Scott Howson Q&A
The new President and CEO of the AHL talks transitioning into his position, taking over in a global pandemic and more.Jul 29, 2020
For the past 26 years, Dave Andrews has served as the President and CEO of the American Hockey League (AHL), the National Hockey League’s (NHL) top developmental league. After a long and storied tenure, Andrews decided to retire, making the 2019-20 season his final year operating at the helm of the league that he changed forever. On Feb. 14, 2020, the AHL’s Board of Governors unanimously elected Scott Howson to take over and fill the shoes that Andrews would soon be leaving behind.
Howson, a prolific scorer in the same league he will now be in charge of, retired from his playing career at a young age to become a lawyer. However, the Toronto native later rejoined the hockey world and has spent the last 26 as an executive with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets organizations. Howson began his career as a hockey executive in 1994 when he became the general manager of the Edmonton Oiler’s AHL affiliate in Cape Breton and later Hamilton. Since then, Howson has become a prominent name in the hockey world and now steps into one of his biggest challenges yet.
Transitioning into a new job can be hard and doing that during a national pandemic presents even more trials and tribulations. Gulls play-by-play broadcaster Andy Zilch recently spoke with Howson about the specifics of his new role, including the obstacles he has faced with taking over his role during the pandemic and what the future may hold for the expanding league.
On the beginning of his tenure as President and CEO of the AHL
Well, it’s been a challenge for sure. Just like everybody I know is facing some sort of challenge, but the pandemic, as we all know, hit on Mar. 15. I was scheduled to start with the American League on May 1, go to Springfield and spend two months with Dave Andrews to sort of transition and onboard onto the job and take over the job on July 1. When the pandemic hit, I was fortunate in one way that I got to start earlier because there wasn’t much to do at my old job with the Edmonton Oilers. So I started early with the AHL, but I couldn’t physically get there and I’m physically still not in Springfield yet. There are restrictions on the number of people in the office right now and we’re obviously respecting that and we’re playing it month-by-month. I’m working out of my home, which is currently in Columbus, Ohio, and the office staff is working remotely and we’re just trying to get through this situation and then find a solution to starting professional hockey in the American Hockey League on time or at some point for the 2020-21 season.
On the path to his current position
I played professional hockey for the New York Islanders in their organization for five years and played a small sample of games in the NHL. I went back to school and became a lawyer in Toronto and I was hired by Glen Sather, who was running the Edmonton Oilers, to run their AHL team, which was in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia at the time. We moved the team to Hamilton. Glen left to run the New York Rangers and Kevin Lowe took over and he hired me as his assistant in Edmonton. I spent seven years there and then six running the Blue Jackets as their general manager. I went back to Edmonton and when I went back, we hired Dallas Eakins as our coach. Gulls and Ducks fans are certainly familiar with Dallas, a wonderful person. When this job became available this last Spring, the application process started in October and I was fortunate enough to get a couple of interviews and was offered the job in February.
On taking over for David Andrews
It’s very ironic. I followed him into Cape Breton when he went to go run the American Hockey League and now, he’s leaving and I’m following him again. They’re big shoes to fill, no doubt.
On his desire to take the position
It’s a big challenge. Even in a non-pandemic situation, I haven’t done anything like this and been responsible for a league and 31 teams, generating revenue, and all of the things from a position like this. I was attracted by the challenge and quite frankly, I think it’s a different type of mindset you have to have. When you’re with a team, you’re 100 percent focused on winning and this isn’t so much about winning. It’s about making sure the league is run properly and run efficiently, it’s fair and competitive for the players, the coaches and the fans. I’m just really trying to follow in Dave’s footsteps. He’s put the league in such a tremendous position. I grew up in the league, I managed in it and have been affiliated with it for a long time. I played in it. It certainly was attractive from that standpoint as well.
On his conversations with David Andrews in preparation to take over his role
We started right away at the beginning of April and so I had three months while he was still the President and if we didn’t talk every day, we talked every other day. There were all these things for me to look at and study, whether it was the AHL officiating agreement or the office lease or all those documents that sort of govern the league. In the first week, I got a six-inch stack of binders with the Constitution so I had to get familiar with the Constitution and By-Laws and the procedural manual. There was a lot to learn, there still is a lot to learn and take in, but Dave was wonderful and I think our transition and onboarding process as well as could be. Given the circumstances, we had it all mapped out before COVID-19 hit. I was going to go in May and really travel around with him to the Calder Cup Playoffs and watch him award the Calder Cup winner, probably in early June. We had the spring meeting to go to, which was going to be in Chicago. We had the PHPA meetings to go to and maybe the draft. We had it all mapped out and unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that, but we certainly made the best of it.
