Savant, Dineen Talk Season Cancellation

Savant, Dineen React to AHL's Decision to Cancel Season

The team's President of Business Operations and head coach spoke with the media following yesterday's announcement.

May 12, 2020

Today Gulls President of Business Operations Matt Savant and Head Coach Kevin Dineen spoke with members of the media to discuss the cancellation of the 2019-20 AHL season and 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs. For the first time in the history of the league’s 83 seasons (dating to 1936), the AHL did not award the Calder Cup.

Matt Savant
First of all, I’d just like to say thank you for taking the time to be on this today. It’s not the circumstances we wanted to see everybody, but it’s good to see everybody nonetheless. We’d like to really thank the frontline workers and everybody impacted by this virus. Our thoughts go out to those that are going through this and impacted by this virus.

As you all know, the AHL decided to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 season and the playoffs. I wanted to go through the process. This is not something that the group took lightly. We’ve been working from a (team) president’s point of view and a hockey operation’s point of view for the last several weeks to make sure we were thinking through the process and considering all options before we made this decision. Ultimately, we decided to put it to a vote last Friday where we convened the Board of Governors. It was a unanimous vote and all teams voted to cancel the season immediately. We didn’t take it lightly, as I said. This is the first time in 83 years that the Calder Cup will not be awarded, so we understood the magnitude of this decision, but we wanted to take into account the safety of our fans, our players and our employees when we made this decision.

Ultimately, it’s a tough decision, but one that had to be made and I do want to say how incredibly proud I am of our staff and everything we’ve done in this season from a community standpoint, and Kevin (Dineen) can touch on the incredible activity we had on the ice and how we got ourselves into a playoff position right before the pause. I’m increasingly proud of what we’re doing in the community during this pandemic and during this shutdown. It’s something we’re going to continue to push forward and support as we celebrate San Diego and help out where we can. 

On the six home games lost and its effect on the business
While I’m not going to get into the specifics of the actual dollars lost, as you can imagine, this is a small business in San Diego. That’s what we look at ourselves as and just like the other small businesses that are impacted, the loss of revenue from six games from ticketing, and food and beverage, as well as merchandise, it takes a toll. It’s something that a lot of businesses are facing and I know the other teams are. It did go into consideration when we were deciding whether or not to cancel as we were looking to find ways to generate new revenue. Ultimately, the safety of our fans and our community won out.

While this is a game where dollars are necessary, we decided from a community standpoint and across North America, it made more sense to step away and take those dollars and put them in a second position. The goal really is to recoup as much as we can. We’ve been communicating with our season ticket holders and asking them to push their dollars into next season. While we want to be cognizant of the dollars that are lost, we want to be focused on the fact that we’re keeping our fans safe and we’re asking them to transition their season ticket dollars into games next season, whether that’s additional tickets or donating them.

Ultimately, we’re trying to keep the dollars on account. Just like any smaller business, you’ll want to make sure you’re focusing on revenues, but ultimately safety won out in this case.

On potential other factors to cancel the season
For a lot of the discussion, it’s the unknown. We’ve got players that are all over the globe as they were all sent home for the pause, so travel restrictions were something that we took into account, but it’s a lot of unknown. Once they do get to their city of play, what does that city order have, what does that state order have and can we follow that in order to have a consistent game plan so that all teams can play equally. The unknown is really the major reason. We weren’t sure of the circumstances for every city that we play in.

On sensitivity to fans and sponsors finances with the canceled season
As you know, the league has different ownership structures so the vast majority of the AHL is owned by an NHL franchise. There are several teams that are not and that’s where we take a look at those as teams that are potentially going to need some assistance. Where we take a look at the vast majority that are owned and operated by an NHL team were able to sustain this type of an operation. You look at the sponsors, we have sponsors that we work with every single day that are part of the lifeblood of who we are in San Diego. We are very cautious when we’re going back to our fans and our partners to make sure that as we’re working out our contracts for next year and beyond. We’re cognizant of what they’re going through. You can see on our website that the ticket refund policy is something that I touched on earlier and it’s one of the options, but at the same time, we’re trying to recreate that atmosphere next year. We want people, sponsors and fans, to come back to the arena, use their tickets, bring their neighbors. That way, we can continue this passionate experience that everybody has when they come to AHL games. It is something that we’ve talked about at length. A lot of these teams are in small markets and a lot of their sponsors are local sponsors and are in the same situations that we all are in.

