Saturday, May 9, 2009

I REMEMBER-Sacramento River Rats Hockey experiences as President of the Roller Hockey International, Sacramento River Rats.

I was happily performing my duties as a sales manager for the Raley's Senior PGA Gold Rush Golf Tournament in El Dorado Hills, California (side note: part of the job was to drive Chi Chi Rodriguez around in a golf cart to sign autographs...but that is another blog) when I was enticed away to run the professional RHI Sacramento River Rats roller hockey team.

I was doing well economically with the PGA gig, so when approached, I said no thank you. Next, the CEO asked what it would take to make the move, and I told them a certain dollar figure, President of the team, stock in the team and a three-year personally guaranteed contract from the owners. (That last part turned out to be very cool. I had seen on an ESPN report that Steve Young had a personal contract with the owners of some NFL wannabe league, and when it folded, he kept on getting his money.) I had replied with this ridiculous counter-offer to end the conversation and have them stop, as I truly loved what I was doing. So, if you actually read the opening sentence you can see how that went.

The principal owner of the team and CEO of the RHI League was Larry King, ex-husband of Billy Jean King and owner of the Virginia Slims Tennis tournament (and others) . Very honorable guy, and when the RHI league folded (lost contract with ESPN) a few years later, he honored the contract and paid me for my last year in the deal. He actually gave me his BMW 740i to drive for a few months until he sold one of his tennis tournaments and paid me off. Very nice.

Three main stories that stand out:

1. July 1996, Arco Arena (home of the NBA Sacramento Kings), Sacramento, California. It is hotter than hell outside, easily past 100 degrees. It is Fan Appreciation night for the Sacramento River Rats as Arco Arena was our home stadium. A rolling power "Brown Out" in most of northern California and all the power is lost just before the puck is dropped. Emergency lighting pops on, but there is no Jumbo Tron video, no electricity to the beer vendors and no power to the automatic flushers in the restrooms. 

Quite a visual: A pro hockey game and no beer (probably just as well, seeing as how the toilets didn't flush). I think we played against the LA Blades and we needed the win to stay alive in the playoff hunt. So, as necessity is truly the mother of invention (there is my Mother's Day [tomorrow] tribute), we started our indoor inflatable miniature dirigible to fly around dropping numbered ping pong balls into the crowd, to be redeemed for prizes, snagged some flashlights so the players could get dressed in the darkened locker rooms, pulled a police cruiser (always on duty next to the ambulance--kind of required attendance at hockey games) down one of the aisles to park up against the glass, put the sports announcer on the roof with the police loudspeaker (yes, the power was out to our announcing system as well), placed a couple of guys behind the nets with bright red long underwear and started the game.

The announcing was actually pretty good through the police cruiser system, and when a goal was scored, the cop would turn on his siren and red lights would flash and the guy behind the just-scored net would stand on a chair and wave the red underwear (no net lights operational). I think we won, but don't actually remember. It was such a carnival.

2. June 18, 1997, Cal Expo Arena, Sacramento, California. We dropped our expensive lease with Arco Arena and opted to build a controversial outdoor hockey arena at a rarely used rodeo arena on the California State Fairgrounds. It actually was pretty cool (figuratively, not temperature wise) and this was opening night. It was a great crowd, lots of press and VIPs from around the RHI League to see how this new phenomenon would work out. We worked 24/7 the last week , but could not get it finished enough to satisfy the building inspector, so he closed us down and drove away. My very thankless job was to go out into the middle of the arena and announce (once again, this is a hockey crowd) to everyone that the game was called, a forfeit to the San Jose Rhinos, and give everyone a refund and send them home before the puck even dropped. I must have aged about 10 years in that last hour--probably the toughest thing I have ever had to do. I definitely recalled how I had given up hanging out with Gene Littler and Chi Chi Rodriguez in the Senior PGA Miller Beer Tent to have this shining moment.

3. July 1997, Cal Expo Arena, Sacramento, California. The Sacramento River Rats are playing, ironically, once again against the LA Blades RHI team (owned by Jeannie Buss, daughter of Jerry Buss, owner of the NBA Los Angeles Lakers). There has always been a Sacramento vs. LA rivalry in the NBA, and it quickly spread to the RHI and our two teams. Picture this: A nice warm, summer night in Sacramento at the new Cal Expo Outdoor Arena (yes, we finally got approval from the building department and were finally getting our season under way). The roller hockey playing surface was constructed of smooth plastic squares made by Sport Court, and ours was colored deep blue. The stadium was a hop and skip from the Sacramento River and a short flight for about 5,000 giant June Bugs this particular night, who were looking for a pond to land in. They descended onto the arena like a plague from the Bible, covering the court, the fans and, of course, down the blouse of LA Blades owner, Jeannie Buss, who was in town to check out the new outdoor stadium. It was quite the scene, with some hysteria, cursing and partial wardrobe malfunctions. It was just about the funniest thing I have ever seen and somehow Jeannie did not appreciate the humor of the situation...mumbling something about our "freaking" hick town.

That short two-year stint (1996 and 1997) as Sacramento River Rats president ended after our attempt to sell stock in the team fell short of its goal, and with the loss of the ESPN contract, the team and the RHI League took a year off and then folded. I had drastically cut the expenses and tripled the revenue from the previous season, but it was too little, too late. The stock sale was an interesting experiment and got me in the newspaper in a more positive light than in the sports columns that followed a team loss. Even with the addition of goalie, Manon Rheaume, model pretty, two time world champion goalie for Team Canada, Olympic Silver Medalist for Team Canada, first woman to play in a professional hockey game, etc. couldn't drive enough revenue to cover the losses.

After many years working in professional sports with the Canadian Football League Sacramento Gold Miners, the Sr. PGAGold Rush Classic and the RHI Sacramento River Rats, I was done with the ups and downs of pro sports. When your team is winning, the stands are full, sponsors are happy, and "We will Rock You" is on the sound system, it is truly an incredible high. When you are 0-10, fans are dropping like flies along with the sponsors, owners are losing millions, it can be a living hell.

I miss the highs, but do not miss the lows (unless you count the scourge of the June Bugs...then maybe...).

Song of the Day: Queen - We Will Rock You.