Bruce Landon

President and General Manager of the Springfield Falcons

Bruce Landon

Bruce Landon
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

It was a few days before the National Hockey League was to begin its abbreviated and condensed season — salvaged by a new collective bargaining agreement reached in early January — and Bruce Landon was talking about the many ways the division-leading Springfield Falcons, the organization he’s been involved with for more than 40 years, would be impacted by those developments.

“We’ve lost six players,” said the team’s president, general manager, and minority owner, referring to the roster members who have been called up to the American Hockey League affiliate’s parent club, the Columbus Blue Jackets, since the labor impasse was resolved. “Every team has lost three to nine; whether we get one, two, or three back remains to be seen.

“They’re going to play 48 games in 99 days, so there are going to be a lot of injuries,” he continued. “So depth is going to be the key to success for teams in this league [the AHL]. It will be important for us to stay healthy here.”

Actually, the team already has a lot of depth, he went on, noting that it was built with the NHL’s labor situation in mind. In fact, the Falcons are carrying between 28 and 30 players, when they normally have 22 or 23 on the roster.

“And when you carry extra guys, it’s always expensive,” said Landon, who would quickly move on to other headaches, including everything from attendance still described by the word ‘flat’ to weather forecasts — not actual weather itself — that are often enough to keep people from driving to the MassMutual Center for a game.

But dealing with such challenges is obviously a labor of love for Landon, and this passion for hockey in Springfield is the sole reason why he’s still dealing with such issues as buying more tape and booking more hotel rooms because he has to keep more players on his roster.

Indeed, on three separate occasions, Landon has put together ownership groups that have allowed the city to keep an AHL affiliate, something it’s been able to do since 1936. And the most recent rescue was also the most harrowing.

It was the 11th hour, and the clock was getting ready to strike midnight. After negotiating with 28 potential ownership groups from Chicago, Washington, and even Russia, an exhausted Landon, whose wife, Marcia, was starting to worry about his health, was running out of options and nearly running out of hope that he could keep the team in Springfield.

That’s because the ownership group in place at that time was almost out of patience and applying some pressure to sell — even it meant to a group that would take the team to another city, like Des Moines, Iowa, which was coming ever more prominently into view as the likely landing spot.

But then, Landon had one more conversation with Charlie Pompea, a Florida-based businessman who had kicked the tires on the Falcons but was hesitant about pulling the trigger. It was after hearing Landon deliver an impassioned speech after the golf tournament they had just played in together — one in which he talked about the importance of preserving the team’s mailing address at Falcons Way in Springfield — that they initiated the talks that got a deal done.

Landon acknowledged that, while his business card says president and general manager, his unofficial job description for much of his tenure has been to keep a team in Springfield. And the main reason, he went on, is because, while Springfield has historically been good for hockey, the community should know and understand that hockey is very good for the city.

“Springfield should be proud to have a team in the American Hockey League,” he said, prefacing his remark by saying that he makes it quite often. “There are only 30 teams, and 30 cities across North America and Canada, and we’re one of them.”

For his untiring work to enable the city to say it is still one of those 30, Landon has been named a member of the Difference Makers Class of 2013.

Several Big Saves

As he talked with BusinessWest, Landon referenced an e-mail he had just received from Chris Olsen, one of the hundreds of interns he’s worked with over the years.

Olsen is currently vice president of Football Administration for the Houston Texans, who were still battling for an NFL championship until the New England Patriots beat them on Jan. 13.

“He wrote to basically say that he was following us and he was happy with our success, and he wanted to thank me for giving a young man an opportunity to get into the business,” said Landon. “Those things are so rewarding, and we’ve seen so many of them over the years.

“I love it when we see people come here and either work for us, or go on to bigger and better things, because that’s what we’re all about,” he went on. “We’re not just a development team for players … we’re also a development business for a lot of aspiring sports professionals as well.”

Helping individuals contemplating careers in everything from broadcasting to marketing to merchandising by giving them real-world experience is just one of the many ways in the which the Falcons have made an impact on this region, said Landon, listing others ranging from direct economic impact to providing wholesome family entertainment.

“We’re more than just a professional hockey team providing great sports entertainment for families,” he explained. “We are, and should be looked at as, a catalyst for downtown; on a good year, we can draw 180,000 people into the city, and the economic spinoff from that is in the millions of dollars.

“We create jobs for people at the MassMutual Center — we have 38 guaranteed dates there,” he continued. “Our players live here and spend money here, we employ people ourselves, we help the parking garage … our franchise is very important to the city in many different ways.”

Landon has been making such comments since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, making him perhaps the most enduring and significant sports figure in the city’s history.

