Day of the Ed
48 hours with Flyers' owner Ed Snider
Last Monday, Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, one of the many milestones in his decades-long career in hockey. In the days surrounding Snider's induction, held this year in Chicago, the 78-year-old Snider talked with SportsWeek about his life, his legacy, his love of his plane's landing-gear cam, among other things. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at a man who - love him or hate him - has built one of the most iconic franchises, and successful businesses, in professional sports.
The blacked-out window of the white Cadillac Escalade descends, and a hand emerges to punch in a four-digit code. The gate opens to a well-guarded compound in the marshlands on the backside of Philadelphia International Airport.
The Escalade glides through an airplane hangar, where two jets - one of which jockeys Comcast executives Ralph and Brian Roberts around the world - sit. The SUV stops at the foot of a Gulfstream V wrapped in orange and black striping, an aircraft that looks less like a business jet than it does a sky-bound sanctuary.
Minutes later, 14,970 pounds of thrust push its 12 passengers back into their leather seats as the planes climbs the sky. There are no security lines, no bag checks, and no need for identification. This is what it feels like to be the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers.
10:24 a.m.: After the plane climbs to 41,000 feet, Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor - owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, the Wells Fargo Center, Comcast SportsNet and Global Spectrum - unbuckles his gold-plated seatbelt and invites me to the cockpit for a tour. There, pilot Chris Matte, who has flown Snider for seven years, is guiding the plane. To his right, first officer Norby monitors an electronic panel to avoid a collision.
Commuting between his homes in Gladwyne and Montecito, Calif., where Oprah Winfrey is a neighbor, Snider spends about 200 hours in the air each year. Equipped with wireless Internet, a shower, and a flight attendant, the plane pairs the performance of a Ferrari with the luxury of a Rolls Royce. It can fly from California to Europe without refueling and has a ceiling of 51,000 feet, allowing it to fly nearly 2 miles above commercial traffic, where you can see the curvature of the Earth.
Snider traded in his old plane, a Gulfstream IV, for this 2001-built model, which runs about $40 million new. Before he took possession in November, he had the interior tailored to his specifications, with a Flyers logo painted on the tail. "It's got all of the latest and greatest avionics," Snider says. "I was able to put this together the way I wanted to do it. Pretty cool, huh?"
10:38 a.m.: Back in his captain's chair, Snider swivels to face me. His ride is as singular as his status among professional sports owners. Out of 122 teams in the four major pro sports, just five have longer-serving owners than Snider. He is now one of the rare sports owners who - like the recently deceased Al Davis with the Oakland Raiders or Art Rooney with the Steelers - made his money from the team he owns. Today, pro sports is a big-boys club that requires deep pockets to buy-in.
"Everything that I have has come through the Flyers and the Spectrum," Snider says. "Most guys make their money somewhere else and lose money in sports. It's very difficult in sports today to make money because of the incredible salaries that these players get. You can't come and buy a team and make your living that way anymore."
Everything is bigger in today's NHL. A journeyman player makes more in a single season than Snider paid the league in expansion fees in 1967. "That first season we grossed $950,000 in ticket sales," he says. "Now, we gross $1.2 million in ticket sales in a single home game."
But it is not ticket prices that allow Snider the luxuries he enjoys today. More than 30 years ago, he founded Spectacor Management Group, the largest arena-management firm in the world. He sold it in 1997 and two years later created Global Spectrum, a competitor in the same field. The company now manages more than 90 buildings around the world, with interests in television, ticketing and food service. The company's concessionaire, Ovations Food Services, rakes in $200 million a year in revenue. "I haven't gone out and built a widget factory," Snider says. "I've only stuck with what we know how to do well, and then we've expanded it."
In 2000, Snider turned over the bulk of the day-to-day operations of Global Spectrum to president and chief operating officer Peter Luukko, who is sitting in the back of the plane next to Flyers' GM Paul Holmgren. Luukko believes that given the economics of sports today, there will never be another person with a career like Snider's. "Without extreme wealth, it would be nearly impossible for an individual to step in and alter the landscape as Ed has done," Luukko says.
10:54 a.m.: Snider's daughter Lindy, 53, sits in front of him on the flight. One of her most vivid memories of her father's run as the Flyers' president - aside from the two Stanley Cups - is a picture she drew as a first-grader. "It said: 'My mom is really pretty. My mom is really nice,' " she recalls. "Then it said: 'My daddy is really handsome. My daddy's face turns purple when the Flyers lose a game.' "
She knew not to ask him for a raise in allowance, or anything else, unless it was after a win. Now, Lindy says, the whole family is superstitious, all because of her father. "If you're sitting somewhere and score, you're staying there," she explains. "One time, they locked me in the bathroom because we had scored a goal when I was in there. You cannot change your seat. It's what you wear. If you're on the escalator, you better go back to the escalator. It's an entire culture, and now it's been passed to our kids. That's how seriously he takes winning."
