Making waves with a tiger’s tail – BOTW speaks to Wayne Scholes

The Telford Tigers are causing waves in British hockey at the moment, especially within the EPL but in his hotel room in Liverpool, new owner Wayne Scholes is in buoyant mood; I think we’re having a great time. I think we’ve injected a bit of enthusiasm and excitement into ice hockey. I think that’s always a good thing when you can add something to a league that’s done well but has its challenges. I think that if you can add something when you join or get involved with a league then I think that’s always a positive thing. And honestly it’s a sport so it’s supposed to be fun.”

It’s a theme that permeates our conversation, the idea that sport should be fun and to be fun it needs to be competitive. Scholes believes that a way to improve that is improving the fortunes of his home town team.

They needed the help and honestly it was difficult to look at the standings and see Telford so low. It was difficult, I didn’t enjoy it and I sat there and I talked to the guys at the office and I said “you know I think there’s something we can do. I think we can help these guys”. I had a conversation with Mike Washburn who was the chairman (of Tiger Tracks) at the time and Paul Thomason, I had a look at the business, had a look at the numbers and said “I think we can make this a profitable business. I think we can do it in a way that gives you an opportunity to be competitive in the league and I think that any time you can add competition to a league, that’s kind of the point. That’s why we have leagues, it’s why we have competitive teams and I said we can make this a more competitive league and any time you have a more competitive league you have a more fun game and the more fun games you have the bigger the crowds you have and the bigger the crowds you have the better for every team and that’s something we’re focussing on right now is adding more competition to the league.

The timing of Scholes, the owner of Utah based Red Touch Media, getting involved in the Tigers again dated back to a phone conversation with Tigers manager Paul Thomason when the club were looking for a financial boost;

Paul Thomason called me and said “hey now would be a really good time” so said “OK let’s sit down and meet” and we sat down and had a good long conversation about the history of the club over the last 5 years. I’ve got a number of businesses that I run, I spend a lot of time travelling so I focus on my family a lot in my spare time but it just happened that he called and said “Now would be a really good time, you still have a passion for the Tigers. We could use some help.”

So we sat down and had a really good chat and a good discussion about what their vision for their style of play was with Tom and what excited me was they really had a vision for kids. They really wanted to see the youth get developed, they really wanted to give the young players a chance to excel and to do that, the one thing that was stopping them was some experience in the team. They’ve got a couple of great players, you know people like Scott McKenzie have done wonders but they needed some other players and so we had that conversation and in the end I said “look we’ll happily help you as a sponsor, that’s not a problem, we can help you out with that” so we put some money in as a sponsor and it kind of reignited a bit of a flame you know?

It was that involvement that drew Scholes back to the rink where he now famously spent time as the Tigers stickboy during the heyday of the Tigers when players like Chuck Taylor and Bison legend Kevin Conway represented the Shropshire side.

It was interesting to go back to Telford Ice Rink and go back to where I grew up and it’s not that I don’t visit Telford I just hadn’t been to an ice hockey game in a while. I always sort of kept in touch with it but being back reignited a bit of a passion, seeing the game and the players just made me remember the days when I was a terrible, terrible hockey player. I was shockingly poor. I would never have been good enough to make the team but I just loved skating and I thought “you know maybe now’s a good time.”

Scholes however doesn’t see himself as being another Neil Black character at the moment; one thing I’ve learned in business is never say never. It’s silly to say that if an opportunity came up that you wouldn’t ever go for it. That said it’s not on the cards now, I mean right now my only focus is the Tigers. I want to build them in to the most successful team and want to do it relatively quickly. So the only focus I’ve got right now is Telford.

Scholes is an engaging person to speak to, there’s no denying that as you listen to him speak about what he wants to achieve with the Tigers. For a long time the Tigers were seen as an organisation that many people had admiration for, part of which we both agreed was down to the coaching style of Tom Watkins.

That’s one of the reasons Telford’s always been a well liked team and one of the reasons I think it’s ironic that so many people are angry with Telford. It’s very easy to go from being the most loved team in the league to being the villain, I find that amusing. But that hard working ethic and it’s very important for us that the players we bring in are hard workers. Apart from anything else I like to work hard myself so I can respect people who work hard. I have a tough time with people who coast.

