Following the announcement in February that the Charlotte Checkers would become the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate in the 2010-11 season, the next question was to take a look at the Checkers and find out "Who are these guys?" My quick scan of the Checkers website three months ago provided a brief bio of the club’s owner, Michael Kahn, and of Tera Black, Chief Operating Officer (COO). Unfortunately reading these just left me wanting to know more.
My story earlier this week looked at how the front office was managing the transition from ECHL to AHL, and how that would affect the NHL’s Hurricanes, the Caniac Nation, and those who have followed the Checkers for so many years. I was regarding this as sort of sports marriage between neighboring cities, ripe with potential, and perhaps needing some definition and some guidance. As we see so often in NHL hockey (and most professional sports), the character of the team is often a measure, or reflection, of the front office’s effectiveness and style. That relationship is somewhat mitigated in the AHL because the business side of the coaches' and players’ contracts is not under the AHL-level management’s purview, but to understand those at the top, those who are "in it" for the duration, might be more valuable than it is to study the players, whose stay is oftentimes as unpredictable as North Carolina’s weather in late January.
As COO, Tera Black is the guiding hand for the Charlotte Checkers whom owner Michael Kahn has entrusted to navigate his investment and guaranty that his personal mission to give back to the community in the Charlotte/Mecklenburg region is delivered. So in my conversations at the Checkers offices last week, I took the time to focus on Tera Black as a person, and ask her a few questions about her path, her presence and her passion, as she continues to nurture the Checkers’ place in Charlotte and grow the sport of hockey in Carolina.
Who is Tera Black?
Tera Black is the definitive multi-tasker. Start with her attention to detail, an ability to identify and articulate big picture concepts effectively, to quickly and confidently recognize opportunities, and stir in a generous dose of compassion for regular people and a love of the game of hockey, and her story begins to fall into place. These are clearly the traits that have allowed her rise so steadily in a world where a less open-minded hockey denizen might not expect to find a petite blonde mother of two, a native Californian, with flair for style and an easy laugh.
As she began her story, Black came to Charlotte after five years with the San Diego Gulls, an ECHL team that goes back to the 1960s. She ran the club for its last three years. A mentor of sorts, Jeff Longo, had worked with her there in California, and was the President of the Charlotte Checkers when the club was newly acquired by Michael Kahn in 2006. Prior to her time with the Gulls, hers is a multivalent resume that lists almost every front office role and support position one can have in professional sports. At age 20, while studying Kinesiology (with a minor in Journalism initially) at San Diego State University, Black took a volunteer position with the Sacramento River Rats (yeah, River Rats. Coincidence?) of the Roller Hockey International [RHI] League, the professional league at the time. From that point of entry, Black has successfully worn the hats that go with her roles as the Team Athletic Trainer, the Equipment Manager, the Travel Coordinator, an international Tournament Director where she also ran the tournament’s Sports Medicine, the Public and Media Relations Director, and the Chief Operating Officer.
Hard to imagine what could better prepare her for this next gig in the AHL, a giant step up in terms of the prominence, the budgets, and the expectations from the ECHL world where she has excelled the last several years. Let’s just say there’s a lot more "at stake". Meeting and listening to her, there is no doubt she’s a natural for this.
Except for the part about being from California, never having followed ice hockey till in her twenties, and the rather conspicuous fact that she’s a woman. And occasionally, when she meets folks in the community for the first time and they learn how she earns a living, as she puts it, "people look at me like I have four heads". And this doesn’t surprise nor bother her in the least.
Finding and falling in love with Hockey
Looking back on those early years in Sacramento, she commented, "You know, your hindsight is always 20/20, and I’m so glad that I did all that then because I had a lot of information that helps me now, travel and equipment budgets. And the coach of that team also ran the roller hockey tournament series; the national series, it’s called NARCh (for North American Roller Hockey Championships). It’s the largest most respected series worldwide. So I traveled the country, coordinating tournaments. I did all the sports medicine, coordination and tournament directing for two seasons."
Hockeymom – And how old were you then?
Tera Black – I was very young, 20 to 26, that I was doing all this.
Alrighty then. This girl’s got some serious mojo. But, I’m thinking, when’s the ice hockey going to show up. This was exactly my next question.
She explained, "They [NARCh] have a national tournament at the end of all this that hosts approximately 350 teams from around the world. So that was just a huge, huge learning experience. Management, coordinating, follow-through, planning, communications, and then I also did all the PR."