11:26 a.m.: As the tree-lined streets of Chicago slowly come into focus below, the flight attendant walks through the cabin offering an assortment of mints, chewing gum and candy. The monitors in front of Snider flick back to his favorite part of the flight - watching the landing-gear camera - for the final approach to Midway Airport. Then, with a thud, the landing gear touches down. After the plane taxis to its parking spot, the door opens and the stairs descend. A limousine bus is parked just steps away.
12:57 p.m.: Snider is never late, and even after a plane ride and a 30-minute drive into downtown Chicago, he and his entourage stroll into the swank Catch-35 seafood restaurant on Wacker Drive a couple of minutes before their 1 p.m. reservation.
Snider is hungry. After perusing the restaurant's gluten-free menu - Snider suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by a reaction to the protein found in wheat - he wants to order. "I think we're all good to go," Snider says to the waitress.
"I will give you guys a few more minutes," she replies.
3:35 p.m.: Snider is due back in the Renaissance Chicago Downtown hotel for a 3:40 pm. media availability. In the hallway of the hotel, he's stopped by fellow Hall of Fame inductee Chris Chelios, the former longtime defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Chelios' respect for Snider is common among NHL veterans, for both the team's longstanding competitive record and their first-class treatment of players.
Yet Snider's relationship with Philadelphia fans is complex. In most cities, an owner who has delivered 15 division titles, eight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, and two championships might expect a statue to be erected in his honor. In Philly, though, Snider is often perceived as an imperious hard-ass, one who neglected his NBA franchise while trumpeting the history of a team that hasn't won a title in 36 years.
"I'm not really sure why he gets a bad rap sometimes," said son Jay, who served as president of the Flyers from 1983-94, and who flew in for the Hall of Fame event from his home in California. "I can tell you that there is not an owner in sports who cares more about winning."
Jay points to the Flyers' payroll in 2003-04, last full-season before the yearlong NHL work stoppage, when the Flyers paid their players a reported $72 million. This season the NHL salary cap is $64.5 million.
3:52 p.m.: At the media event, Snider is asked the first of many questions about what he has described as his lasting legacy in Philadelphia, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. Last month work was completed on refurbishing and enclosing three city rinks with the help of a $6.5 million donation and matching grant from the commonwealth and city.
The rinks will help balloon the program from its current capacity of 2,500 kids to upwards of 10,000 participants, all of whom are able to receive after-school tutoring, mentoring, hockey equipment and ice time, for free. The only requirement is steady attendance in school and improving grades. The program is one of the reasons for Snider's induction into the Hall. "It gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction," Snider says. "A lot of these kids don't have a heck of a lot. Just to see how they respond and appreciate these opportunities, to see parents stop me and tell me what a godsend it is for their child means everything."
4:57 p.m.: Snider is in the middle of an interview for the NHL Network that will air during the Winter Classic between the Flyers and the Rangers on Jan. 2 when he checks a message that just landed on his cellphone. On the screen is the name of the most celebrated player to ever put on an NHL jersey. Snider beams when he plays back the voice-mail. "Hey, Mr. Snider, this is Wayne Gretzky. Just wanted to call and say congratulations on your induction into the Hall of Fame. You have been an integral part in growing the game in this country. You should be proud."
Later, Snider poses for pictures, first with his induction plaque, which will be housed in the U.S. Hall of Fame's tiny facility in Eveleth, Minn., and then with his family. Snider stands first with two of his three sons, next with his three daughters, and finally with all of them, including daughter's Tina's three daughters, who came on the trip.
"Dad, can we get a real smile?" Lindy asks.
"This is real," Snider says.
5:45 p.m.: The evening's events begin with a cocktail reception. Snider is greeted in the hallway by Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman then offers his congratulations. Waiting across the room is the new boss of the NHL Players Association, Donald Fehr, who once ran Major League Baseball's players union and who will oppose Bettman in labor negotiations starting in January.
Bettman and Snider have a unique relationship. Snider is the NHL's longest-serving owner, and is the only owner on the league's competition committee, which decides how the game is played. Bettman says he talks with Snider almost once a week, or more. "If the officiating is not up to what he considers appropriate, I'll hear from him, sometimes even during a game," Bettman says.
