For some hockey fans, Peter Karmanos will always be known as “the guy who moved the Hartford Whalers.”
Whether or not that sentiment comes merely from bitterness, his acquisition of the Whalers in 1994 and the subsequent movement of the franchise to Raleigh, N.C., is a footnote in a hockey career that started 20 years earlier and keeps going strong today.
In the 1970s, Karmanos was a young, fledging businessman who was looking to get his company, Compuware, off the ground. As is typical for those trying to start a business, he worked long hours, which severely limited the time he was able to spend at home with his children.
At the time, his sons were 5 and 7 years old. People he worked with and some of his customers told him if he didn’t get them involved in hockey at a young age, they’d be further behind their peers when they reached their mid-teens.
Coupled with the potential for more family time, Karmanos jumped at the chance to get his sons playing.
“The chance on a Saturday and Sunday to take them to learn to skate programs really seemed to go hand-in-hand,” Karmanos reminisced hours before his induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
“From that point of view, hockey was a great game. I remember my second-oldest son, the first few times I would take him skating, he’d be in the back seat and reach up and tap me and say, ‘mom, mom,’ and I’d say, ‘no, I’m not your mom, I’m your dad,’ and it only took two or three trips to the rink before he started calling me dad. That’s how little time we’d been spending with those kids.”
Along with Compuware co-founder Tom Thewes, who also had sons the same age as Karmanos’, the two co-founded the Compuware Youth Hockey Program in the late 1970s.
The program included every level from recreational, to AAA Midgets to Junior hockey.
Since diving into youth hockey, Compuware teams have been a staple at USA Hockey National Championship events, winning a total of 14 titles.
And at one stretch the Compuware Ambassadors emerged as a junior powerhouse, winning eight of 10 North American Hockey League titles from 1986 to 1995, and closed out the millennium by taking two more league crowns.
The list of Compuware and Plymouth alumni is impressive. Kip Miller, Eric Lindros, Brian Rolston and David Legwand, among others, cut their teeth with Compuware early in their careers.
“[The players] go to a lot of different places, college or Junior, and it’s a thrill every time except when we’re playing against them,” Karmanos said with a smile.
His reach didn’t stop there, as he purchased the Whalers in 1994 and moved them to Carolina three years later. The franchise has found success in a region very few thought would embrace the game. Youth hockey in the area is growing and the players are improving, to the point that three current NHL players — Jared Boll (Columbus), J.T. Brown (Tampa Bay) and Ben Smith (Chicago) — were born in the Tar Heel State.
“Any place there’s an NHL team, hockey will grow,” Karmanos said. “We have some pretty good players now in North Carolina, because it’s been [around] long enough. Kids have really learned to skate. The teams are getting more competitive.”
Even with all of that, perhaps Karmanos’ greatest achievement is something he’s not widely known for. He was a driving force behind the NHL’s approval of a substantial annual grant to USA Hockey in 2008 that supports a number of grass-roots programs, including Grow the Game initiatives, officiating development causes, the player development system that includes the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The motivation behind the vote was the Canadian leagues were getting a large yearly stipend for player development and the Europeans were collecting an aggregate amount of money for development fees for players NHL teams signed.
“The U.S. had put together an elite program and was spending $2.5 million a year on that program alone and the NHL was giving them approximately $1 million per year,” Karmanos said. “So I got some of the other owners together and lobbied for getting the U.S. at least as much money as the Canadian Hockey League was getting, and we voted on it and it was unanimous.
“I think it’s been money that’s very well invested. It’s for the league’s benefit as far as we’re concerned.”
While he’s mostly visible as the Hurricanes’ owner, he still heavily supports youth hockey. He is a strong proponent of the America Development Model, a revolutionary program designed to improve the quantity and quality of youth hockey players.
“I’ve been involved with youth hockey for a long time, and I can tell you from experience that going into cross ice is really a good thing,” he said.
“Because if you have a 7 or 8-year-old who can really skate, and you have other kids who can’t and you have full ice, the other kids never touch the puck and the one kid just skates it up and down the ice. That’s not good for that kid, and it’s certainly not good for the other kids, so I think the ADM is a great step forward in making sure kids learn skills.”
That being said, he’s not entirely satisfied with the current state of youth hockey.
When asked about the growth of the youth game in Michigan, he said he thinks the game is flourishing, but continued growth is being stunted because families are being “priced out.”
“The only problem I have with youth hockey is it just costs too much,” he said. “I think one of the things we can do in USA Hockey and the NHL is try to figure out what we can do with saving energy and cutting the cost of ice time.
“When my oldest son started skating, and he’s 47 now, ice was $40 an hour. I think now it’s closing in on $300 an hour. You used to be able to buy a wood stick for a reasonable price, now you can’t. You could get skates, and now they’re very expensive. One of the things that holds the sport back is the cost.”
Karmanos has been one of the game’s great supporters and one of its biggest fans. He continues to devote his time and resources to improving the game at every level.
However, despite his love and heavy involvement for the game, he has never tried to learn to skate.
“I played goalie a couple times [with my sons]. That convinced me I definitely should not learn to skate,” he said with a laugh.