Blues hoping an old hockey friendship will rekindle business success

News-DemocratJune 17, 2014 

The bonds of friendship that began in the mid-1980s between two former college hockey players working in New York City have been rekindled again in the executive offices of the St. Louis Blues.

Former University of Vermont player Chris Zimmerman, whose business experience spans everything from the Vancouver Canucks front office to jobs with Nike, Easton Sports and Procter & Gamble, was hired Monday as the Blues' new president and CEO of business operations.

Zimmerman and Blues owner Tom Stillman, himself a former hockey player at Middlebury College in Vermont, became friends while playing at the historic St. Nick's Hockey Club in New York.

"Tom was a lawyer and I was in the advertising business and we both met as former college hockey players," Zimmerman said Tuesday after meeting with Blues personnel at Scottrade Center. "It was a collection of pretty competitive hockey players from mostly northeast schools. Never did I imagine that our paths would cross professionally, first in his role as a minority owner and in his current role (as chairman).

"We certainly have been friendly and kept in touch a bit, but it was a casual friendship over time."

Stillman said Zimmerman, former president of the Canucks with more than 30 years of business and sports marketing and branding experience, seemed like a great fit.

"Chris and I started talking about this a few months ago and he has a background and set of experiences that I think is nearly ideal preparation for this position," Stillman said. "It just made a lot of sense as we were looking for a new person heading up the operations on the business side."

Zimmerman replaces Bruce Affleck, who had worked as president of business operations.

Along with the Canucks position, Zimmerman spent 11 years working with Nike, Nike Golf and Nike Bauer Hockey. In the last four years he worked as president of Easton Sports and also was a member of the Los Angeles Kings Business Advisory Group.

"We've been in touch all along, but it's fun to think 30 years ago we got to know each other as part of a bunch of guys playing hockey together in New York," Stillman said. "Now we're running a team in St. Louis."

The Blues are looking to maximize revenue streams in all areas, something Zimmerman has done for years at a variety of places and sports entities.

"I think it's the breadth of experience, so much of which is relevant to what we're trying to do here," Stillman said. "Whether it's working on branding and marketing campaigns or directly working at running the business of an NHL franchise, all those pieces together are pretty ideal preparation for this position."

Zimmerman also has a hockey pedigree that includes playing at the Division I level and serving as an assistant coach at Division III Babson College.

"First and foremost I have hockey in my blood," said Zimmerman, who began playing at age 9.

Zimmerman likes the progress the Blues have made since Stillman and a local ownership group purchased the franchise. The Blues have yet to find major success on the ice, but are beginning to turn things around financially.

"They've really started to make meaningful progress toward creating a very viable entity," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said he will spend the next several months getting to know the franchise from every angle, from season ticket holders and fans to business partners and major sponsors.

When he came to Nike, the company wasn't making a huge impact in a golfing world dominated by Callaway, Titleist and others. A relationship with Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour helped changed that.

"Nike in golf was a bit of an outsider and an underdog," Zimmerman said. "There it was about building a team and becoming important to a group of people that hadn't really considered Nike in the golf world.

"Whether it's working for Nike or in this new role I'm entering in with the Blues, it's all about creating relationships and making your business, your team, your brand, really meaningful to people. That's what I'm hoping to do."

Zimmerman said his background has shown him the modern sports fan is interested in the total experience of attending a game. A winning product on the ice always helps when it comes to selling tickets.

"Of course winning and more success, what that does is I like to think of as you get a little more wind at your back," he said. "But it's the business team's job to create value and depth of relationship and strength of our value position no matter what the record is."

Stillman said Affleck's role with switch to one with more hands-on contact with the club's business partners.

"Bruce really likes to sell and work with a company and corporate partner closely and developing that relationship," Stillman said. "That fits very well with something we want to improve on here.

"He will be working with some of our best existing corporate partners and working to develop relationships with local companies that we aren't doing a lot with at the present time."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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