SPRINGFIELD, MA. — Play, study, coach, manage, teach, build, innovate and administrate; it is the essence of Dave Andrews’ life in, about and for hockey.
He is in the home stretch of his 26th and final year as president of the American Hockey League, in a show of extraordinary though not unprecedented longevity. The late Jack Butterfield, Andrews’ immediate predecessor, served for 28 years, and there have been just nine presidents in the 84-year history of the league most closely aligned with the show.
Andrews, 71, clearly still loves the game, its people and most of the demands of the job, but it’s time. Or rather, it’s more time. More time for him and Marleen, the woman he met, courted and married in short order while also tending bar and goal in The Hague. More time for their sons Jeff in Kelowna, B.C., and Brad in Winnipeg, Man., daughter Chrissy in Toronto, Ont., and a gaggle of grandkids. More time at the retirement property they just bought in Arizona. For racquetball. For fishing. For sailing.
On Feb. 14, AHL governors named Andrews’ successor, Scott Howson, and there is uncanny symmetry to the choice. Both men moved through Cape Breton as GM of the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL farm team. Howson is now moving in, Andrews moving on, but not away. His contract calls for three years as chair of the AHL board of governors, a largely ceremonial role that he nonetheless embraces as a tether to the game. He’s also got a two-year gig as chair of the Hockey Canada Foundation.
He will, of course, help Howson with the transition, then step aside, just as Butterfield did decades ago.
“When I came in and Jack was leaving, Jack did the right thing and got out-of-the-way, and I’m going to do the same thing,” Andrews said in an interview with Postmedia last fall at AHL headquarters here. “If I wanted to hang on, I could still be working. There’s no point in doing that, and I’ve had enough trial runs at this decision. Really, it became a bit of a joke with our board because every year there was the potential that I was going to retire. And every year we get down to those conversations and every year I didn’t go. This time, to be candid, I think they were willing to do another long-term agreement. I said I don’t want to hang on. They said, ‘you’re not hanging on, you’re fine, so stay.’
But this was the first year where it just felt to me as though it was time, you know, it’s time for the league.
“So I haven’t had a second thought about the decision at all. Not for a second, but I’m a little nervous about what it’s all going to be like for me when I leave. This place will be fine. It’s time for an infusion of new ideas and new energy and it’ll be good for the staff here.”
But it’s a bit daunting for a man whose identity is so tied up in the buck-stops-here responsibility that scared him at first.
“An honest answer is yeah, these jobs are consuming. And to an extent, it probably isn’t healthy for the work/life balance. The job is consuming and at a certain point, you’ve been consumed by it so much that it’s all you know. It’s very hard to step away and do something else for three days because this is what you’ve done. So your habits have to change your interests have to change, but I think I’m okay.”
After a long, intense hockey season he was always ready for the cottage in Digby, N.S. After a long, lazy summer he was excited to get back to the office and rink in the fall. He has long lived by hockey’s calendar.
“I think that’s a scary part of it; it is who I am,” he said. “You are sort of what you do. It’s your sense of identity, of who you are and what your value is. So I think for anybody that retires from a job that they like, that’s an issue.”
Hockey has given him so much; a life, a living, a wife and family, friends, and a purpose. That’s partly why he and Marleen bought in Arizona. It’s sunny and warm, chock full of hockey and hockey folk, like long time friends Dave King and Jim Schoenfeld.
“I don’t think I could go cold turkey,” said Andrews.
He was born in Nova Scotia, but learned to play the game in Montreal, where he started as a forward, before average skating skills made necessary a move to the crease. He was small but good enough to make a peewee rep team in Montreal.
He was 13, living with his mother Annabelle. His father Arthur was in a veterans’ hospital in Montreal.
“And then my mum died (of cancer), so I got sent to a private school in Nova Scotia. As a rep level goalie in the city of Montreal and going to Nova Scotia, you’re like a star. And then what happened is everybody grew and I didn’t. And by the time I got to high school, I couldn’t make the team. So I was the backup goalie on a team that won the Nova Scotia high school championship.”
He went from there to Dalhousie University, bided his time on the junior varsity team and made the most of an opportunity when the senior team starter got hurt.
“I got a chance to play and I was MVP on the team that year, so now I’m good. And now I’m not going to class at all. I’m going to practice, staying up half the night playing cards with the guys, sleeping half the day and all that matters is playing hockey.”
