hockey parent back in 1978 or something like that, maybe 1979. There was a practice going on, and they said, ‘All these kids, the best they can hope for is maybe a college scholarship, maybe a partial one.’ I said, ‘Is that right?’ The team that was practicing had Alfie Turcotte, who ended up being a first-round NHL pick; Pat LaFontaine, who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame; Al Iafrate, who ended up being a first-round NHL draft pick. I said, ‘We’ll see about that.’ We had one after another and a whole slew of them that played for our Tier II junior team. We had hundreds of kids get scholarships.”
On what separates the Compuware program from others in the area: “I don’t think there’s anything to separate it. I’m glad there’s a lot of great programs. Caesars was going on when we built ours, and a lot of it was tailored after that. The difference — and we’re going to go back to it — is we didn’t have parents coaching. We had guys who were coaching because they love to do it. I went out and got some fellas who had played college hockey who were in their mid-20s to late-20s, didn’t have any kids involved, and they ran the program. We’re looking for people like that. Occasionally good fortunes fell, and you had a parent with a kid who was a good coach. You wouldn’t tell him to go away, either. The thing that really separated us is we tried to run the amateur hockey program so it was self-sufficient. We ran arenas and hockey schools and put it all back into the program, which was fairly novel at the time. People got excited I was paying coaches. I wasn’t paying coaches to coach. I was paying them to run a business, and, ‘Oh, by the way, in your spare time, coach a team.’”
On the process of strengthening Compuware program today: “I’m about to have a meeting sometime this fall, early winter, with all the coaches and talk about what we want to do with the program, where we want it to go. I don’t want to accept the status quo of picking your (next) team while your current year is still going on. I’d like to see kids try out. They change every year. They develop. It’d be really nice if they had to try out. Back when we started out, people had to try out. We’d have 50 kids at a tryout. But everyone is so PC today, you wouldn’t want your kid feeling hurt by having someone tell them, ‘Well, geez, you didn’t make the team.’ Which is a real mistake on the parents’ part because that’s how life really works — competition and the fact that, ‘Hey, you weren’t good enough. But if you work hard, maybe next year.’”
On his continued involvement in the program: “Most people thought that the minute my older boys got out of hockey that I would drop out. It was too much fun and too many good stories, so we just kept it going.”
On if he’s concerned with any aspect of youth hockey: “Yeah, it’s too expensive. Costs the parents an arm and a leg. When my older boy started skating, ice was $40 an hour. ... Today it’s $300 an hour. Hockey sticks were $4 or $5. Now they’re a hundred-some-odd bucks. Skates were $15 or $20 for the best kind of skates. Now they’re $200, $300. That’s what’s really holding the game back. You can’t get a lot of kids to play. Parents have to be fairly well off. There’s no easy solution. ... Right now the problem in the U.S. is the best athletes in the U.S. generally will go to other sports first. The best athletes in Canada play hockey first.”
On how confident he was of acquiring Fedorov in 1998 when he signed him to a six-year, $38 million offer sheet, which Ilitch ultimately had to match: “Well, I had talked to the Red Wings about if they are going to move Sergei, we’d like to trade. I knew they were shopping him — and hadn’t told us — to Philadelphia, who was in our division. Had a few conversations. I don’t want to get into old history. We decided we could put together that kind of offer and it would be tough for the Wings to match it. And there was a lot of questions about whether that was proper, but I knew we had followed the rules to the nth degree. The Wings’ argument was, ‘Carolina isn’t going to make the playoffs.’ I remember the arbitrator saying, ‘Oh, you know that now? Why do you guys play the season?’ We damn well could have made the playoffs with a player like Fedorov. We had Ronny Francis on the team. He’s the fourth-leading scorer in the history of hockey — did it very quietly. And we had Rod Brind’Amour on that team. It was a pretty good hockey team.”
On ruffling feathers back then: “I don’t care. I’m competitive as well. From growing up in Detroit.”
On his relationship with Ilitch: “His (amateur hockey) team was there long before anyone else. He doesn’t get enough credit for that. Grudging respect. ... We just have different philosophies. It’s like oil and water at times. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. We just don’t mix.”