Eventually the conversation turns to the topic on everyone’s mind; call it poaching, call it tapping up, it’s been the hot topic of conversation in British hockey for a number of weeks since the announcement of Joe Miller’s signing from the Bison. From his tone of voice, Scholes has clearly thought about the answer. He knows this question has been coming and initially he sounds prepared.

Honestly I think it might be the most ridiculous response I’ve ever seen because I can’t work out what for love nor money that we’re doing wrong. We’ve broken no rules in the league, we have never broken a rule in the league. I’ve looked, there’s nothing that we’ve done that’s not in the rule book so I can’t for love nor money imagine why two clubs would react in that way and be petulant and in the same way that the teams have followed the rules themselves. I sort of go OK, I don’t know what to say other than “well that’s strange, it’s good for one to follow the rules but it’s not good for the other one?” I don’t get it. Look for me, I’m a businessman and we do things by the book and follow the rules. It’s up to the league to change the rules.

It’s a storm in a teacup he says then he stops and sighs before changing tack. Look do you want my honest opinion? Of course, I say. My honest opinion is that so many people have had all the toys to themselves for the last 10 years and all of a sudden they’ve got to share the toys and they’re throwing a tantrum and I find it embarrassing. I mean honestly if I were them, I’d be embarrassed.

There’s a pause and I interrupt; “errr Wayne, can I quote you on that?” I say wondering if he’ll suddenly stop and backtrack on what is a pretty strong statement. He carries on undeterred; of course you can! Look I’m always going to be honest with you. I’m not a guy that’s going to lie or that’s going to do the PR thing. If I were in their shoes reacting the way that some people are, I’d be embarrassed.

It’s at that point that Scholes throws out a real curveball into proceedings.

You know I’ve had 3 death threats in the last 2 weeks. It’s bizarre, I look at that and go “really?” I mean we’re talking about a sport. The whole point of sport is competition, that’s why we have x team vs x team, it’s competition. Well if a league becomes non-competitive because the same team wins it every year or because the same top 4 teams win it every year or the same top 4 teams have all the best players, how is that a league? How is that competitive? How is that a sport? That’s not a sport, that’s a practice league. I was under the impression that this was a competitive league and I know that’s how the league management see it and honestly I like the league management. I think they’ve done a great job of building a sport that’s gone through some really tough times, through lots of reasons.

Despite criticism from many sections of British hockey, he is glowing in his praise of those who run the EPL; I just think they’ve done a good job in the league and I have a lot of respect for Ken Taggart and the management of the league. I really admire what they’ve been able to accomplish so for me, the league is about sport, it’s about competition. The idea that other teams would get frustrated or angry and then vent in public is astonishing to me as a businessman, as a person, I don’t get it. I can’t understand coming out and screaming and shouting about another team. It’s a sport! I don’t understand it. I can’t imagine that I would ever do that. I don’t see a reason to become emotionally unravelled in public. I just don’t get it.

Whatever your view on how Telford acquired their recent signings, Dan Scott will join Telford in 2 weeks and Miller leaves Basingstoke for Telford to start 1st January.  Scholes is clearly delighted with the Tigers’ latest additions.

I hear it from fans all the time, other fans get kind of angry and they think there’s some clandestine plan to destroy other teams and I’m like “you know what dude, I just want a competitive team.” It’s as simple as that. So what do you do if you want a competitive team? Well you look at the league and you look at the good players and you talk to the coach and you say “who do you want? Who is going to make this the team that you want it to be?” It’s not just about picking random people. It just happens that we’re very fortunate that both Joe and Dan have played at Telford and they both enjoyed it here and they both happen to fit the style of play that Tom and Paul Thomason really want to put into effect for the long term future of Telford and I think that made it a very easy decision to look at those players so for us it was an easy decision and of course if you find that players have an interest in playing in your team then, great.

