RALEIGH - It was the wardrobe you noticed first.
There were NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Carolina Hurricanes president Don Waddell and general manager Ron Francis, attired as you would expect executives to be at an important business function. There was now-minority owner Peter Karmanos, in his standard blazer and button-down shirt.
And there was new owner Tom Dundon, in what amounted to a Canes-issue warm-up track suit, fist-bumping Chuck Kaiton while making his way onto the stage, taking ownership of the Triangle’s only major-league sports franchise.
Welcome to a new era of Hurricanes hockey, one in which the team’s owner is just as much a fan of the club as the paying customers watching his team.
And much like every fan who walks through the doors of PNC Arena 41 times a season, Dundon has his own opinions of how things could be made better. Spoiler alert: he isn’t happy, and he’s making the fan experience job one.
“I don’t think I’m happy with what a fan gets when they come here,” he told a crowd of about 125 media members and local dignitaries on Friday. “We want to make sure that someone feels they got value, they got entertainment, and that they tell their friends. I’m not going to do a lot of talking. We’re going to do things.”
The 46-year-old Dundon wasted no time firing shots across the bow of the team staff, both the hockey side and the business side. “We’re going to have a culture where everybody knows we’re going to keep improving everything, every day, all the time. It’s never going to be enough.”
Dundon had taken in a few games at the arena going all the way back to the preseason. And when asked at what point he realized the fan experience was going to be the most critical first step of his ownership, he wasted no time saying that he noticed it right away.
At one point, Karmanos, unsolicited, told Dundon that he would like to see season ticket sales double. Not thirty seconds later, Dundon turned that statement on its head. “If we don’t sell more tickets,” the new owner said, “it’s not the fans’ fault. It’s our fault.”
Dundon’s business experience is in leading consumer-focused brands that don’t necessarily have the rabid following of a sports team. No one is going to be telling their friends, say, how excited they were to make a car payment. But Dundon showed on Friday that his passion for doing things right by the customer supercedes any specific line of business.
And he doesn’t mind spending money to do it, drawing a contrast - even if he didn’t realize it was happening - with the man sitting two seats to his right. “We want to do a lot of great things,” Dundon said. “Pete has been the biggest cheerleader for doing everything we can with no limitations.”
For Bettman, Friday was a victory lap. Similar to past ownership transfers in Sun Belt markets like Tampa with Jeff Vinik and Dallas with Dan Gaglardi, Dundon represents the fulfillment of Bettman’s long-view expansion strategy, one that has never wavered in the face of any number of Canadian dreams to the contrary.
And he relished it. “This is a community that has embraced NHL hockey and the Hurricanes,” the commissioner said. “Over the years there has been speculation and innuendo and rumors about the future of this franchise. As I have repeatedly said, this franchise wasn’t going anywhere, and it isn’t going anywhere.
“There was never a risk of this team moving. It used to drive us crazy that we had to spend hours on the phone refuting stories that were just made up.”
Not going anywhere physically, maybe, but Dundon made it clear that it would be going places: on the ice, in the locker room, in the marketing suite, and any number of places. “I’m not patient,” he admitted. “The fact that they have a team that can win right now, and we can do some things to bring more fans and resources, that was an opportunity. This is a market that has supported this team and loves sports. This is a winning place. I know we can fix it.”
Dundon will be commuting between Dallas and Raleigh for the indeterminate future. With five kids at home, he will have his attention somewhat divided, but when he’s in Raleigh, he says that he will be a regular presence at the arena, where the team will have his undivided attention.
And he’ll have one goal in mind with every decision he makes, every tweak he implements, every shift he watches, every meeting he attends.
“I hope we set some new expectations that are hard to meet, and we will keep working every day to meet them.
“I value winning,” he said, “more than I value money.”
Tom Dundon meets the media for his first appearance as Hurricanes owner
Tom Dundon meets the media for his first appearance as Hurricanes ownerPosted by Canes Country on Friday, January 12, 2018
Gary Bettman’s thoughts on Tom Dundon’s purchase of the Hurricanes
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offers his thoughts on Tom Dundon’s purchase of the Carolina Hurricanes.Posted by Canes Country on Friday, January 12, 2018