7:04 p.m.: The entrance to the Renaissance's main ballroom teems with hockey royalty. It's noted that each of this year's five inductees - who also include Keith Tkachuk, Gary Suter, and broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick - are connected to the United States' stunning victory in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Snider hosted the tournament event at the Wells Fargo Center (then known as CoreStates): Chelios, Tkachuk and Suter won gold medals, and Emrick called the games on television.
8:58 p.m.: During his speech, Chelios calls Snider "Mr. Snider." Contrary to popular belief, Snider does not ask those who work for him to address him as such. Even so, hardly anyone calls him anything but, whether its longtime friend Bob Clarke, the Flyers senior vice president; GM Paul Holmgren; arena workers, or players. "People rarely have the courage to call him Ed," daughter Sarena says, "but he actually likes it."
Just before he's scheduled to deliver his speech, Snider turns to Sarena, 26, and reminds her that she saved his life. It's an old story, but it's an emotional moment for Snider. He was already well into his 50s when Sarena was born in 1985. While in the pool one day with his young daughter, he was so out of shape that he struggled just to keep her afloat. That's when he decided to change his lifestyle and commit himself to healthy living. Today, he works out about five days a week. When in California, he exercises with Peter Park, Lance Armstrong's former trainer. He has a gym in his Gladwyne home, and plays fiercely competitive doubles tennis with a group of friends. "Sarena and [son] Sam were a huge wake-up call for him," Lindy says. "He is healthier now than he was when he was 50."
9:31 p.m.: Snider receives a standing ovation on his way to the podium. Asked to speak for no more than 10 minutes, Snider obliges. He prefers brevity. He wrote his remarks himself and scribbled in changes on the fly as Chelios and Emrick were giving their speeches. He talks about building a fan base in Philly, about the franchise's two Stanley Cup championships, about the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. It's less than an hour later when ESPN SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy, the night's emcee, wraps up the ceremony. Snider receives handshakes and hugs, and shares a laugh with a neighbor from California. As the elevator doors close on Snider, he is flanked by his three daughters. A nightcap in Suite 1432 is ordered to celebrate.
10:05 a.m.: The traveling Sniders are due to meet in the lobby at 10:30 a.m. Given Snider's proclivity for punctuality, that means everyone needs to be ready and waiting before he steps off the elevator. He doesn't wait for anyone.
As the bus heads toward the airport, he toys with daughter Lindy's iPhone. Snider prides himself on his proficiency with his BlackBerry, from which he often sends notoriously short responses to messages. Any pertinent information is passed through his assistant, Ann Marie Nasuti. Still, Snider's comfort with technology is impressive for a 78-year-old. On this trip, he is intrigued by Words With Friends, the Scrabble-like game Lindy is playing. Snider once bought an iPad, gave it to his son Craig after deciding he had no use for it, then bought another after learning more about it. As the bus pulls into the executive terminal at Midway, the tail of Snider's jet pokes above the roof of the small building. It dwarfs every other private plane on the tarmac.
10:55 a.m.: Walking through the terminal, Holmgren pulls his boss aside. The Flyers GM informs him that Flyers center Claude Giroux, the NHL's leading scorer, will be out indefinitely. Giroux failed a baseline test that morning, and team doctors have diagnosed him with a concussion. Snider stops, silent, and processes the information. He looks as if he has been punched in the stomach. "Claude Giroux has a concussion," Snider informed the rest of his traveling party, all of whom are familiar with team's uncomfortable history with concussions and star players.
After they board a few minutes later, the nose of plane tilts toward the overcast Illinois sky. The flight to Washington, where the Flyers will face the Capitals that night, is just 75 minutes. Though he's seen it about 10 times now, Snider still can't get over the underbelly camera, which is now showing the landing gear retracting and the trees below fading out of view. "Isn't that just the greatest?" Snider says, laughing. "That's really something else."
11:43 a.m.: On a table a spread of club sandwiches, crab and shrimp cocktail, and Caprese salad replaces the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and the New York Times. Snider opens to the sports section in USA Today, but stops reading when he sees a story on concussions that features Giroux. Snider puts the paper down and walks from one end of the plane to the other. "I can't stop thinking about Giroux," Snider says. "With these types of things, you just never know."
11:58 a.m: From day to day, Craig Snider might talk more with his father than anyone else in the family, though it hasn't always been that way. After earning an MBA from Wharton, Craig dabbled in film in Los Angeles, worked for Global Spectrum and became an entrepreneur. Today, he's executive director of the Snider Foundation, the family's philanthropic arm. He directs his father's giving, which is often tied to the conservative political causes Ed Snider supports and is earmarked to ensure that Snider Hockey will operate in perpetuity.