We’ve been very clear about our vision of what we want to do in Telford. It is about building a very strong plan in Telford for the future. It’s not about hoping it works this year then next year see what happens. Every deal has to be good for the players, good for the team and good for the league and if it’s not then we don’t want to do it. We only do things that are good for everybody involved. I look at players like Joe, he is a great leader. Joe is someone who brings a very level head, a very mature outlook on the play. You can out him on the ice and nothing phases him. He doesn’t get wound up easily, he’s a mature player who you know is going to get a knock here and a knock there and he’s not going to retaliate. He’s a guy who’s got a level head. He knows the right time to do something and the right time to walk away and I think that’s critical on a team like ours where we’ve got a team with a lot of young players who are looking to people to teach them what to do and when to do it and lead by example and that’s Joe. He is a fabulous addition to the team.

Then you look at Dan, gosh I love watching Dan play. He’s a very intelligent player. He’s one of those players that gets his head in the game. He really sees five steps ahead and I think when you’re talking about having the right kind of defence, you need players that read the game incredibly well and that’s Dan and despite his age, you know he’s not an old player he’s a young guy but he absolutely doesn’t have that head. He plays 5 years ahead of his age. He’s just an intelligent player and I think that’s something we’ve certainly looked for. Joe is another intelligent player. We are looking to add smart players, people who can play a strategy, people who can manage their own thoughts on the ice rather than being told and dictated to and that fits with Tom’s strategy because Tom’s very much a coach who likes to give players some autonomy. He’s going to give them a strategy and then get them to implement it and of course he’s a coach who’s going to pull them back if he needs to but he’s very much a coach who wants to let the players play so it fits well to have those two players in no question.

Despite his views on the new signings, Scholes was quick to point out that he’s not about to get heavily involved with on ice activities; I’m probably one of the worst owners ever because I don’t tell Tom anything. I don’t tell him what to do, I don’t tell him what players to get. I simply expect one thing, dedication…well two things; dedication coupled with hard work. I think you’ve got to give a coach time to do what they can and I think right now this is Tom’s real first opportunity to have the players he wants… Am I disappointed when Telford lose? Yeah, I am definitely one of the first people to tweet my disappointment if we lose but the bottom line is Tom’s the coach. I’m not the coach, Tom is and I trust him so I have to let him get on with it.

My personal belief this year is we’ll make the playoffs and the great thing about the playoffs is that anything can happen in a playoff he says laying out his goals for the rest of this campaign. My personal expectations as a fan are I desperately want to see us in the playoffs. I really do. I believe, I do but I don’t put any pressure on Tom, I don’t need to. He’s a fabulous coach and I need to give him the support to do what he wants to do.

Whilst very excited about the future, the past is very much on Scholes’ mind with regards to the Tigers and he was quick to praise the previous fan trust leadership.

One of my favourite things about Telford is when you go through so much adversity, so many struggles, you become very bonded as a team. You’ve only got to look at what a great job the trust did; people like Rita Mackriel and Mike Washburn and Richard Marshall and Paul and Jill Thomason and all the people I could list who put so much in, they did so much in terms of building the right mentality. It’s a wonderful thing to watch. These people are so dedicated and so invested in the team. If they hadn’t done what they did, formed the trust there would be no Telford Tigers and I wouldn’t be here funding it now to make it a competitive team. I think that shows the power of fans. As much as I find some of the comments distasteful from fans who get pretty personal, it’s the passion of the fans that I like. Once everyone realises that the competition we’re adding to the league is healthy and it all dies down we’ll get back to how things were and back to being that group of fans that other sports in this country wished they had. That’s one of my favourite things about hockey in Britain.

Our conversation draws to a close but not before I can resist asking Scholes if he’s been giving any business tips to the Tigers’ current stickboy. He laughs, confessing that he’s not had that question asked of him before. I’m looking at our equipment manager and I think “poor bloke, that’s so not cool, we really need to get him some help. Why is he carrying everything?” Then I look at the players and think “why can’t they carry their own sticks? What’s wrong with them? Get your own water!” Our stickboy probably has a bigger budget than any other in the league because I empathise. I can’t imagine saying no to him.

The call ends and I sit back, taking a moment to quickly process the last 30 minutes. The newest owner in the EPL is clearly not shy of any controversy that he may cause or feathers he may ruffle of those he considers have had their way for too long. He is a man with a goal in mind and the means to achieve it. The question remains as to how the rest of the league will respond, both on and off the ice, to the Tigers’ ever increasing roar.

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