As expected, the Western Hockey League’s board of governors approved the sale of the Saskatoon Blades between long-time owner Jack Brodsky and Edmonton car dealer Mike Priestner today.
“Given his highly successful career in the automotive industry, we are confident Mike Priestner is capable of meeting our expectations as the new owner of the Saskatoon Blades franchise,” states WHL Commissioner Ron Robison in the release. “Mike is committed to doing whatever is necessary to maintain the storied tradition of the Blades in the Saskatoon community.”
Priestner wasn’t the only viable ownership group interested in buying the Blades. A group of Blades alumni, including Kelly Chase and Rhett Warrener, made a last minute pitch to match Priestner’s offer, which was $9 million according to The StarPhoenix. But since Priestner came forward with the offer first and the league’s due diligence process on him was almost complete, they decided to rightfully grant him the sale.
“There was really only one offer that we reviewed and that was the offer from Mike Priestner,” says Robison. “There was another group led by a very prominent group of alumni of former Saskatoon Blades that we respect highly that made a last minute offer to essentially be a part of that, but in fairness we had an obligation to review the Priestner offer first and as a result accepted that.”
Jack Brodsky developed a reputation as one of the most straight-laced and beloved owners in the WHL during the Brodsky family’s 33 years as the majority owners. He not only stayed down to earth as a wealthy owner, but he also went above and beyond in Saskatoon to give back to the community.
However, Brodsky failed to bring in the right people in the hockey operations to find on-ice success. Because of this, the Blades have never won an Ed Chynoweth Cup and hold the longest championship drought record in the Canadian Hockey League.
In the last nine years, Brodsky stuck by Lorne Molleken as the team’s general manager and head coach. The Blades never made it past the second round over that period even though their rosters suggested they should have. It is completely understandable for Brodsky to let Molleken play out a five-year plan and even give him a two-year extension after that because it seemed the future was only getting brighter. But when the Blades were swept by the Kootenay Ice in the second round of the 2010-11 playoffs following loading up at the trade deadline, which included landing Brayden Schenn from the Brandon Wheat Kings, change would have been clearly justified. The year after that, there was new faces in the room, but the team continued to underachieve in the post-season as they were swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round. At this point, change in the hockey operations was long overdue. Yet Brodsky kept Molleken behind the bench and it resulted in another first-round sweep at the hands of the Tigers and a fourth-place finish as the hosts of the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
There is no denying it’s easier said than done for Brodsky to take away Molleken’s coaching and/or general manager duties in 2012. It was the year before the Memorial Cup and this was a great opportunity for Molleken to redeem himself. Nonetheless, change was desperately needed to show the players and fans that losing isn’t acceptable. It’s possible Brodsky truly believed in Molleken, but it seems quite more likely their strong friendship got in the way of the Blades’ best on-ice interests.
Molleken relinquished his head coaching duties after the Memorial Cup and was replaced by former assistant coach Dave Struch.
History can’t repeat itself for the Blades to have success under Priestner. The new owner has to make the tough decisions in the hockey operations to break the Blades’ championship drought.
It seems with the season almost underway, it is too late for Priestner to make significant changes this year. He, however, did hire Steve Hogel as the team’s president and his son Colin Priestner as a managing partner.
Popular Regina-based radio personality Rod Pedersen reported in early August that Priestner will retain Molleken and Struch for the 2013-14 season, but he will bring in new faces next summer.
It is simply speculation at this point, but it would make sense for Priestner to hire his close friend Dean Clark as the team’s new head coach. On one hand Clark has roughly 13 years of WHL coaching experience, but on the other hand he hasn’t maintained an above .500 winning percentage in his last five years of coaching. Therefore, it seems his recent lack of success doesn’t exactly make him an appealing candidate for the possible opening.
Regardless of whether Priestner brings in Clark, retains Struch or finds someone else, he just needs to go through a thorough hiring process to bring in the best man for the job. Moreover, he has to make the tough decisions down the road even if it means firing a close friend.
Even though patience for major junior success is running out in the City of Bridges, Saskatoon hockey fans will have to give Priestner time to turn the Blades around. He inherited a young and inexperienced team that is entering the first year of its rebuild. It will take a long process, especially since they don't hold a first-round bantam pick for the next two years, to get the Blades back into contention for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen