Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Joe Napoli was surrounded by a veritable hot bed of professional hockey. Although he was a baseball devotee at heart and a diehard supporter of the New York Mets, Napoli had many friends who played hockey and were fans of the New York Rangers, New York Islanders or New Jersey Devils.
Fast forward to present day, and this baseball purist is the president and general manager of both the Toledo Mud Hens baseball club and the Toledo Walleye hockey club.
Napoli has been at the forefront of the Mud Hens' return to the top of minor league baseball as the team's general manager since 1999, and has overseen the reincarnation of hockey in Toledo since 2007 with the origins of the Walleye, who are entering their third season.
What were your expectations when you and Toledo Arena Sports, Inc., oversaw the transition of the Storm to the Walleye franchise?
We didn't know what to expect when we decided to get into the hockey entertainment business. There was a long history of hockey in the community, but it's a challenging history because we've seen so many teams come and go. What's been so pleasing to us is how warmly received the team has been over the last two seasons. Over the last two years, we've sold 440,000 tickets, and every age group is coming to see the Walleye. We're getting a lot of families, we're getting teens and the college students and the couples and the seniors. The demographics, as we've learned, have been very similar if not virtually the same as the Mud Hens.
We thought it would take a little longer than it's taken for people to give the Walleye a try, so we've been very pleased by that. We're ahead of pace, and the national recognition for Huntington Center has again been beyond our expectations. We thought we had a very promising project with Huntington Center, but to have the industry journals and the trade magazines recognize Huntington Center as being one of the busiest buildings in the country has exceeded our expectations.
What is your outlook on the Walleye as they enter this season?
We've been pleased that both Detroit and Chicago not only enjoy their affiliation with the Walleye but also that they're both looking to place even more players in Toledo under the coaching team of Nick Vitucci and Dan Watson. I can't say enough good things about the fact that they trust us with their players to further their development. The nice thing about that is we have two franchises that are very well respected in the NHL, and that really helps us recruit the players that are not under contract with NHL teams, because the players come to realize that both organizations are going to have scouts and player development folks in the building. For those guys trying to fulfill a dream, when the instructors from Chicago and Detroit come to town, they'll spend time with the guys that aren't under contract with them as well. That's come together in a way I don't know we could have predicted, and a lot of that has to do with Nick Vitucci. He's well respected and not only is he well respected from the hockey side, but he's respected on the business side as well. He's a more well-rounded package than the typical coach in the minor leagues. He brings a lot value to the table.
Was it tough to see the struggles last season [when the Walleye finished 33-33-6 and missed the playoffs] or is that just the ebb and flow of minor league sports?
Ebb and flow of minor league sports. The harshest critic for Nick Vitucci is Nick Vitucci. From that perspective, how is that different from what [Mud Hens manager] Phil Nevin and [former Mud Hens manager] Larry Parrish would face? And by that I mean, you assemble a good team, the Red Wings and Blackhawks sent us good players, Nick went out and signed good players, and then what happens? You have a rash of injuries, you have key guys out for a long period of time, and it's not like there's a pipeline of talent that you can replace your A-players with. It's not easy to replace the A-players quickly. You might get a couple of B-players and a C-player to make up for one A, and that's not easy.
Have you become more of a hockey fan in the time since the Walleye came to be?
I played baseball growing up and all my friends played hockey, so I was exposed to both cultures. My passion was baseball, but I can tell you that there's nothing more electrifying and exciting than a great hockey game. One that comes to mind is the game here [last season against Elmira] when we were down by five goals and came back and won. You just can't describe that atmosphere. It was fun beyond belief.
What can be done about the people that yell "Hit Somebody!" during the national anthem?
(Laughs) Here's the deal with that. As we have spoken to more and more folks who yell that during the anthem, we've tried our best to explain that the other people attending the game have no idea what they're yelling. They don't know that they're yelling "hit somebody." All they know is that they're yelling during the national anthem, which is upsetting. When you look at the protocol of observing and being respectful of the anthem, you either sing the song or you remain silent.
Yelling during the national anthem has been a source of heartburn for us. What we have suggested in the past is maybe there's another time during the game or proceeding the game that "hit somebody" can be yelled. We've never said, 'Don't do it.' We've asked about the timing, and the timing is a bit of a challenge for us because [other] people don't know what they're yelling.
We'll see where it goes. We'd love for the fans to come to some sort of conclusion as to a more appropriate time to do it.
Mud Hens games are known for their family friendly environment, but will you ever be able to replicate that same environment at a hockey game?
Yes, and I'll tell you why. You have it at the collegiate level, you have it at the Olympic level and in most cases, you have it at the NHL level. And when you look at the ECHL and the AHL, the most successful franchises over time look like the minor league baseball environment. So yes, it'll happen. Clearly and undoubtedly, yes, it will happen.
Here's what's happened over the last couple of years. As we've spoken to folks who behave inappropriately at the games, they love their hockey. All we've asked them to do is, 'We want you to be enthusiastic and supportive, and we don't mind if you scream and yell during the game. But you can't be profane, and you can't be challenging to the people around you, because that's unacceptable behavior.' What's happened is, most folks have responded favorably -- not necessarily willingly, at first -- but they get it.
How have the Mud Hens and Walleye been able to keep people coming through the turnstiles, even in a poor economy?
We never take our guests and our fans for granted. We will never do that. We know they have a lot of choices and we are just one of many choices. We have to deliver on the entertainment. And by that I mean, are you greeted at the gate? Are you made to feel welcome? Do you get a great meal? Are the souvenirs top notch? Do the ushers take good care of you, and do we take good care of you?
We approach it as you're a guest in our home. If we don't deliver on that, well, folks have other choices. We take our fun very seriously, and we want people to have a great experience every time.
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