Continuing, "This is where my husband came into the picture. He is an ex-minor pro ice hockey player, Jamie Black. I had met him in Sacramento, in roller hockey, but he and I did not have a chance to see each other again until NARCh, where he was also a tournament director."
Enter, stage right: Jamie Black, professional ice hockey player. In 1993, he signed as a free agent with the Penguins, and was assigned to play in Cleveland, with the Lumberjacks. Mike Lappan, the Checkers’ Director of Public and Media Relations (and who you may recall I described Monday as Charlotte’s in-house guru of Canadian hockey culture) recalled this anecdote from Jamie’s time in the Penguins system that he’d heard him tell. "He was sitting there, he was a centreman. And he looks over, and Markus Naslund was one of his wingers and Petr Sykora was on the other side. He was just like: ‘Whoa!’ "
Tera filled me in on Jamie’s next few years. After his time in Cleveland, Jamie "went out west and then he was in Europe for four years. I took a year and went over there, and just nosed around the team’s administration there. I didn’t have anything else – I couldn’t work – we were dating at that time. And then we moved back to San Diego. NARCh wanted to hire me full-time, year-round as opposed to just the tournament season. In San Diego, I did that and Jamie signed with the San Diego Gulls [her story returning full circle to the ECHL team at the top of the page]. We got married the next summer.
"That’s where my love of the game began."
Now, imagine this scene: professional hockey player Jamie Black, born and bred in Calgary, Alberta brings home young California girl and hockey neophyte as his bride-to-be. Waiting there to greet the future mother of his grandchildren is Jamie’s dad. "My father-in-law is as Canadian as they come. And as hockey passionate as they come."
HM – from Calgary you said?
TB - Ah, yeah. (Then adding with emphasis, and possibly with the most subtle of eyerolls) BIG Flames fan.
HM – Follows the Sutters?
TB – Oh, yeah.
She continued, enjoying a chance to share this watershed moment in her family history: "Before we got married, I even had to take a quiz…on the rules of hockey, and I had to name all the Canadian provinces - I’m not even kidding - before I was allowed to marry into this family."
So here's my hockeymom shout out to all you Canadians out there with concerns about preserving the cultural integrity of Hockey in the American South: you can relax a little bit knowing you’ve got a father-in-law like Calgary’s Mr. Black keeping tabs.
But then she was quick to get serious again, giving due credit to her husband’s knowledge and insight in her career. "I don’t think I would be anywhere near the place I am in my career if not for marrying my husband. This crossing of paths, in roller hockey, of all things, and then he played for the Gulls in San Diego those 5 years and won 2 championships and ended up as the assistant coach…. I would not be as able to do things I can now, without that knowledge in depth, and the personal love of the game."
I asked if he still gets to play here, in Charlotte. "Yes. Just up until our second child arrived, he ran the youth hockey program out at our practice facility. He was the program director there. And he plays in the Men’s league – brings home the beer league championship every now and then," then added with a smile, "He won’t tell you about it though; I have to dig it out of him."
The move to Charlotte
Back when she was still happily employed by NARCh, the Gulls top executive Jeff Longo, after hearing about her accomplishments from a mutual colleague and a two-hour interview for the Gulls’ PR position, had offered her the job on the spot. Highly successful with the Gulls, Black garnered the organization awards for Excellence in Marketing and with a couple League championships too, the club was a model of excellence both on and off the ice. When Longo left to join the Charlotte Checkers in 2002, the Gulls' owner asked Black to take on the job as COO. Longo was also the catalyst that brought Tera and Jamie to Charlotte. When the owners of the Gulls decided to close up the club, for a variety of family reasons in 2006, Longo once more asked Tera to consider the move to North Carolina.
As Black described it, "When the team folded in San Diego, it was a perfect opportunity for me to explore this market and having young children, we wanted to move away from Southern California. It’s a little more difficult to raise children there than it is in Charlotte. San Diego is an unbelievably beautiful place, great for vacations, the weather….but very expensive to live, and we really had our eye on Charlotte for four years before we actually came here. And so it made perfect sense.
The interview process [in Charlotte] was very short and I came to be his [Longo’s] vice president in 2006. Longo left the Checkers’ organization two full seasons ago to be the VP of marketing for the NJ Devils and that’s when I took over as Chief Operating Officer."