On the financial concern of the independently owned AHL teams
I’ll echo Dave Andrew’s statements from over the past couple of weeks about the ability and the strength of our league, and how financially viable we really are and the ability to continue down the path. We all know that the AHL is a primary support league for the NHL, so we’re working hand-in-hand with the NHL to make sure that players are available for future years. The depth that the AHL has from a financial standpoint is very strong and they’ve said that even though we’re NHL owned franchises, the viability of the AHL is strong.

On the concern regarding fans attending future games
We’ve gone through multiple scenarios. Some include less fans or no fans and what we’ve been talking through for the last four weeks or so is more versions of business plans and budgets. We’ve got a plan for a regular start in October, which you guys see every year all the way through to a much different look where we play in front of less fans or no fans from a TV standpoint only. I know the NHL is considering those options. I don’t know if I have concern, but I know that we’re prepared. I also know that there is a governing body in the AHL and the NHL, and they are going to set the rules across the leagues so we are going to be able to follow the process and make sure that we’re doing what is right for the teams and the communities and the fans that are all there. I recognize that these are options that we need to consider.

I have my staff going through every single scenario from start to finish. When the one (plan) does present itself, we are ready for it. I’m not overly concerned because I do feel confident in the decisions that will be made from an AHL standpoint. We’ll follow those rules and make the best of the situation.

On the emotions during Friday’s Board of Governors meeting
The board of governors call itself was very business-like and that’s because we have had several conversations leading up to it. The meeting was not a surprise; it was an end result of weeks and weeks of discussions and planning and making sure that we are making the proper decision for everybody involved. So, the Friday vote was fairly business-like.

Kevin Dineen

On how long players might need to prepare to be ready to resume play
I have to say, the way we were playing towards the end, we were really excited about a long playoff run. That question is really something that plays into the NHL’s situation moving forward so probably inappropriate.

For our group, I’ve been really excited and I’ve been in touch with the players myself, our strength and conditioning, our medical staff have done a great job of touching base with every member of our organization every three days. Our strength and conditioning staff is right on top of our players to keep themselves prepared. As far as to put an actual number for a date, I think that’s really hard to do. I know that there’s probably internal discussions going on about that right now. It’s hard to say, for training camp, you jump right in after a couple weeks. The game has evolved in a lot of ways. These players don’t even get out of shape any longer. I think it would’ve happened in a fairly timely manner.

On if players have had access to ice time during the pandemic
No ice time, the rink is off limits. I was reading an article – and by the way, to all you members of the media, I’ve always been a guy to pick up the paper and watch the news every night – thank you for all your contributions in keeping us informed and going out there and making sure there’s a ton of quality information for us to have. I did read an article recently where a player that is currently with Toronto, his family owns a rink up in B.C. He’s ending up on the ice a couple of different times, but as far as the San Diego area, there’s no ice here. From the contact that I’ve had with all the players, they are in the middle of their strength and conditioning programs, but they are not on the ice.

On any concerns of players doing virtual offseason training
For me, that’s not an issue. We’ve all been sitting around here for a couple months and the one thing that I am really impressed with is the level of commitment by the players to prepare themselves, whether it’s for practice and they get there early to stretch, I know they go to yoga classes and they do a ton of things to prepare themselves.

The way I’ve always looked at it, I think every player is part of the San Diego Gulls and part of the Anaheim Ducks organization, but they’re also kind of their own business themselves. We do have, not only our complete staff, and the ability to train on nutrition, hydration, rest and all of those things, and psychologists,  they have a ton of resources available to them. For me, that’s the least of my worries. I know, coming from a player’s background, I know these guys are chomping at the bit. I know, for a fact, that everybody’s disappointed today that the reality that has actually set in, that we won’t be playing playoff hockey. I think we all know that the best hockey is in mid-May, for three weeks or so, that’s where things get really exciting and those opportunities don’t come along very often so if and when we go, I expect them to not be over trained, I expect them to be excited to hit the ice.

On the team’s offseason workout plans
Have I done them? Absolutely, yes, I have. I actually had our strength and conditioning coach send me my program, too, and it’s fabulous. We’re getting a video breakdown, guys are actually working out together on the internet, having the opportunity to work with our strength and conditioning staff as well. There’s no stone unturned. That’s one thing this organization has really put a priority on, to make sure that when we hit the ice, we’re ready to roll.

