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SPIRE “EYE”: MY VIEW FROM BOTH SIDES OF FIVE YEARS OF SPIRE HOCKEY

Thursday, February 22nd
SPIRE “EYE”: MY VIEW FROM BOTH SIDES OF FIVE YEARS OF SPIRE HOCKEY

By Mark Binetti - Senior Director of Communications & Team Services, Broadcaster

As a broadcaster, I’m used to having a bird’s eye view of hockey. I generally sit in the highest possible position to see the game play out. I can identify players, formations, the buzz of the crowd, and take in all sorts of information from the comfort from up top. Because of this, I will always contend I have the best seat in the house, and it is from this seat that I can best tell the story of what’s happening over 60 minutes of game action every night, and subsequently the entirety of the season.

It’s also very rare in my position that I have a seat on both sides of the house. That’s what makes today’s story so special. This is a celebration of five years of Spire Hockey, and the ownership group of Spire Sports + Entertainment.

I’m one of five people that can say he’s worked for both the Rapid City Rush and Greenville Swamp Rabbits under the ownership of Spire Sports + Entertainment. Johnny Coughlin, Ryan Zuhlsdorf, Scott Hull, Todd Mackin, and I are those five individuals, representing the complete spectrum of on-ice product, media relations and communications, and sales and leadership. Of the many experiences I’ve been blessed to have in 11 years as a broadcaster in professional hockey, working for this group and these people is still the biggest privilege of my career.

What’s so special for me, having been with both organizations, is that this week between the Rush and Swamp Rabbits is a bit more personal than just three hockey games. Rather, from my perspective, it’s a celebration of the ownership group and Spire Hockey as a whole. This year marks four seasons for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits under SS+E ownership, but in all reality is the fifth anniversary of Spire Hockey. This three-game series, while it features six critical points in the standings for both teams in pursuit of the playoffs, is really an acknowledgement and recognition of growth from this entire group. Walk with me as I give you my bird’s eye view of five years of Spire Hockey.

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Spire Hockey all started back in Rapid City, during my sixth season with the team in the 2018-19 ECHL campaign. Honestly speaking, the Rush weren’t in the greatest of states: we were so-so on the ice, didn’t have the greatest organizational culture, and because of that, no one wanted to come work or play for us. I felt like we always could’ve done more, but we needed help and strong leadership in multiple facets. As luck would have it, I was told on a road trip to Tulsa in January of 2019 that the team had been sold to Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr of Spire Sports + Entertainment. Of all places, they were from North Carolina, so as someone who called Charlotte home, my ears immediately perked up upon hearing the news.

I remember the first time I talked with Jeff, setting him up for an introductory press conference and a tour of different call-ins to radio shows and television stations coming to the arena to speak with him. Within a few minutes of conversation, I just knew we were going to be okay and that things would be different. He further solidified this calm during his press conference, explaining his vision for being a first-time owner of a hockey team. 

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In everything he’s ever done, from Spire Hockey to Spire Motorsports, and Motorsports Management International before that, Jeff has always preached a “big tent theory”, which basically means that everyone is under the same umbrella of expectation and success. Everyone has an equal role in putting the stakes into the ground to secure the tent, and that it’s a collective effort to make sure the foundation of success and progress is strong to ensure the tent stays up. He also promoted intraorganizational synergy, meaning if the front office sold the building out but the team lost 5-0, or on the flip side if the team rattled off 10 straight wins but no one was here to celebrate it, he wanted everyone from the front office to the dressing room to feel it on each side. The tent starts at the top and trickles all the way down to the bottom, but everyone equally has an important role in ensuring the long-term success of what we’re trying to accomplish. After educating the community of Rapid City on this formational principle, he then stated his next move was to put a President in place that would anchor all of this together.

That’s where Todd Mackin, the first President of Spire Hockey, comes into the story.

