When Todd Mackin accepted the position of president of the Rapid City Rush in March, he came to Rapid City fully aware that configuring a quality hockey team and making the team a commercial in the area would be a big leap from doing so in Kansas City where he had served as Executive Vice President of the ECHL Kansas City Mavericks.
Eight months into his tenure, Mackin sees reason for optimism though acknowledging that work remains before the Rush can once again capture the excitement present during the city’s initial foray into professional hockey.
“Our market is tough,” Mackin said from his second-floor office in Rush headquarters in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. “I came from a market of 2.2 million people. And when a fan got mad and didn’t want to come back, you could always find somebody else. When we lose one fan here it is a tough blow to us. And if a sponsor tells us they are not coming back, in most cases, there is not another one to fill the void. Fortunately, I know that this is a city that got behind the Rush one hundred and fifty percent at one time, and it’s our job to earn that commitment again.”
A big plus toward possibly renewing that initial buzz is the impressive manner in which the Rush have opened the season, an 8-3-2-0 record going into Wednesday night's game at Wichita, and a seemingly huge turnaround following a disappointing early-season road trip.
“We went on that second road trip and ended up winning only one of six points,” Mackin said. “But we played way better than that and could have won those games, and I saw that we had a good hockey team with a lot of pieces that fit well. And then the guys, rather than hanging their heads, came back home ready to go.”
Go they did as the Rush have opened the season with five consecutive wins on home ice — including a couple of shootout wins en route to climbing to the top of the Mountain Division and Western Conference standings.
Mackin is quick to deflect credit for the team’s on-ice success to third-year head coach Danny Tetrault and assistant coach Jeremy Gates and the NHL affiliate Arizona, who in addition to providing guidance, have added a number of top-level players such as third-year pro, Giovanni Fiore (currently second in the ECHL in scoring) to the Rush roster.
”Coach Tetrault is the main player in putting this team together,” Mackin said. “Steve Sullivan with the Arizona Coyotes guides us in getting some signings done, and Jeremy Gates (assistant coach) helps as well. I’m very much an ancillary part of that just helping out when needed. All the credit goes to Danny and those guys.”
Clearly, a major component of the team’s success has been the relationship forged between the man who heads oversees front office operations and the man who calls the shots from behind the bench.
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“My first impression when I came here was that Danny had his hands tied behind his back and didn’t have the opportunity a head coach should have at this level.” Mackin said. “I could see his frustration. The first day I was here we sat down and talked. And the second day, he made a bunch of trades and really put his neck on the line with the attitude that I’m going down swinging. And I told him at the beginning of this year that we were going into this together and we weren’t going to make excuses. We were going to do whatever we needed to do to make this organization a success.”
For a team that has not had a winning season, or made the playoffs, since the 2014-2015 season, this year’s impressive start offers hope that the Rush have turned the corner on the ice.
The task now Mackin stressed is to turn that success on the ice into a similar uptick in fan support.
“We run a really tight budget here. We run extremely lean and am hamstrung a little bit in the building with our lease, so we have to do some things that put us at a disadvantage in our league quite frankly. It’s hard to recruit players here. Veteran players wouldn’t even report here at times, and the word was out that Rapid City wasn’t a place to play. And that’s because we weren’t doing the little things right. Simple things and I wanted to try and create a culture of winning and togetherness and team and all of those things that lend themselves to winning.”
A culture changing? Or returning to the successes of the past? Mackin thinks so. And hopes area fans do so as well.
“This is an awesome place, but we should feel lucky to have this team,” Mackin said. “There are buildings popping up all over the country. And with markets that want a team like us beg for it and will pay and support it. Hopefully the support will come here as well if we treat the community the way that it should be treated. We are the only professional team driving out of this state and going everywhere in the country that wears “Rapid City” across our chest. And if that can’t get you fired up to be Rapid Citian, I don’t know what can.”
Winning hockey is a start. And continued hard work on and off the ice, the recipe toward making the wearing of a “Rapid City” insignia on the front of a hockey uniform a source of pride once more.
“I had hoped to be a little farther ahead, honestly. The team has been great, and I think our front office is getting in line and is doing a good job,” Mackin concluded. “I was hoping we would get a little more support on the season ticket side of things and a little more support on the sponsorship side of things, but I think those can come with a little bit of work and elbow grease on our side. We are working on it. There are things we can do better, but I think we are going in the right direction.”