There is something contagious about unbridled enthusiasm. I definitely caught it when I sat down for a drink with Steve Staios. Here is a man who loves hockey, loves Hamilton and can’t wait to share our new OHL team with the entire city. I had never met Steve before, but his reputation preceded him and I was told by countless people that he would be a great person to have cocktails with. They were all right. We sat down in the brand new Gibson’s lounge in FirstOntario Centre and before I knew it, an hour had flown by, and I had become a hockey fan. He is genuine, honest, real, and a real Hamiltonian. It was definitely a privilege to sit down and chat and learn about this great guy. Grab a cocktail and you’ll be a hockey fan by the end of the article, just like me! See you at FirstOntario Centre; I’ll be the one with face paint, cheering our boys on!
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s never been anything too complicated. I say to my kids; it’s your attitude and effort. It’s very simple; the way you carry yourself and the way you approach things. I’ve always tried to start my day like this and it’s the basis to get after it. I’ve always tried to attack things with enthusiasm.
I’ve had so many great mentors in hockey. I had Pat Quinn as a general manager in Vancouver and as a coach in Edmonton. He would share his wisdom. The greatest thing about Pat was that he was a Hamilton guy. We’d always be able to talk about that. In hockey, the one that I’ve had was “somebody’s always watching.” I was in the minors for almost three years and thought that I was probably going to stay there because there were all sorts of players being called up ahead of me. A coach said “hey kid, keep your head up, there’s always somebody watching.” Sure enough, that game, I had a good game, and the Boston Bruins — the major-league affiliate of the team that we were playing against — traded for me a week later.
I have always had fond memories of here. I think of my childhood in Hamilton — more than anything, it helped define who I was. I didn’t realize that until I started traveling around. As I moved around some of the AHL towns I played in, then in the NHL, I would always tend to feel comfort when I think about Hamilton. It’s who I was.
Hamilton is changing, you can sense that. There’s something very simple about us, something very face to face about us. I lived in Toronto and loved that too, but there’s something about Hamilton that is comforting. I think that’s why my wife and me found comfort in Edmonton. Edmonton to me was very similar to Hamilton. When I first got to Edmonton, I signed a two-year contract plus an option. It was my option. The first winter we went through, I thought to myself (and I was having a fairly good season), “okay, if I can keep this up for the rest of this year and next season, then I can become a free agent and leave this place.” I ended up signing two extensions and being there for nine years.
I remember, at one point, I was going to become a free agent, and my agent was tell- ing me about all of these different opportunities, different teams like San Jose and incredible places. Here I was in Edmonton. I sat down with my wife and my agent is telling me all the different choices, and she said “what are you searching for?” I said I wanted to win the Stanley Cup, and she said “do you think you can do it here?” and I said “yeah, but… yeah.” Edmonton became our home for nine years, and we raised our kids there. Same type of good quality people, community driven, not a lot of fanfare. That’s why Hamilton. I felt comfortable here.
Who has inspired you in your life and why?
The easy answer is my parents. Both immigrants from Macedonia, and found their way, had a couple of odd jobs; my dad was a butcher, my mom worked at the candy factory. My dad took a chance and bought a fish and chips place in Hamilton (we grew up near Gage Park for the first five years of my life) and then the fish and chips place was converted into a variety store and Paul’s Variety became famous. So, I came back into town and people are asking me about my parents.
We lived above the corner store and there were five of us, because my grandfather lived with us as well. It was incredible. My backyard was literally the west end, McMaster campus, the ravine, Churchill Park. I went to George R. Allan — that was our area to get out and play. Living right on Main and Haddon, we literally lived on the corner of it. I watched my parents wake up every morning and run the store. My dad would open it and work until 5 p.m., and my mom would go down from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.. I didn’t realize how unique and special it was. Now I have my own kids and “we need a fence and a yard”. Meanwhile, my yard was Hamilton.
My parents were the greatest influence on me. And my sister as well. She was always the calming influence in our family, and I was the wild kid. She could always settle me down, we had a great family dynamic.
Athletically, we had the Giftopoulos family, a famous family in Hamilton for all of their athletics. Steve, Mike, John and Peter and their sister Mary. They are all great athletes and all older than me so, they would teach me about throwing a football and tackling and hockey. I had older cousins that lived in Burlington and they’re all athletes and all bigger. So, I had to catch up. Any time I would get knocked down, they would say “come on, you gotta get up, you gotta be tough.” Those are people who had a great influence on me.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
The amount of interesting people and community leaders that I have met since I’ve been back in Hamilton has been really inspiring to me. I got to speak to YEP the other night, and the energy, and vision and the thoughts of these young people is great. I realized that we have a lot of similarities, young entrepreneurs and I. I am stepping out from just a hockey background into a business world, and I’m okay with that. You have to have courage, and you have to learn and ask a lot of questions. That group has the same sort of path in that regard. That’s been a lot of fun. Our ticketing sales is a great group! Our four team members are out there, sharing our vision with people. The connections coming back home have been a lot of fun!
What’s the worst thing about what you do?
There’s difficult decisions to be made in the position that I’m in. I always want the best for the individual. I’ve had to make a couple of difficult decisions, and knowing it’s for the betterment of the organization moving forward, but at the same time, it’s people’s lives that you’re affecting. So, I’m sensitive to that.
I’m not a boss that doesn’t take that stuff seriously. As you’re making these decisions, you’re losing some sleep. As a president, I understand, I’m fine with it, but at the same time, those are the most difficult things. In the hockey world, those are never easy decisions. These young men are trying to live out their dream, and when you’re telling them it’s not there, or not right now, that’s not easy.
What’s your motto?