I’ve known Todd for a long time, beginning with my early years in Rapid City when he was with the Kansas City Mavericks as their Executive Vice President. During my rookie year, I had a near broadcast connection fiasco on the road in KC, and he was the only opposing team representative that even cared to go out of his way to help. Because of this selflessness, I always made a point to say hello to him whenever the Rush and Mavericks squared off in KC. When I heard he was going to be our President, I ironically told him not to come, citing the firestorm he’d be walking into. However, later knowing his potential arrival was due to Spire’s involvement, I was ecstatic he was coming on board. The best part of his arrival was Jeff at his introductory press conference. Paraphrasing a bit, he said “I could tell all of you that we cast a wide net and interviewed multiple candidates for this role. We didn’t. I identified Todd and wanted him and only him to lead this team.” 

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Jeff’s words rang true. Todd was THE guy we desperately needed. We introduced him formally in March of 2019, and you could just feel things were different at his press conference. We got through the end of the season, narrowly missing playoffs, and then things really heated up that summer.

From where I sat, the change in our organization was instantaneous. We brought in high quality people, elevated and empowered the right ones that stayed, and went into the offseason for 2019-20 grinding away for each other and our community. Todd made us a family, and he stressed that to our Season Ticket Holders and Corporate Partners that we’re all in this together. Before you know it, our hard work paid off: we mended community relationships with fans and partners, we had a competitive team on the ice that seemingly couldn’t lose at home for the first two months of the year (and was even in 1st in the ECHL at one point), and we had fans that wanted to be a part of the team again. Simply put, my quality of life in my role was at an all-time high.

Spire Hockey had a long-term plan to grow over the years, but it expanded exponentially in the blink of an eye when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. SS+E announced it had acquired the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, officially breaking the news in May of 2020 as the new majority owners of the team. I remember thinking to myself that Greenville wouldn’t know what was about to hit it, in all the right ways. I was so excited that we had an organization we could bounce things off and pool ideas with. It just added to how fulfilling the experience was being with an ownership group that had our back and was committed to doing things the right way in the ECHL.

In the team’s press release announcing SS+E’s majority acquisition, two things stood out to me within the span of as many sentences. First, Jeff said “We believe in this league”, which is critical to grasp and apparent to see, seeing as how the organization doubled its investment in the “Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League”. He saw what this league could be when you properly invest in a product and a market, regardless of size, the way he and his group did with Rapid City. We became a league leader in so many different front office capacities, winning awards for ticket growth, community involvement, and specialty nights, so there was a tangible metric of that success to show the fans in the Upstate. The second, and most important to me, he directly said “As Carolinians ourselves, we have immense pride in this this region, in this community, and GREENVILLE DESERVES A TEAM THAT IS THE ENVY OF THE LEAGUE.

If that last line doesn’t give you chills…I honestly don’t know what will. From there, I was able to support the organization under the “big tent” of Spire Hockey, and believe me when I say their strides were just as immediate as the ones I saw in Rapid City. Todd pulled double duty as the President of both organizations. It was a Herculean task, but one he handled with grace. He rebuilt the necessary pillars of the front office, which included bringing in current President, Tim Vieira, who has been in Greenville every step of the way over the last four years under Spire Hockey. Already, staffing moves started to pay off, but for the Swamp Rabbits to become the envy that Jeff intended, it needed to change some things on the ice.

Enter the bench boss, Andrew Lord.

“Lordo” was as advertised. During his interview process, he solidified himself as a detail-oriented leader, who had a vision for how a group of men striving for the same championship aspirations should operate. A former Captain in the ECHL, an AHLer, and successful player overseas, Coach Lord cemented his ability to lead and hold people accountable both on and off the ice. His resume coaching the Cardiff Devils said plenty: he won nine separate championships and 221 games over six seasons during his tenure in Wales before coming back to North America for the next stage of what we can see will be a long professional journey.