On fans of the Hartford Whalers still being bitter at him for relocating the franchise to Carolina: “When we went into Hartford, the season before they averaged 6,000 people a game — and that includes games against New York or Boston, where most of the crowd was New York or Boston fans. Hartford’s not a big city. Today, if there was a team in Hartford, it would be the smallest market in the league by a mile. You competed for business with all the New York professional teams, all the Boston professional teams and even a little bit with the Flyers and Islanders. I don’t know why the people there are so upset. The team hadn’t ever won a thing. They had a celebration for a first-round playoff loss.”
On moving to Carolina: “From a business point of view, it’s the fastest-growing area in the country, and it’s continued that way for a long time. The metropolitan area of Raleigh is bigger than Charlotte. I have no other competition on a professional level. ... So we have the whole market to ourselves in Raleigh, and it’s a vibrant market.”
On how much longer he’ll own the Hurricanes: “I don’t know. It depends. I’m 72 years old. I’ve got young kids at home and trying to figure out what the right succession plan is. I’m looking for a partner. My original partner, Tom Thewes, was the greatest partner you could ever have. He passed away in 2008, and I made sure that we cleared everything up for him and his family. I’m really looking for a partner where I can ease out of it in the next three, four or five years.”
On watching an OHL season after selling the Whalers, which are now the Flint Firebirds: “I was up in Flint for their first game, and it was hard for me to even stay throughout the game, 30 years in the OHL. It was tough.”
On how difficult it was to be an American owner in the OHL, first with the Windsor Spitfires and then with the team that eventually became the Whalers: “Well, 30 years ago, Dave Branch and Sherry Bassin had to go to bat to even allow us as U.S. owners to buy the team in Windsor. They were, ‘No.’ An awful lot of work was done to buy the team. (Branch) wanted to make the league more dynamic, and they ended up with three (U.S.) teams now: Erie, Saginaw and Flint.”
On some of his favorite OHL players: “You go from Windsor to the Compuware Ambassadors to the Junior Red Wings to Plymouth. Start off with players like Adam Graves, and you had players like Pat Peake and Bryan Berard and coaches like (Peter) DeBoer and Paul Maurice, who are now top coaches in the NHL. There’s just been a ton of players. I don’t have a favorite. Paul Maurice is my favorite coach. Paul’s so smart and such a droll sense of humor.”
On the NCAA: “The worst representatives of the sport of hockey is the NCAA, because they talk out of both sides of their mouth. The average freshman is now 21 1/2 years old in college hockey. They say education is an important thing. There’s life after hockey, and you need an education. They have kids finish their high school, and they make them sit in Des Moines or some city (in juniors) for a couple years. And I’ve said, ‘What do you think those kids do when they’re out of school for two years?’ We ran a Tier II junior team, and we would put 10 kids a year at least into college hockey and the (college coaches) around here acted like they were doing us a favor by taking the kids. And I was spending $200,000 to $300,000 a year supporting that team. And when we ended it, they acted like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Nobody from college hockey ever offered to help us, and we were developing players like crazy.”
On convincing fellow NHL owners to help support the U.S. National Team Development Program, which moved into the former Compuware Arena in Plymouth this year: “Developing those players are very important to us. … From an owner’s point of view in the NHL, I want the best athletes in the U.S. to play hockey. We want to the (Jack) Eichels and those kids to have a place to go. It’s very selfish on my part. It works. It’s been a very successful program. It means something to me as an owner in the National Hockey League. It helps us spread hockey through the U.S.”
On his Hall of Fame speech: “It’s hard, trying to figure out whether it’s one big series of thank yous. I think my introduction to hockey will be different than anyone else that’s being inducted with me. And it’s certainly different than most of the people sitting in the room and probably different than many of the people watching on TV. I don’t know many other people that lived and breathed for the third period of Red Wing home games in 1952.”
On the induction ceremony: “Very nervous. A lot of those hockey players are very poised, very good speakers, and they can talk about (their) career. I have to talk about things that are much different than what everyone else is talking about. My stats are pathetic — zero goals, zero assists, zero penalties.”
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