Minor League Sports

Q&A: USHL President, Commissioner Tom Garrity is encouraged there will be a 2020-21 season

USHL President/Commissioner Tom Garrity
USHL President/Commissioner Tom Garrity

CEDAR RAPIDS — Tom Garrity was named President and Commissioner of the United States Hockey League in May 2018.

Spending over a quarter-century in sports administration and sales, Garrity has worked for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and MLB’s Houston Astros.

He has been CEO and President of the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, named the league’s Executive of the Year for the 2014-15 season.

Garrity had a conversation Thursday with The Gazette, discussing the premature end of the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes for a 2020-21 season. If it occurs, this season certainly will look different than any in the USHL’s 41-year history.

“Supporting our league is important,” Garrity said. “Obviously, Cedar Rapids is a staple of our league. Great organization, love having them in it. We love having Carly (Coach/GM Mark Carlson) and (owner) Tony (Sdao), the whole group there. I just think that we are encouraged that we are going to be able to drop the puck this upcoming year. We look forward to having people come out.

“One of the things, too, is that we are using a lot of energy to making sure our arenas are safe. We’re doing all sorts of social distancing things, along with taking care of the teams. That are a lot of things going on that when the fans do come back, they’ll be feeling more comfortable with coming back out. We’ll get through this, and we’ll be stronger on the other side.”

Here is The Gazette’s interview with Garrity:

Q: What is the status of the league and resuming league activities?

A: “We’re working on a ton of stuff. We have a board of directors meeting on the 18th and 19th via Zoom. So we will be having a massive conversation about re-starting things, the season. What does that look like? What are the necessary protocols that we will have to put in place for the safety of our players, our fans, our staff? Lots to do. We have done a lot of work so far on it, but, as you mentioned, everything is fluid. Things change daily, as far as information. We are learning a lot from the NHL, USA Hockey, our partners, watching what other leagues are doing. Hopefully we’ll be able to put together a plan that we can approve here by mid-July, as far as when everything gets back to playing games.”

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Q: Knowing, as you said, everything being very fluid here, do you anticipate at some point having a 2020-21 season?

A: “Yes. We do, yes. Now, again, I’m not an infectious disease specialist. But we plan on playing. Lots of things could change that: second waves, state regulations. But we will be following the CDC, not only nationally but locally in all of our communities. We will be working with the cities and the arenas and the owners of each team. We won’t play until we know it’s safe for our players, our staff and our fans. But from what we know as of today, we’re very encouraged that we will be able to play next year.”

Q: Cedar Rapids RoughRiders Coach/General Manager Mark Carlson said he believes his team’s tryout camp, ordinarily conducted in June, will be sometime in mid-August now. Every club needs camps, tryout camps, etc., sooner than later. Where is the league with allowing those?

A: “Again, we work directly with each team. We’ve got a very, very detailed set of protocols that teams are mandated to do to provide safety for the kids and themselves. We’re working on a daily basis with each team’s GM, coaches, going through protocols, making sure they have a detailed plan, making sure they have everything that we need that we know as of today they need (to) be done. I think if all of those things are approved by the city, approved by the arena, approved by the local folks, medical staffs, as long as those things are connected, we feel comfortable that teams can host their camps.”

Q: Obviously, you don’t have the big television deals that major league sports have. Clubs rely on ticket sales to exist. Therefore, I would assume that would mean there would be no way games ever would be played without fans?

A: “Never say never. But what I mean by that is what you said is extremely accurate. We are a gate-driven league. We do stream games (online), but teams from a business side live through ticket sales, season tickets, individual tickets, local sponsorships. People buy popcorn and hot dogs, buy merchandise. So without fans, it would be extremely difficult to see us play. There are always options, but I’m comfortable telling you that.”

Q: What kind of a financial impact has this pandemic had on league franchises? Do you expect every club that ended the abbreviated 2019-20 season being active for the 2020-21 season?

A: “It was a significant financial kick to the teeth, so to speak. But I think the thing I was proud about our owners was they understood this was much bigger than playing sports. They made all the decisions that you would hope all of your owners would do. Not thinking about dollars and cents, but thinking about safety. So even though we lost a lot of games and playoffs, some teams lost as many as eight or nine home games, which is a third of their season, plus potential playoff revenue, they still decided to the right thing, which was to shut our season down and take care of our communities, do what we need to do to do that right. But, yeah, it was a major, significant blow to these teams.

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“The good news is we have stable, good, strong owners. In particular, Tony in Cedar Rapids. We have guys committed to the league even though they know this year could be potentially tough from a business standpoint. If we do have fans, there might be limitations out of the gate. There might be people being more concerned about coming out. There could definitely be a downtick in the business. But all of the teams are committed to play this season.”

Q: If everything is as it is now, would you start the season on time (in late September/early October)? Would you move it back some?

A: “As of today, we are planning on starting the season as normal. But with the caveat that we have contingency plans based on what we hear over the course of the next two and three months. Starting with our board call next week, we will have the decision of ‘OK, this is what things look like starting in October, with the Fall Classic that we always launch in Pittsburgh.’ But over the course of every other week now, we will have meetings that will determine if that targeted date is still accurate. If we need to adjust, we will look at November, we will look at December. Whatever our cities and our communities are telling us that they want us to do to keep everybody safe, we will adhere to those rules.”

Q: I would assume it makes things more difficult for you as a league that each state is making its own rules with this? Some states are more ‘open’ than others right now. Your league stretches from Ohio to North Dakota.

A: “Yes. We will, again, have to look at all sorts of options that could occur. I know Michigan right now has some very strong limitations. I live in the Twin Cities, and Minnesota is pretty tight. But we have states like North and South Dakota that are pretty wide open. Obviously, Iowa and Nebraska and Wisconsin seem to be moving in the direction of re-opening and doing those things. So I’m not saying we won’t have challenges that way when we start playing, etc. But at least today, we feel comfortable that we can at least (talk) about when we want to start. Then we will adjust when we have to.”

Q: What has this situation been like for you personally?

A: “It has been really frustrating in some ways. But looking at the whole situation, it’s hard not to feel anything but empathy, really understanding that people are losing their lives, there are a lot of sick people. It is affecting everyone in the world. So you try and put things into perspective. We know we are going to play hockey again. The positives have been the galvanization of our league. Seeing how stable our group of owners are, seeing how strong they are. Our great relationships with the NHL and USA Hockey, those have been extremely positive. Working together on solutions, making sure we are taking care of these 16 to 20-year-old young men that we are responsible for, and doing the right things. Showing the United States and all of junior hockey why we are the top league. Those have been very encouraging. Like everybody else, I’m jonesing to get back into work and going to an arena to watch hockey.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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