I remember being there for his first day on-site at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in August of 2020. I was visiting my family in Charlotte and drove down to Greenville to visit the newest Spire Hockey members. The anticipation of positivity and energy was apparent. Coach Lord had great command of the message he wanted to convey to the fans and to the community. He was going to have a team that was involved, and he was going to have a team of high caliber that would make some serious noise. Reflecting on his nearly four full seasons at the helm, he’s done just that. Coach Lord came hot out of the gate with an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021, going down to the wire in a decisive fifth and final game against South Carolina. He’s made the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons. This year, his team became the fastest in Greenville professional hockey history to win 30 regular season games, doing so in 42 contests, and coached in his 250th game with the organization this past January. He’s sent a great number of players to the American Hockey League and solidified a strong relationship with the Los Angeles Kings. He’s poised for another postseason run, one that’s showing signs of a deep foray into June. 

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Off the ice, the team smashed revenue records, created engaging nights for the fans to enjoy, and connected with the community on a level that hadn’t been seen in a long time. From afar, I was ecstatic to see that growth, and I continued to watch the buildup when I went to the AHL with the Stockton Heat in 2021-22. After my brief AHL stint ended, I moved back to Charlotte and worked for SS+E for just shy of a year and a half, tasked with responsibilities related to both hockey properties. While I wasn’t broadcasting full-time, where my passion truly lies, I was still involved with both teams and was able to keep a pulse on the game with the familiarity of working with Spire Hockey. On the Greenville side specifically, I assisted with financial obligations and helped Coach Lord with travel, per diem, and player/staff immigration. Because I was back in Charlotte, I’d come down to Greenville for the bigger promotional nights and be an extra set of hands if needed. I was on ice for the Teddy Bear Toss in 2022 and saw “NASCAR Night” really take flight in 2023. I just remember being immensely proud of what this team accomplished then. To say that this team became an envy of the league as Jeff intended is an understatement. Players WANT to play here. Staff WANTS to work here. This, without a shred of doubt, is a premier destination in the ECHL.

Now that I’m here full-time, it’s a privilege to be a part of what we set out to accomplish as a group with Spire Hockey four years ago. It started with a vision. It took time, sacrifice, and dedication to that vision. We’re only getting started, and both on the ice and in the community, have so much more to give to our fans in the Upstate. If it wasn’t for SS+E, I fear for what could’ve been for both organizations. Jeff, TJ, and the rest of the company have bought all-in to these teams, which has made for quite the story to tell since 2019.

If you noticed, I keep using the word “privilege”, because that’s exactly what it means to be a part of Spire Hockey. The privilege lies in the people I’m surrounded by, the fans I get to meet, the lessons we learn through the accountability we hold ourselves to as a team, and the triumph we all share as a team, staff, and community through a job well done.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was an emotional week for me. Every time I see the Rush “R”, eight years of memories flash. Players, staff, and people that have become family over the years allow me to reflect on how much both of these teams have grown. The team that gave me my start in this business, and the team allowing me to continue the pursuit of my dreams, both on the same sheet of ice, is truly special to think about.

When I ultimately sum up what Spire Hockey has accomplished over five years, I reflect on the immortal words of Jim Valvano and his epic 1993 ESPY Awards speech in receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Battling terminal cancer, “Jimmy V” is famously known for his “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up”, but it’s what he says before that poignant moment that has rung through my head since I first heard him speak. He said: “I remember where I came from. It’s important to know where you are, and I know where I am right now. How do you get from where you are, to where you want to be? I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, and a goal, and you have to be willing to work for it.”

I remember where we came from five years ago. It’s hard not to continue to learn if you don’t understand where you’ve been. I know where we are right now, looking to close out another strong campaign on and off the ice, and I know where we want to be attaining ECHL immortality and consistent community excellence in Greenville. We have an enthusiasm for life: our Season Ticket Holders, Corporate Partners, fans, players, and all the families involved in helping us succeed. We have our dreams and our goals…and you bet we’ll never stop working for it.

Happy fifth anniversary, Spire Hockey. Thank you for allowing me to tell our story. Thank you for everything.

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