On coming off the last game of the season, a 4-2 win at Tucson on Mar. 11
That was the last game of a seven-game road trip and we were (4-2-1-0). You look at things in the short term and I have to say that our last game was literally one of our best. The quality of the performances by our goaltending, our defense, Troy Terry came up and put a major statement on his season by scoring two goals and two assists there. It was an exciting time for us and we really felt like we were trending in the right direction. Heading into the playoffs, we would’ve been a formidable opponent for whoever we faced.

That was a good game for us. You walked out and went, ‘Wow, we’re ready to go.’ Then, all of a sudden, you kind of woke up in the morning and realized that things were going to start evolving on a quick pace. But if you’re going to leave on a game, certainly, our last game in Tucson was a really solid one, probably our best game of the year.

On his first year as the head coach of the Gulls
Well, for one, it was a tough start. You go 0-6 and it’s like, ‘Yikes, what did I get myself into?’ Really, I take a lot of responsibility for the way our team started. I don’t think our personnel was in the best of spots as far as our line combinations and that kind of thing.

As the season wore on, I think we really found a formula that was working for our team. It’s my second time around with the Anaheim organization. I spent time in Portland, Maine for three years and the Samueli family had just bought the team at that time so we kind of moved into that together and I have to say, I think any business that you’re part of, it’s about the people you’re around, including our management team that’s on this call right now. It was not always fun, but boy is it a pleasure to go to the rink every day. The players that we had, we’re a development league so we always talk about our young players, but we had some fabulous veterans as well. A really enjoyable year.

I have to say, working with this group was an absolute pleasure and it feels like unfinished business, but I think that’s being said around our whole league right now. You’re in San Diego, you can always talk about the weather and all the good things that go along with living here, but being part of this organization, you feel very fortunate.

On having any concerns with fans attending future games
Well, I’m like everyone else. Whether you work in professional sports or you work at a restaurant in town, whatever it is, our first concern and the only thing that we’re worried about is our players, our staff, our fanbase, and making sure that it’s a safe, enjoyable environment for people to come and enjoy sports.

I’ll say it again, there’s nothing I would enjoy more than – I’m looking across the bay here at the Padre’s stadium and I wouldn’t mind being over there and seeing a ball game right now. We’ll prepare, we’ll be ready and when we hit the ice, we’ll be excited to get back and enjoy not only doing something that we love, but also entertaining some fans as well.

On communicating with players staying ready for the NHL’s potential resumption of play this season
Yes we have had conversations constantly and it’s been a steady stream. The first week I spoke to every one of our players, then I had my assistants (Sylvan Lefebvre and David Urquhart) reach out the following week. Dallas (Eakins, Anaheim Ducks head coach and former head coach of the San Diego Gulls) reached out to most every player in our lineup which is a really nice touch when a player hears from the NHL head coach. Then I re-reached out again the last week. And what’s been great about it is the communication. We talk hockey, we talk training, but we also talk how they are doing and where they are. It’s been enjoyable to catch up with these guys. Yes, we are talking and we want them to stay prepared. We didn’t know the finality until yesterday that we were not going to play. So that was the message that we needed to stay ready.

I know I’m hitting the road here in the next couple of days to get my family back east. Those long roads across the country I think I’ll be picking up the phone and retouching with all the players and getting a heads up on some of the travel that they have done over the last little bit. I think everybody realizes there is all kinds of scenarios that could play out. I think every player realizes they need to stay ready if called. 

On players reactions to the cancellation of the AHL season 
I think there will be a change, I know I have changed. You have been around your families as much as your have, you really get to appreciate some of the smaller things. You might get rolling during the middle of the season and your focus is so internally on your team, on your players on travel, etc. Now you’re able to take a bigger picture. You’re dealing with a lot of young kids, I call them kids – but young men – that are still developing physically, they are still maturing as people and I think like I mentioned briefly earlier, I think there is such a great appreciation by our players not only for the organization they play for but how blessed they are to do what they love and actually make a paycheck and to entertain other people. I know they are in a tough spot like all of us there has been some rotten days. They also know that they are very fortunate. We have done a great job to make sure not only they are safe but checking in on their immediate loved ones too just to make sure that there is anything this organization can do to help. We have been fortunate that that hasn’t arisen.

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