And by now, most people in Greater Springfield know at least the basics of the Bruce Landon story — how the Kingston, Ontario native was drafted by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and came to the Springfield franchise (then also named the Kings) in 1969, and how he injured his shoulder in the later stages of the Calder Cup championship season of 1970-71, paving the way for future Hall of Famer Billy Smith.

They probably also know that he later went on to play for the New England Whalers in the World Hockey Assoc. (which eventually merged with the NHL in 1979) before returning to Springfield and the AHL in the late ’70s. And they likely know that, while playing for the team, he was also doing some front-office work, something that became a full-time endeavor when he blew out his knee at age 28 in 1977, forcing him to retire.

They might also know that he’s held just about every title one can have with a pro sports franchise, from player to broadcaster; from director of marketing and public relations to general manager and part owner, and that he has plaques in his den, including the James C. Hendry Award, presented annually to the AHL’s outstanding executive, which he earned in 1989.

Less well-known, perhaps, are Landon’s successful efforts behind the scenes to assemble ownership groups. He first did it in 1994 after the then-Springfield Indians (the name the team had for decades in a nod to the famous motorcycles made in the city) were sold to out-of-town interests and moved to Worcester. Partnering with Wayne LaChance, Landon started a new franchise and named it the Falcons after the birds that had famously begun to nest in downtown Springfield office towers.

And he did it in 2002, when he expanded the ownership base to provide more stability for the franchise. He managed to pull together a group of local business people to commit to the team and then stay with it through a succession of parent clubs and seasons that ended with the club at or near the bottom of the standings.

Eventually, the ownership group tired of the team’s lackluster financial performance and initiated the process of exiting the AHL. And it was this latest effort to secure ownership that would keep the team in Springfield that is considered the biggest save of Landon’s career — and the most difficult.

Goal-oriented Individual

“Selling the team at that time was a real challenge,” he recalled, “because no one wanted to keep the team in Springfield — they all wanted to move it. They were looking at other cities and other venues that were available … it’s a great league, and people want to be part of it.

“Had Charlie not stepped up and brought the franchise, there was a significant offer from a group that wanted to move it to Des Moines,” he continued, adding that he’s never made that information public before. “That [Falcons] ownership group had said, ‘there’s not much more we can do — we don’t want to lose money anymore.’ They were getting to the point where they wanted to sell, and if we couldn’t find a local buyer, then they’d take the best offer they could, even if that meant the team would be moved. A message was being sent, and Charlie saved the day.”

But, to borrow a term from his sport, Landon obviously earned a huge assist.

Returning to that golf tournament at which the two played together, Landon said his remarks at dinner obviously struck a chord with Pompea.

“He said, ‘you’re really serious about this, aren’t you?’” Landon recalled, adding that his lengthy answer to that query obviously convinced him he was. “We talked some more, and a few weeks later, we had a deal.”

Looking ahead, something Landon is far more comfortable doing than looking back, especially at his own exploits, he said that, despite the team’s recent success and position at the top of the Northeast Division, well ahead of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Hartford Whale, there are still many question marks about the future.

“There are no more rabbits left in the hat,” Landon said candidly when referring to the team’s status, using those words to convey his belief that there will be no more 11th-hour rescues for this franchise if the current ownership situation deteriorates.

“We have our lease through next year, and we have our affiliation agreement through next year,” he noted. “But, as Charlie and I talk about, this is a business, not a hobby, and we have to assess how we’re doing from a business standpoint; are we seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, and are we making progress?

“He wants to see this work,” Landon went on, referring to Pompea. “But he is a businessman, as I am. Overall, we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to get this thing headed in the right direction.”

He said the team is well-positioned in many respects. It has a solid partnership with the Columbus franchise, a favorable lease arrangement with the MassMutual Center, travel expenses far lower than most other AHL franchises because of its central location, and a lean operation. The keys moving forward are improving attendance, obviously, but also growing revenues across the board.

And this can only be accomplished, he went on, by gaining a full buy-in from the residents of not only Springfield but the entire region.

“I hope that fans understand that they have to engage and embrace this team so it stays here for many more years to come,” he said in summation. “I’ll eventually be leaving this position, and I just hope that the fans — and not just the fans, but the community — realize how lucky they are to have a team of this caliber, and never take it for granted.”

A Game Changer

On several occasions during his recent talk with BusinessWest, Landon heaped praise on Pompea, crediting him with the fact that Springfield currently has a team stirring dreams of another Calder Cup banner hanging from the rafters at the MassMutual Center.

“If it wasn’t for Charlie, this team would have been gone,” he said. “He’s the one who saved hockey here.”

That’s one man’s opinion. Most, however, would say that Landon himself is the individual worthy of that sentiment, earned through more than four decades of dedication to the Kings, Indians, Falcons — and the Greater Springfield area.

For that, he’s truly a Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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