Thunderbirds ownership excited for new GM hire
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.- The groveling blare of the buzzer echoes in the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex.
For some, it’s a pleasant sound—signaling another Carolina Thunderbirds win at home—a 9-3 drubbing of their southernmost rival back on March 8.
Yet, for others, it’s a sobering scream—short and abrupt— like the season’s end that followed.
“I wouldn’t say we were going to win,” said Thunderbirds majority owner Barry Soskin, “but I was certainly getting sized up for a new ring.”
That harrowing imagine of what could have been has hung in the mind of Winston-Salem hockey fans—a mirage in the distance awaiting something new and concrete to break out of the doldrums.
On Monday, May 18, Carolina burst into a new era by signing former-goaltender Kelly Curl as the third general manager in franchise history.
“I couldn’t be more excited to be part of product that’s in my backyard,” said the new general manager.
“I interviewed four people,” said Soskin, “and Kelly stood out because he was thinking along the same lines I was… and I think he fit the bill the best.”
At 33, Curl is the youngest general manager the Thunderbirds have hired in their four-year history. Still a young man, the fresh-faced North Carolinian is bringing innovative, new ideas into his first front office role.
“One of my biggest priorities is making sure the fan experience gets better and better and creative a positive outreach for our communities through player interaction and fostering a spirit of goodwill,” remarked Curl.
“He’s got so many good ideas,” said minority owner Cary Ross, “he’s an out-of-the-box thinker and I really liked that about him.”
Curl and the rest of the Thunderbirds staff will be able to use some fresh perspective navigating the offseason until play begins in late October.
Head coach and director of hockey operations Andre Niec has already re-signed forwards Petr Panacek and Jan Salak for the coming season.
“Having Andre here has been such a help because he’s proven that he knows how to win,” praised Ross.
The Thunderbirds eclipsed 100 franchise wins last season, setting the FPHL record for the fastest team to reach 100 wins.
Personally, Niec has tied Phil Esposito for most wins in FPHL history with 147, most of them coming with Carolina.
However, the minor-league hockey offseason is fraught with more challenges than just building the product on the ice.
“The team on the ice would be nothing without the team off the ice supporting them,” pointed Ross.
“I want my general manager to have a pulse on the locker room,” said Soskin, “but his job is making sure that the administrative side works well because if we don’t have a selling season, our season on the ice will be terrible.”
An experienced veteran of hockey team ownership, Soskin was quick to praise his front office for a lot of work they had put in over the last four years. The Thunderbirds have set a benchmark for minor-league hockey as well as the FPHL.
A lot of the credit also belongs to the fans of Winston-Salem and the Triad who have been loud, proud supports since day one. It’s a special and beautiful relationship between the city and its fans.
“We’re selling fun,” continued Soskin, “it gets your heart pounding certainly… you can yell and scream and we want the outcome to go a certain way.”
“I’ve been able to develop a great relationship with the fan base having been here for three years. I want to use my understanding of the environment to make decisions are made appropriately for the fan to get a well-rounded product,” said Curl.
It’s 162 days until the final weekend October, which has been the traditional start date for league.
For Curl and the Thunderbirds, the business outreach season is now.
“If you don’t make the money now, you won’t have it to spend in the season,” remarked Soskin.
“It’s a challenge right now,” said Ross, “but we want to be in the community and we want to be visible in helping our partners. As a minor league hockey player part of your job is going out in the community and being in the schools and the businesses and that’s where we want our guys.”
“As best we can we have to continue business as usual so when, whatever the circumstances are, we can continue to provide the fans with something they enjoy,” said Curl.
The future is bright for the fourth-year franchise in Winston-Salem, and with a new general manager leading the charge, the next chapter opens with hope and promise of great things to come.