A little over three years ago, Rob Mullowney made his way into a British Columbia rink to watch a hockey game.
And to wait for the moment when he would effectively become unemployed.
The rink was Vancouver’s GM Place. The game was the 2010 Olympic gold-medal final between Canada and the United States.
Mullowney, a native of St. John’s, was a member of the Vancouver Organizing Committee’s marketing and sponsorship team.
Two years previous, when he was hired and asked to list his goals for his new job, he included, “to be in the building if Canada got into the gold-medal game” in men’s hockey.
“I was fortunate enough to have been asked to be venue marketing manager for the Games at Canada Hockey Place, which meant I spent the full tournament — every game, every day — in that building,” said Mullowney, now vice-president of operations for the American Hockey League’s St. John’s IceCaps.
“I went through all the ups and downs with Team Canada, but they got to the gold-medal game and so I was in the building for that game and I found a spot in the press-box area, which for the Olympics are in the middle of the stands.
“And there I was, 10 rows back of centre ice and in front of Chris Cuthbert, who was calling the game (for TSN). It was one of the best spots in the house.
“Canada went ahead 2-0 and you felt it was going to the perfect ending, because we’d not only be winning in the sport that means the most to us, but because it would mean we would set a record for most gold medals by a host country in the history of the Winter Olympics.
“Then, things started going the other way. It was 2-1 and then 2-2 and then it was overtime. But Sidney Crosby scored to give us what was probably an even more perfect ending.
“I put my hands up in the air and cheered and celebrated with everyone else. But in all that elation, this little voice that was in the back of my head all game started to get real loud.
“It went from ‘Yeahhh, we won the gold medal!!!!!’ to ‘Shoot, I’m out of a job.’
“I always realized it was coming. You pretty much knew on the day you started which day your job would end. But it was still very surreal.”
Mullowney wasn’t out of work for long. He did some consulting work for the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat, which was to begin play in the fall of 2010. He then joined the TwentyTen Group, made up of alumni of the Olympic Games sales and marketing organization, which had set a record for most sponsorship money raised for any Winter Olympic Games.
In that job, Mullowney worked as a consultant with the Canadian Olympic Committee, the International Olympic Committee and the Vancouver Whitecaps, a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.
He liked his job.
A lifelong passion
He and his family — wife Mary-Lynn and daughters Peyton and Maeve — very much enjoyed living on Canada’s west coast. But Mullowney, who had spent seven years with the AHL’s St. John’s Maple Leafs before that team moved to Toronto in 2005, couldn’t ignore an urge to get back into hockey which, as a game, has been a lifelong passion.
A forward for Bishops College and the St. John’s AAA (now major midget) program, Mullowney spent three seasons in the local junior league with the Avalon Capitals, finishing as that team’s captain, and went on to the senior ranks with the St. John’s Caps, Goulds Pacers and later, the Mount Pearl Blades.
“But it was the experience of teaching at Randy Pearcey’s hockey school, something I did for 15 years, that taught me that you could be involved with something you loved and still make a living at it.”
While an undergraduate at Memorial, Mullowney saw a poster advertising a masters degree in sports administration at the University of New Brunswick. He applied, was accepted and as part of the program, wound up doing an internship with the AHL Leafs. He joined Glenn Stanford’s small and young front-office group in 1998 and eventually took charge of sales and marketing.
When the Leafs’ franchise moved, he very nearly moved with it to Toronto, but that was a lockout year and the job he was to have with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment disappeared in a hiring freeze. So it was west to the Pacific, never thinking he’d be able to stay in his chosen profession and return to St. John’s.
“When we moved the Vancouver, my youngest daughter was eight weeks old and my oldest was just four. Over four years, we were building a life in that part of the world and it was a good life,” he said.
“Honestly, I never thought we’d go back to Newfoundland.”
But Mullowney, who can’t ever recall going coast-to-coast on the ice in his hockey career, would end up doing it twice in sports management.
The return trip began with an emotion felt just a few months after the Olympics ended.
“The Canucks were going to the Stanley Cup final that spring. That’s the year they went to Game 7 (against the Boston Bruins).
“I just felt the excitement in the community and I said to myself, ‘Why am I not part of something like that? It’s what I love to do. It’s what I want to do.’
“I told myself I had to find my way back.”
So he began searching and in the spring of 2011, he was close to a job with the Edmonton Oilers. But during his fourth interview with Stew MacDonald, the Oilers’ chief operating officer casually mentioned that word in the NHL community was St. John’s — through the efforts of Danny Williams and Stanford — was going to get another AHL franchise, this time as the farm team of the Winnipeg Jets,
It was the first Mullowney had heard of it. But the next day he got a call from Stanford, who himself was returning to St. John’s to become the IceCaps’ chief operating officer.
Mullowney would say yes to his old boss’s new job offer, but while it was what he wanted in so many ways, it turned out to be the toughest decision of his life.
“It was hardest for my daughters,” said Mullowney. “All they really knew was living out there. It was where their friends were, where school was. It was their life. So they didn’t understand at first. I have to say that moving them was the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent.
“But kids are pretty resilient. It took a little time, but things worked out.”
So did his job with the IceCaps, which officially sees Mullowney overseeing the team’s business operations, but in reality, involves a myriad of duties, with sponsorship, ticketing, social media, game operations and supporting others in the office when they need assistance.
He might be described Stanford’s right-hand man, or since we’re talking hockey, Stanford’s right-wing.
Still, the job proved to be a scramble at the start, especially with Mullowney coming on board Sept. 7, 2011, with opening night just four weeks off.
“We were certainly a turnkey operation,” he said. “And it was a challenge to get in front of things. Plus, we’ve had to do it with the smallest staff in the American Hockey League. But we have great people with great experience and with great drive. Without that, we would have never had the success in the first year, let alone be able to get things going.”
There are those who say, that given the local economy, the appetite for AHL hockey seven years removed from the Maple Leafs, and the fact the majority of seats for IceCaps’ games are filled by fans with three-year season ticket commitments, it was more of a push-button operation than a turnkey one.
Mullowney understands that perception, but says in reality, the team’s success as a business creates its own demand — sort of like trying to maintain and service an engine that’s running full-out, full-time.
“I can tell you that every single person who works for our team works 60 to 80 hours a week,” he said. “We’re continually trying to improve our product. We are never satisfied. We’re driven to improve.
“That’s what will make us a model franchise.”
Assisting in that drive are fans who are knowledgeable about hockey ... and the hockey business. And with a total of 30,000 followers between Facebook and Twitter, plus email and the more traditional communication methods of phones and face-to-face talks, those fans are having their say.
“So much has changed since the Leafs’ days,” said Mullowney. “Fans in our market, whether its through the Web or through TV or through travel, have had more experience with NHL hockey or other sports markets.
“They know what they want and what they expect.
“No longer can you rest on your laurels. That’s been a gigantic change. Fans do call us out on things they don’t like and they also put forward suggestions. So we’re using it as a business tool. That’s not to suggest everything they don’t like will be changed on a whim, but it’s a big part of our consideration. For us, it’s an important form of research.
“They are demanding of our team on the ice. They are demanding of our team off the ice. And that’s the way it should be.
“It’s a tough business. But if don’t love this business, you’re not going to last.
“And I love it.”