There were offers to play minor pro in Toledo and Syracuse, but he knew his limitations, and when a teammate suggested a career in Europe, Andrews took the plunge.
He wound up in The Hague and played well enough to attract a lucrative offer from a new team. They lured him across town by doubling his salary and paying it all year round. He was also told to go home and recruit some Canadians and a coach.
“So we loaded up a bunch of guys and we started this new team. I think we won the championship the next year.”
He played four years in Holland and made a pile of money. It was hardly his final taste of success. Hockey was his great equalizer.
“You know, for me, hockey was a confidence builder when I was a kid. I was really little for my age, and I had kind of a complicated family thing, so I didn’t have a lot of reasons to be confident. But I was a pretty good little hockey player and it was the one thing I had that I could kind of hang onto. I realized when I got to Europe, I was pretty good. I wasn’t NHL good, but I was good and I was making a living and you’re going to start to believe in yourself a little more.”
The confidence followed him into coaching and managing and administration. Andrews figures he has been employed in hockey for all but three years of his adult life.
“I think that’s probably all it was, and in those three years I was actually still active a little bit with Hockey Canada and I was coaching a bantam team that I didn’t have a kid on, a Triple-A team in Ottawa. So I was still around the game, but I wasn’t making a living at it. I’ve never been very far away from the game.”
The game is close to his heart, and little wonder. After a chance meeting at a coffee shop near his home rink in The Hague, he invited Marleen to a game days later, and she showed.
“I think he must have told you that neither of us were ever in that cafe before or since,” she said. “That was the only time. And I didn’t know that hockey was being played in the arena. I would have skated there, but I had no idea there was such a thing as ice hockey.”
She showed up with a girlfriend and was aghast at the violence.
“I do remember the game. I thought it was scary.”
When it was over, he motioned her down to rinkside and so began their courtship.
“We hung out a bit together, but I always made sure I was with my brothers or with my friends or it was group dating,” she said. “I was pretty young. I was brought up pretty protected. In fact, I never told my parents until after I’d known him for two months, I think, that I was hanging out with the Canadian hockey player.”
They were soon engaged, then married on March 5, 1974, and by September were headed for Vancouver. His Dutch team was in ownership upheaval, so he decided to finish his college eligibility while playing at UBC.
“That was a shock for my parents because his intention was to play hockey and then go to law school. That all changed practically one night to the next,” said Marleen, who married Dave and the game of hockey.
“Yes, I did. But you know, when you’re 22, it’s a big adventure.”
As with all adventures, it wasn’t universally smooth. Dave moved on from UBC to a job as a hockey development co-ordinator with the B.C. government, then to the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Cougars, where he ascended to head coach before quitting mid-season.
“I had a disagreement with our owner centred around recruiting promises we had made to players that were not being fulfilled.
“Quitting was not something that you did. Clearly, it was not well received in the hockey community. And if I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t do it the same way. I probably would have finished the year out. The team won I think two of the next 20 games and missed the playoffs. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but I was young and I was pissed off and it was one of those nights we lost the game and I just basically said to the guy, ‘look, I’m done.’”
He was in fact far from done. He turned down an offer to jump right back into coaching in Kamloops and was travelling cross-country, intent on a job at his alma mater in Dalhousie. Instead, he veered off to attend the Memorial Cup, where he was talked into applying for an administrative job with Sport Canada, overseeing the development of ski jumping, Nordic combined, luge, bobsled and biathlon in advance of the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.
He liked it well enough and was challenged by it, but Marleen knew he needed hockey, even if he didn’t.
“I really did like Ottawa,” she said. “Our kids were at that age where it was nice to live in suburbia and have their friends next door, that kind of thing. But I knew he wasn’t really entirely happy. And when an opportunity came along to work for the Oilers at first he kind of said no. And I said, ‘you know, once the Olympics in Calgary are finished with, you’re going to be pretty bored with your government job.’ So he went for it. But I had to talk him into that.”
He took a job as GM of the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL team in Halifax. Nine months later they were based in Sydney, where Andrews would run the show for half a dozen more years. It was his last stop before the AHL head office.
Marleen just recently unearthed the five-year plan Dave concocted for his job interview with the AHL search committee.
“We were in a rough spot,” he said. “If you went back to ‘92, ’93, the IHL was killing it and we were in trouble. We were in small markets, we had weak ownership and we had no money. NHL teams were starting to move their affiliates over to the IHL.
