March 19, 2005
Kisio on the hot seatAll eyes -- including the boss's -- on underachieving Hitmen
By ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sn
Record crowds have translated into record profits for the Calgary Hitmen. But that doesn't mean the man overseeing the organization is overjoyed with the club these days.
In fact, Flames president Ken King feels much like the rest of the city does when it comes to the junior team's record.
"I would have expected more from them," said King before the Hitmen faced off in Lethbridge last night. "Having said that, they did face lots of injury challenges and problems. Fact is, we have very high expectations for them."
So much so club sources told the Sun King recently sat down with GM/co-coach Kelly Kisio to reinforce in no uncertain terms a short playoff showing is not an option. While it's widely believed Kisio's future with the team will be dictated by the team's playoff performance, King denied the discussion got heated.
"I would characterize it as a very civil discussion," said King.
"If you don't think Mr. Kisio and everyone else in the organization is encouraged to high levels using the most thoughtful and discreet motivational techniques, you'd be dead wrong. No riot acts were read, I assure you."
That said, few expect Kisio's six-year association with the club to continue unless the Hitmen advance past the first round against either Lethbridge or Medicine Hat, which will likely start Friday.
"They are an extremely talented team led by extremely talented players," said King of a Hitmen club that went from pre-season favourites to a 33-23-9-5 record, good for fourth in the tough Central division.
"Not only are expectations not diminished, they are enhanced. The team needs to perform at an exceedingly high level."
Or else ...
Unlike the Flames, playoff gates in the Western Hockey League don't represent significant financial windfalls for the owners.
However, crowds like the two 18,000-plus gatherings that watched the last two home games of the season would obviously continue to improve on a record bottom line.
"The Hitmen are very important to us and we're thrilled in how it's doing but it's not a huge business," said King, who didn't put up much of an argument when asked if $500,000 profit represented an accurate assessment.
"For example, I forecast losses of $5 million or $6 million for the Flames. We may do a bit better but make no mistake in thinking that would be erased or anything even close. What it is, is a good healthy gain against previous years. Understand in years past we've been looking at making a few hundred thousand dollars. We're certainly south of a million."
The combination of an NHL lockout and a highly-touted Hitmen roster likely had King forecasting record profits for the junior team this season.
However, he couldn't have predicted the team would shatter Portland's WHL attendance record of 315,763 by almost 50,000 people for an average of 10,062 a game.
It's not hard to believe it was the most-watched hockey team in North America this year when you consider most AHL rinks seat around 7,500.
"The story for the Hitmen is not money," stressed King when pressed about profitability. "It's hockey available for fans and it's work available for the staff."
Given the team's struggles of late, the fear is fans and staff will have little do after hosting Games 3 and 4, tentatively slated for March 29 and 30.
"Traditionally, first-round attendance is soft but I think it will surprise people how many will show up," said King, hoping it's not the only surprise the Hitmen provide.