Darryl Porter says the last two months have been the most difficult time in his life.
For the second time in his hockey life, he has been cast in the role of the villain. First it was Kennewick, WA. as the Tri-City Americans came within a whisker of relocating.
And now he’s in the center of the storm again as the Chilliwack Bruins pull up stakes and move to the Island.
He gamely answered questions Wednesday night, but you could sense the frustration bubbling to the surface.
“How would you feel if you opened up the paper and read that you were doing a poor job? How would you feel to be cast in this light?,” he asked. “It’s a joke. I think everyone’s mad at the wrong guy, but you know what? Part of being the president is that I have to take the bullets. The hardest thing has been not responding, not defending myself.”
As managing partner, Porter has been the man on the ground since Day 1, overseeing the business side while Darrell May, and later Marc Habscheid, oversaw hockey operations.
He has been a lightning rod for criticism, and as this drama has played out in cloak-and-dagger style, he has drawn fire for staying silent.
“I actually tried to answer questions, but I also tried to be respectful of the confidentiality agreements I signed,” he said. “It has been the hardest two months of my life, and it’s still going on, but I’ll take it because it goes with the territory.”
Criticism from his former business partner, Moray Keith, has been delicate but pointed.
Keith has diplomatically raised issues with how the team was managed in the community, with the declining fan and corporate support as evidence.
“I take that as a criticism of me and my entire staff, and all I’m going to do is back up my people,” Porter said. “We did 50 things in a row (ticket promotions) that didn’t work. Are we bad marketers or do you have a defined market? If there’s a disconnect, it’s with myself believing the market changed and Moray and some others believing it didn’t. Obviously there’s a significant disagreement on that.”
During Porter’s five year run as the team’s president, the Bruins averaged 4467, 4529, 4041, 3260 and 3357 in announced attendance per game.
In terms of a changing market, he cited the arrival of the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat as the main reason for the dips in years four and five. Dips that ultimately made Chilliwack vulnerable to relocation.
An argument can be made that Abbotsford’s attendance has been low — that the minor pro team probably didn’t siphon off as many customers as Porter maintains.
“That’s an opinion and I take huge issue with that because I know what myself and my staff went through,” he said. “We lost 800 season ticket holders that summer. I know through database analysis where those fans came from. We went from 1200 fans per game from outside of Chilliwack to 300, overnight. That’s also why they were struggling as well. The fan base was split.”
The lease at Prospera Centre was the other bone of contention cited in the WHL’s news release. Porter was quoted saying he, Burke and Glen Sather had tried repeatedly to renegotiate the lease with Keith and Bond, only to be rebuffed.
“People ask us why we signed the lease in the first place,” Porter said. “When we came here and we were the Chilliwack Bruins, the Fraser Valley’s home team, we were drawing 4,000-plus a game. Everything was OK. But now, it’s not a good deal.”
Keith maintained the team made money through the first four years before suffering a slight loss (approximately $18,000) this year.
Porter shook his head.
“I’m not going to get into the finances in the newspapers, but on a cash basis we’ve been going backwards for the last two and a half years,” he said. “We’ve been operating our business on a line of credit for the last 32 months.”
Porter sided with co-owner Brian Burke in saying that during a Jan. 13 conference call, the five owners (with Jim Bond representing himself and Keith) surveyed the situation and reached a unanimous consensus to sell, negotiating exclusively with Victoria.
Only four days later, he says, did Keith and Bond come back stating a desire to buy the team.
Bond and Keith maintain they never green-lighted anything.
“I wrote notes during that conference call and I sure took it that we had direction, and I went home afterwards and said to my wife that our life just changed,” Porter insisted. “It’s been a very frustrating two months because we got unanimous consent on that conference call to move forward, and we’ve been taking bullet after bullet after bullet ever since. We couldn’t talk because of the confidentiality agreement, and we stuck by what we were supposed to do.”
Porter said people were hurt when the confidentiality agreement was violated and the whole soap opera started to play out in the media.
“This wasn’t supposed to play out publicly. This was supposed to be a process that gets to the end and we were supposed to announce the entire deal,” he said. “I think it was very unfair to the stakeholders of this franchise to have things played out with half-truths. It was highly, highly emotional for the wrong people.”
It sounds like the age old argument about whether it’s better to rip a band-aid off slowly or all at once.
“Who got hurt when some of us didn’t stay loyal to the confidentiality agreement is who you don’t want to have hurt,” Porter said. “It was the fans and sponsors, billets and staff. They all got hurt and they didn’t deserve it.”