By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
The Bakersfield Californian
The Bakersfield Condors started this past season with a lot of fanfare, suffered though several months of below-average play and ended the season with a dramatic run to playoffs before being eliminated in a first-round series against Victoria on April 22.
Condors President/General Manager Matthew Riley sat down with Californian staff writer Mike Griffith on Friday and talked about the difficulties this past season presented, the general operation of the team from a front-office perspective and what he sees as the future direction of the team.
You and your staff put a lot of effort into the 10th anniversary season — special logos, special promotions and the such — how tough was it from a front-office perspective to see a sub-.500 season unfold on the ice?
Well, it was a frustrating season, it wanted to make me cry at times. When you’re celebrating any anniversary it is a big undertaking but I believe we have the best staff in the league and we were able to pull it off.
To see a lot of work go into something and sometimes it not bear fruit, is frustrating. But you have to stay in reality. The best-laid plans don’t always work out. I think there were a lot of positive things we were able to pull off in the 10th anniversary season. We haven’t won a championship in our first 10 years but there are lots of teams that haven’t won championships in their first 10 years. We have a lot of history to be proud of and wanted to draw that out and I think we pulled that part of it off.
The bottom line is to remember all the joy, experiences and memories these past 10 years have brought into the lives of fans and people associated with the Condors, and at the end of the day that’s really what we’re here for and what it’s all about.
Despite winning just 26 games, the Condors averaged 5,628 fans this season, only 220 less than the year before when the team had 15 more wins. What does that tell you?
It tells me that we have an awesome following, a great fan base that, for the most part, are loyal through thick and thin. It tells me we’ve done a good job as an organization.
You can never control what happens on the ice. You can have a lineup of all-stars but the all-stars still have to perform. What we can control is what happens off the ice and we certainly put a lot of focus on what we can do from a game presentation standpoint, an entertainment standpoint and seeing that kids and families are enjoying themselves regardless of the score.
Do we want to win? Obviously we want to win. Everybody wants to win. But at the end of the season only one team wins the last game. Odds are stacked against everybody so we’ve got to prepare in the event that doesn’t happen and do everything we can to still make it a positive experience so people still feel they get their hard-earned money’s worth. I think we do a good job of that.
There is a small contingent of fans who have the belief that the Condors organization does the bare minimum to put a winning product on the ice, instead opting to be just good enough to ensure a solid fan base in the 5,500-range, which is usually among the top five in the league. What do you say to those people?
I say that’s crap. They’re simply uniformed and simply don’t know what they’re talking about. It pisses me off that we’re one of the most accessible organizations in any sport in any league, from a fan standpoint and from a media standpoint, and yet there’s still a small, few, minority of fans that choose to only hear what they want to hear or choose to believe only what they want to believe.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and to cheer how they want and boo how they want, and that’s great. We have taken criticism and we’ll continue to openly accept criticism, but when people openly twist the facts or simply choose to be uninformed I’d just as soon those people not come to our games.
I think if you talked to former players who played here I’d venture nine out of 10 of them were thrilled with the experience here and say it’s the best organization they played for in hockey. Period. All businesses of any size have disgruntled ex-employees. You can’t conduct business without having some disgruntled employees, and this is a business and people shouldn’t make any mistake about that.
Each season we have to tell half the guys on our team that their services are no longer needed. That’s not an easy thing to do and obviously not everyone is going to take that news in a constructive manner.
The Condors are one of just a few ECHL teams without an affiliation with a National Hockey League or American Hockey League team. How high of a priority is it to you, to try and secure an affiliation for next season?
It’s of the highest priority and it has been the past few years. I can’t say it was when we started our organization because frankly it was not. However, over the last three or four years we’ve solicited not only on an annual basis but on a daily basis and feel we’ve gotten very close and have opened up a lot of roads. We now have positive discussions with NHL teams where there’s actually a light at the end of a tunnel instead of having phone calls not returned.
People know who we are and I honestly think it’s just a matter of time before we secure an affiliation. I think it’s inevitable. Is it going to happen next week or next year or in two years, I don’t know.
You can’t hold a gun to someone’s head and make them to do something, they’ve got to want to do it. But, there’s very positive reaction out there.
There are only so many NHL organizations and so many ECHL organizations. It’s not like there’s all these options. Each year there are only a few options because people are in multi-year agreements, so you are kind of limited. But I feel very good about our chances sooner than later.
Team owner Jonathan Fleisig lives in New York. How much is he involved in what goes on with the Condors?
In a day-to-day situation, he’s not involved at all. Jonathan was certainly very involved at the embryonic stage and more so from his philosophies and his ways of thinking in saying, this is how I want my organization to operate.
One of the great things about Jonathan is he’s not an expert at running a sports team. He’s an expert at trading commodities, which is what he does. I wouldn’t call him and tell him you need to go out and buy some oil futures today because I don’t know that. At the same time he wouldn’t force on me that we need to go out and do this or that.
Does he have opinions? He’s a brilliant guy and he has very strong opinions. He’s from New York. But he’s also an extremely reasonable person and although he has strong opinions he will always succumb to reason. It’s great having an intelligent guy like that being able to throw ideas at you. We’re here on the day-to-day and sometimes you don’t see the trees through the forest. Sometimes it is refreshing to get some outside perspective, and that’s really helped us.
Can this organization afford to come out of the gate slow next year?
Nobody is going to go undefeated but you want to have optimistic expectations. Just in the one week basically since our season has ended I actually feel more positive about next year than any season I have, and I’m talking about on the ice.
We’ve had some tremendous meetings with our coaching staff and working on a plan. Sometimes you have to go through some bad times to get back to some of the basics that made you successful. We had three 40-win seasons, been to the final eight teams in the league the past two years before this one and really felt we were going in the right direction, and then this year hit. Obviously we could have done some things better this year than we did.
Nobody is reinventing the wheel here. We’re not splitting the atom. It’s just a matter of going back to the basics and (evaluating) what we did right and what we did wrong. Based on the meetings, the planning and communication we’ve had the last week since the season ended, I feel awesome about next year. It just comes down to having a plan and out working the other guy. We’ve got a better plan and we’re going to work harder.