Tera Black at the Checkers' offices last week (photo by author)
Looking Forward: the games, the fans, and the family
During the guided tour Black and Lappan gave me of the home of the Checkers, Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena, Black addressed a wide variety of topics, ideas and plans. She demonstrated the set-up for the AHL announcement on February 10th, and then mentioned a recent review with Jim Rutherford and Jason Karmanos around the facility two days prior to my visit, which was on May 20th. She is the consummate event planner, a gracious hostess focusing on the details to make her guests, the fans, most comfortable when they come to see a hockey game. Looking down at the floor of the arena, where the ice is gone but the boards remain, she was distracted a moment noticing that the top rail of the dasher was royal blue. She asks Lappan to make a note that they need to look at changing it to red to coordinate with the new Checkers' red and black team colors, as they do in all the NHL arenas.
Her comment also brought to my mind a recent fanpost here where we considered the reasons why hockey fans bang on the glass during games, which I shared with her, interested in her take. Her response was very clear thumbs-up: "I think it’s just part of the energy of the game. When it’s intense, the glass just seems to beg to be pounded on."
She asked me about details I might suggest for the décor of the new "Hurricanes Suite", to make it more meaningful and welcoming to new Checkers fans from Raleigh when they come to watch the Canes’ prospects. She pointed out the open mezzanine level with tables, individual desktop TV monitors, and surrounded by carpeting which "makes it a great place for the young kids to run around when they’re bored and need to be distracted."
I’ll confess I haven’t met too many other top executives in the AHL, (zero in fact), but looking back, I’m pretty sure this is not be the typical transcript of a hockey arena tour as narrated by the team’s head honcho.
Later, after grabbing a latte on the walk back, we began the formal interview at her corner office at 212 Tryon Street. We talked for over an hour. Toward the end, her identification of families, and more specifically "Moms", as her ticket-buying fans emerged again in an astute and distinctly individual observation for an accomplished pro sports executive, who also happens to be a mother of two young girls, ages two and seven.
As she put it to me, "You know, as a mother. You’re the one making a decision about what your family is doing on the weekend. Right? So, it is very important that we capture the initiatives of moms. Because they’re the ones who will say: ‘Hey, you know what? We’re going to a hockey game tonight. We have a choice'," and then counting out on her fingers, " 'we have the Panthers, we have the Bobcats, we have Movies, we have a NASCAR race, but I’m making the decision to go to a hockey game because of x, y, z.’ So they [the moms] are the decision-makers...for family entertainment. And for me, we’re doing a lot of advertising that’s associated with moms….And I don’t know that a lot of other organizations do that, if that’s the perspective they take. But I take it, because I know I make those calls."
I probably don’t have to tell you how yours truly, this minivan-driving hockeymom of three, who lists out her family’s weekly schedule on a giant blackboard in the kitchen to improve the odds that I will achieve the right combination of child/activity/place/time/day, 52 weeks a year, how I respond to hearing someone acknowledge exactly who calls the shots about what families do for fun. To tell you the truth, anybody who’s trying to make my "initiatives" easier, is my new best friend.
And with the Checkers' attendance reaching 12,000 in the house on a big night, this for ECHL hockey in Charlotte, NC mind you, I'll take a leap and suggest I'm not the only one who feels that way.
She and I also discussed a little bit about why we think women are drawn to hockey. I found her observations to be thoughtful and intriguing, showing great respect for the sport of hockey, the integrity of the players, and the intelligence of women fans. I've decided to save that conversation for a future story.
As I described in my first part of the Checkers story Monday, Black expects that because Charlotte is so distant from the core of the AHL teams that are distributed primarily and densely throughout the Northeast US, the Checkers’ schedule will include long road trips, covering multiple cities before returning back home.
Wrapping up, I asked her if she would travel with the team when they go. And to my surprise, that was actually a tough question, though really, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all, as it touches directly on the choices and sacrifices with which all working mothers can instantly identify.
Hesitating, she answered, "I doubt it." She sighed. "Probably not."
I offered, "There’s certainly a lot going on here in the front office that requires your supervision."
But that didn't work for her; she wanted to make it clear it was more than that. "It’s my family. I’m a ghost during the season and, when the team’s on the road, I try to be home with them." She added quietly, "Then they’re the number one priority."
If I may be so bold, I’d like to deliver an open message to Grandpa Black, up there in Calgary:
You can be proud of this girl Jamie brought home from California. The future is bright. Whether it’s the hockey or your grandchildren you want to hear about, from what I saw, it's all good.