On the challenges of the job thus far
You can sit here and read the Constitution and you wouldn’t know. The way you learn it, and I found this when I was responsible for collective bargaining agreement in the NHL, you learn a document when you live it and you work with it every day – when somebody phones you and asks what’s this rule or what’s that rule. I’m still learning that and I refer to the Constitution not every day, but more than once or twice a week. That’s been a challenge and just learning the staff, learning who does what and what their roles are. We went through a difficult situation, as many teams have. We had to furlough five employees. Working through all that, that’s been a big challenge. COVID-19 is a challenge to work through and the biggest challenge for that is the uncertainty. Everybody want clarity and everybody wants to know what they’re doing next: the players, the fans, the coaches, the owners, the staffs of the teams. Right now, there’s not a lot of clarity because of the way the virus is running rampant in some states, many of which we have teams in.
On frustrations of COVID-19
I don’t know if it’s frustrating because we realize it’s our reality right now and we can’t change it. We have to be flexible, nimble and able to react to whatever is going to come down the pipe. We don’t know what the world is going to look like in 10 days, let alone October, when we’re supposed to drop the puck. I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating, I think we’d just like to get more clarity and we can’t. It’s the reality we’re all facing.
On connections around the league upon entering his position
I would say I knew two-thirds of the people that come to the Board of Governors Meetings and run teams because I’ve been going to the Governors Meetings on and off for the past four or five years as part of my duties with the Oilers so there was certainly a good amount of people that I knew and some I didn’t know. I’ve tried to reach out to every team and I’ve talked to every team. Some teams, you want to talk to three or four people and some teams it’s only one so I’ve certainly reached out to every team and tried to get to know everybody to build relationships and find out what’s important. What’s important in San Diego might not be what’s important in Texas, not important in Laval, so everybody has got these competing interests and we’re all part of one league and we all have to make it work.
On the league’s additions of the Henderson Silver Knights and the planned Seattle Kraken affiliate in Palm Spring
Those are things we’re going to have to deal with. I think we’re fine now with Henderson and the division looks fine. By the way, it was a great accomplishment by Dave to work through that. That was a very difficult process for everybody involved. Everybody had competing interests and to find a solution that allowed the American League to expand into California and have those teams is great. Certainly, when Palm Springs or Seattle’s team comes in, we’ll have to look at what we do with the Pacific Division because I think it’ll be too many at that point and we’ll have to find a solution to that.
On hopes of what to accomplish during his tenure as President and CEO of the AHL
Well the league is in a great spot right now, even being interrupted by the pandemic and not being able to finish the season, it was on record pace for revenues and growth and a lot of metrics that we pay attention to. It’s hard for me to say exactly where I want to take it because I don’t think I know the league well enough. I’ve got to get in and live this job for five, six, seven months under normal circumstances and figure out where the areas of improvement are. I think Dave took this league by leaps and bounds and it’s going to certainly be hard to match that, but certainly there are areas that we want to keep it moving in the right direction. We’ve got a great product. We’ve got great prominence and stature in the world of hockey and we want to build off those things.
On his relationship with Gulls color analyst BJ MacPherson
When I was a young lawyer in Toronto, I had a friend that was in the agency business that was named Mike Gillis, who ended up being the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. As a part-time job, not even a job, but just as a hobby, I’d go watch some junior games and BJ was a very good player in Oshawa. I watched and was pretty intrigued with him. I recommended to Mike that he should take [BJ] on as a client so we did that. I got to work with BJ for a couple years before I sort of went on more full time into being a lawyer and couldn’t do both. Then I left law to go full time into hockey so that’s how I got to know BJ. He was a very good junior hockey player. He was big, strong and had good hockey sense.
On his excitement being back in the AHL
This is an honor, to be in this position. I love the league. It’s a great league and it’s got great people in it. There’s a really unique feel to the American Hockey League – the feeling of togetherness. It’s really unique and I’ve never been able to match it anywhere else. I’m looking forward to building on that comradery and continuing to keep the league great.