‘Stand up for what you believe in’ is a big one for me. When I first got here, I saw a group with plenty of potential, but not inspired. And, my management style is put them in the position to succeed and watch them go. I don’t micro-manage, I expect them to come up with ideas, and respectfully challenge each other.
For any job, you’re representing the company you work for. For us, it’s fun because it’s sports. You can feel the energy, so I want our team to get the feel of it. Each person needs to know that they are as important as anyone else in the organization. When we win, there’s as much of it as anyone, and when we lose, they’re going to feel it as well. Everybody’s important, and here for a reason.
You have to lead by example — professionalism, friendships, camaraderie. That’s the team spirit that I felt in hockey, and know can work in the office. Once you have that sense of pride, you can’t wait to get to work, and can’t wait to represent our team and our vision and we’re just getting started!
What’s been the biggest learning experience of your life?
You have to make mistakes to learn. On the hockey side of things, I made enough mistakes in terms of how I prepared and how I approached the game, up until a certain age. It took me a while. The biggest lesson on the hockey side was my lack of commitment to the game. I loved the game, but wasn’t committed to it. Once I committed to it, I ended up making a career out of it.
As far as off the ice, the biggest learning experience is probably having kids. Everyday is mind blowing; it’s great. You go from trying to figure out these little humans to negotiating with your 14-year old on when he can come home and why. “If I can come home at 10 p.m., I will take out the trash.” Well, he’s supposed to do that anyway! It’s forever evolving and every stage is just great. They teach you the best lessons.
If you found $10 in your pocket, what would you do with it?
Probably buy coffee for the staff — we drink a lot of coffee around here.
How has hockey changed since you started with the Niagara Falls Thunder in 1990?
Completely changed, and for the better. When I started in my career, I wasn’t the biggest guy and I was always trying to get bigger and stronger — there was a lot of grappling, and hooking and holding going on. The league started to trend in a different direction, and then the rule changes happened. Once the rule changes happened, the game completely changed. Everyone was looking for faster, more mobile skaters, and players who could make plays with the puck. A lot of my friends and teammates and players around the league were left behind. Their contracts weren’t renewed, or they weren’t playing as much or sent down to the minors. I was able to continue my career into a new style of the game.
With the speed of the game now, compared to when I started — our players are so much more committed on the ice, and the skill level has really spiked compared to when I started. The game is better off for it. The speed and the impact when there are collisions are much more ferocious now, and lead to some injuries (all the talk of concussions, a lot of that is just awareness) but, it’s completely changed.
What’s going to be different in Hamilton, now that we’ve shifted from AHL to OHL?
I played in the AHL — your only singular focus is to get away from your American Hockey League team as quickly as you can and make it to the National Hockey League. Nobody likes playing in the minors, to no fault of the players. They have to have that singular focus. You don’t commit yourself to the community, to the fans. You don’t go to the schools and the hospitals, any type of community initiative. So, off- ice is completely different.
Our players are amateurs, they’re going to school, they’re excited to be at community events. They’re coming from minor hockey at community rinks and they walk into FirstOntario Centre and there is a season-ticket holder party with 600 people and they’re going around playing with the kids and talking to the fans. That’s the biggest difference for our community and our fans. Every season ticket holder that I talked to that night said the players came and talked to us and were so engaged.
On the ice, the AHL is much more structured. The NHL club, the parent club will send down their system to their coaches and there’s a lot of structure and defensive play. To be effective in the NHL, there has to be defensive structure in the way they play. The OHL, which causes grey hair for our coaches, is a lot more wide open. They’re kids so there are mistakes, and it leads to some really, really exciting hockey.
They’re trying to live out their dreams. The AHL guys are still trying to do that, but there’s older guys who are just kind of playing and continue their career and are unsure. Our guys all believe they have a chance, and they do, to make a career out of it, in the next three to five years. So, they’re incredibly energized and inspired. You’ll get the sense of it when you get to see it.
Is Hamilton a hockey town?
Undoubtedly. Yep. Without a doubt, Hamilton is a hockey town. I’ll take the responsibility — it’s up to me to share our vision with our hockey community and allow them to see a great product on the ice. It’s a big responsibility but, it’s the reason I’m here. If I didn’t feel like I could do it, then I would’ve stayed in the NHL and conformed to whatever management system we had in place. It’s an opportunity for me to build trust. This is year one, whatever the attendance may be, whatever the season ticket holders may be, it’s just the start. This whole first season is just day one for us.
I have a short-term vision for what we need to get done now to get ourselves together to put on a good show for our fans, and have a good team on the ice. There are components in this long-term vision that will take time. We believe in it, it’s not completely defined yet. We have to go through an evaluation component, about how we want to build the structure on the business side moving forward, and then put that in place. It could be two to three years before we see what the vision looks like. It’s an exciting product that our fans can be proud of. It takes time to be gold standard, to become the best in class in terms of OHL, and I’m ready for that.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT THESE DAYS? Opening night, for sure. (Editor’s note: WE WON!!)
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR COFFEE? Black.
FAVOURITE BAND? Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.
FAVOURITE SOLO ARTIST? Neil Young.
A BOOK YOU PLAN ON READING? The Talent Code (again).
HIDDEN TALENT? I can juggle.
THE FIRST THING I DO WHEN I GET HOME IS… Kiss my wife and kids.
BEST WAY TO DECOMPRESS? A round of golf, I think. I can’t remember, it’s been so long! And barbecuing. If I can be at the grill, pour a glass of wine, or have a beer and turn the music on.
FAVOURITE HOLIDAY? We holiday with our friends from Edmonton every summer and we move around. This past year was Whistler.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU’RE ALONE IN YOUR CAR? Mostly what transpired during the day, trying to digest everything.
FAVOURITE TV SHOW GROWING UP? Three’s Company.