“So I guess nobody else brought a plan, and when the time came for them to make the decision that summer of ‘93, they came back as a search committee and said, ‘this is our guy.’ I think some of the owners that were in the inner circle didn’t like that and they pushed back and said ‘we should get to choose between a couple of guys.’ And the search committee said, ‘no, we’re unanimous. We’re not bringing another guy.’ And they had their vote.”
He began his 26-year run in July 1994. He had gone from playing to coaching to administering to managing, from Montreal to Nova Scotia to Holland to Vancouver, Victoria, Ottawa, Halifax, and Sydney, and wound up in Springfield, contributing in every place at every level of the game.
You could try to argue that he’s never actually been part of the NHL, but his impact is undeniable.
“I think he’s rare in his ability to get things done to, to think outside the box creatively and to work in partnership,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “The best part about our relationship with the AHL, with David in particular, is they’ve always viewed us as partners and they understand that they help us be successful and they understand their role in the professional hockey world in North America. So it’s always been let’s join arms and do this together.”
Andrews presided over two crucial points in AHL history; the 2001 absorption of IHL franchises, and the five-team expansion to California in 2015.
“We came into the IHL in ‘96 and it didn’t take very long, I’m going to say a couple of years at most, to understand that there was a better way to do this, that neither of the two leagues were doing especially well and competing against one another was only going to ensure a sort of mutual destruction,” said Mark Chipman, then owner of the IHL’s Manitoba Moose.
“So, when I started raising the idea of a possible merged league within our group, I was summarily sort of dismissed. And so I kind of went about it a different way and reached out to some of the people I knew in the American League at the time and got the conversation started over there. And by all accounts, it was also not well received. But I’m talking about owners, I’m not talking about Dave. My understanding was that Dave had an open mind to it and knew that it was going to be very difficult because of the history and the players involved.
“But I recall from the first time we met to talk about it in Boston in somewhat of a clandestine way, there was an openness, there was a level of intellect, and an interest in the game and how to make it better. That, I think, defined him and allowed it all to happen. What is most endearing about him to me is he’s always taken an approach of what’s best for the game of hockey.
“David could never, ever have been accused of advancing his own personal interests. He’s the antithesis of that. So that I think has just earned him an enormous amount of respect with owners and players in the league. So when you have that platform of respect, it’s allowed him to maneuver the league through some really turbulent waters at times.”
That would describe the California expansion, which was being driven by NHL teams based in the west. They had a list of demands, and were hinting at going it alone if those demands weren’t met.
“It was dramatic, you know,” said Schoenfeld. “You have a faction of the league wanting dramatic change, substantial change, let’s put it that way. Reducing the schedule and changing travel, certainly moving all the franchises. And you look back now and it was like it was just nothing more than a bump in the road that, once again, Dave navigated. Now he didn’t do it without some angst, and a lot of work and a lot of meetings or phone calls. But when it’s all said and done, the league is still thriving and everybody seems happy in their place.
“I know there was a lot more to it and it was a lot more difficult, but I’ve never seen his position change from being positive, upbeat. I know he could dig in when he had to, but that’s still being positive because you’re fighting for what you believe is right.”
He fought for the good of the game.
“That became a real threat to our business model and a threat to our franchise valuation and a threat to some of our independent owners,” said Andrews.
He was about 65, considering retirement, but had to see it through.
“It took a couple of years of conversations and negotiations and it was really difficult and it was difficult for the NHL too because I think those guys were really pressuring the NHL who were kind of leaning on me, um, to find a way to make this happen. It was a long, protracted, at times messy process. But we got there.”
The AHL boasts 31 teams, up from the 15 in operation when Andrews slid into his chair. The league has test-driven rules and player safety innovations for the NHL. League attendance, corporate sponsorship and revenue has climbed.
So what’s the legacy as he prepares to step away?
“It’s not California and it’s not the IHL merger, but it’s the process. It’s the outcome of all of that stuff over the years. It’s been well over 200 (franchise) transactions that I managed. That’s all been part of the process of getting us to a place where we have one league at the highest level of minor pro hockey that is directly connected to every NHL team, which is providing a place where 90% of the players are developed, almost all the coaches are developed, all the referees are developed.
“It’s a pretty cool thing that didn’t exist 25 years ago.”