By Tris Wykes
The Virginian Pilot
NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk Admirals vice president Blake Cullen retired Friday at a Scope news conference a week after the team ended its season.
Cullen, 69, founded the original Admirals franchise in the ECHL in 1989 and ran it until he sold it seven years later. The former Major League Baseball executive returned last summer, helping purchase the 4-year-old AHL Admirals franchise as a minority owner and undertaking daily operation of the club.
A replacement, if such a word can be used, has accepted the job, and he will take charge within 10 days, Cullen said. Admirals majority owner Ken Young said the successor is employed in pro hockey but declined to give further details.
Cullen said he thinks the Admirals, whose paid attendance rose 12 percent this season, have stabilized and must now focus long-term. But he didn’t feel he was the man for that job.
“It’s a little harder than I thought to have this day come,” Cullen said. “But I think what the club needs now is a bright, new, fresh face, someone who can dig in for the long haul. … I really couldn’t see myself doing that.”
Cullen said he’s not sure what the future holds for him, but he noted he won’t repeat 1996, when he sold the ECHL club and was looking for another sports ownership opportunity within days. The man who broke into pro sports by beating out Brent Musburger for a Chicago Cubs job intends to keep his Admirals stake and enjoy a reduced schedule.
“It was once written that I was an airport-and-hotels-and-arena type of guy,” Cullen said. “But I’m going to relax and slow it down a little bit.”
Cullen said he first pondered retirement in January, after rising attendance and increased community and business support convinced him that the Admirals were rebounding. At the same time, his job’s demands were taking a toll.
“I was getting worn down and I bit off a little bit more than I could handle, physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Cullen, whose early ECHL teams were among the most successful in minor league hockey on the ice and at the gate. “I get very wrapped up in the games, and I take them very seriously. I forget how old I am sometimes.”
The AHL schedule is packed with three games in four nights and even four in five, and Cullen said home stretches like that wore him out.
“If we had a Wednesday night game, I had a hard time physically snapping back at 9a.m. Thursday morning,” he said. “I’d drag around all day, go to bed at 7 p.m., and then here we go with another game Friday. It was great, but it was physically a little tough.”
Admirals radio broadcaster Pete Michaud, who first called hockey games during the ECHL Admirals’ inaugural season, noticed Cullen’s mood darkening a bit in past months.
“When he owned the ECHL team, he was the man and had the final say in every regard,” Michaud said. “This year, while he had a huge say, it wasn’t the only say. And the American League is a much bigger, broader, more corporate entity than the ECHL, especially back when he got into it.”
Cullen found that running the Admirals in such a circuit and in today’s business climate was harder than he’d anticipated. Using e-mail, voice mail and the like was somewhat of a shock.
“The technology was very tough,” he said. “All those things were a learning process, and I often wondered if I was missing something.”
There’s no doubt Cullen will be missed, although he will still reside in downtown Norfolk. His courtly style, wealth of knowledge and savvy decisions had friends and colleagues lining up to praise him Friday after he stepped from behind a Scope lectern.
“He added a great deal of credibility to our effort to revive hockey,” said Norfolk Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield, also an Admirals minority owner. “Sales, admissions, the feeling in the arena, fan response — it was all better. Admirals hockey became fun again for a lot of people.”
Said Michaud: “He’s always taken an interest not just in how you do your job, but in how you live your life. He’s always taken an interest in his staff, not just as employees but as people.”
Admirals coach Trent Yawney, who has met thousands of people in the sport, said Cullen was one of the best and is sad to see him go.
“A little bit of Admirals history was lost today,” Yawney said. “If you looked up the word ‘class,’ you would see a picture of him. He was the Arnold Palmer of our organization.”