Craig points to the Snider family's vacations in Maine as vital in maintaining the clan's close ties. Snider first began taking his family to central Maine in 1965. They would sing songs in their station wagon the entire way there. Today, the family owns eight properties on Cobbossee Lake, where they try to gather for a retreat at least once a summer. "We're a very close family," Craig says. "It's nice to have that summer home that stays the same. We all live in different places now; it's the one place we all connect. . . . It gives us a sense of ritual."
12:05 p.m.: As Air Snider enters metropolitan Washington's airspace, Snider is sitting in the front with Craig's wife, Beth, and daughters Sarena and Lindy. (Snider's youngest son, Sam, did not make the trip to Chicago; he was taking a final exam at Parsons New School for Design in New York.) For Sarena, Ed is both father and confidant. "I know that I can tell him anything and he won't judge me," she says. "He might have been a little protective about boyfriends that I've had in the past, but he just wants what is best for me. I am really fortunate to have him."
She notes that he has some skills that might surprise people. "I can remember that he would stay up late and edit or help me write a history paper," she says. "He would read to me. And you should see him on the dance floor, or get him to sing. He does this little twist that makes everyone laugh."
1:14 p.m.: A few minutes before landing, Snider hops up to use the washroom. Upon returning, his daughters ask him about his intense schedule, given his age. "Starting on Jan. 7th, I will be in my 80th year," Snider says. "Can you believe that? I don't feel old."
Questions about retiring have followed Snider for years. In the early 1990s, many believed he was in the process of handing over the reins to son Jay, then-team president. But that was nearly two decades ago, and Snider shows no signs of giving up control, or slowing down, anytime soon. He is still intensely involved with the day-to-day operations of the Flyers, evidenced by the fact that he was the one who pushed Holmgren to sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a massive contract in June.
"He's just got a young spirit," says Jay. "He really is modern. It's his outlook. He doesn't say, 'We used to do it that way'; he's just enjoys life. We always laugh, because he continually says, 'This is the greatest steak' or 'This is the greatest place.' . . . Everything is always the greatest. It's like he's experiencing everything for the first time still."
There's also the fact that Snider's father, Saul, a successful grocer in Alexandria, Virginia, did not live long after retiring. "I live to work," Snider says. "If I didn't like what I do, I wouldn't do it."
After passing a line of planes at Dulles airport, the Gulfstream once again comes to a halt. The stairs descend into a chilly afternoon. The traveling party piles into a navy-blue van for the 25-mile trek to downtown Washington.
Peering down at his BlackBerry, Snider reads an email from injured Flyers captain Chris Pronger offering congratulations for the Hall of Fame induction. The next day, Snider will take Pronger to Pittsburgh on the plane so the captain can meet with concussion experts for his season-dooming examination at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
4:20 p.m.: After a private tour of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, Snider heads to the Prime Rib restaurant near the Verizon Center, where he meets even more family members, many of whom still live in his native Washington. Among them is Snider's sister Phyllis, the woman responsible for giving the Flyers their name back in 1967. "Now, let's get a win tonight," Snider says after ordering his favorite steak.
9:07 p.m.: In a private suite crammed with friends and family members, Snider celebrates the Flyers' drubbing of the struggling Capitals. When the final buzzer sounds, Snider prepares for his most important ritual: the locker-room visit. Among the many perks of hosting the Winter Classic, Snider said he was most excited for HBO's reality series "24/7 Road to the Winter Classic," since it will finally give him the opportunity to hear a Flyers coach's pre-game speech.
"Honestly, I try not to spend too much time there," Snider says of the locker room. "There could be all sorts of things that go wrong with an owner there, whether it's a player feeling intimidated or pressured. I really believe in the inner sanctum of a locker room, a place where players and coaches feel comfortable."
Snider does, however, believe in a postgame handshake for each player. On this night, after the Flyers collected their sixth straight win to increase their lead in a tight Eastern Conference, Snider did more than that. He got down and did five push-ups in his suit and tie as the players glared in disbelief. "You can tell that this means a lot to him when he comes in here," Ilya Bryzgalov said. "This team is his life."
THE REMAINS OF THE JAY
More than 17 years have passed since Jay Snider was Flyers president, but he still watches every move of the team he once controlled.
Snider now manages an Internet start-up company, Yowie.com, in a collaboration with his oldest son, Jamie, 26, in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Last Monday, he flew to Chicago with his wife, Terry, to celebrate his father's induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. "I'm very proud of him," Jay says. "His heart is shaped in a Flyers logo. When we worked together, he had 10 or 11 different businesses going, but whenever we talked, it would only be about the hockey team."
Jay's reign as president of the team began in 1983, when his father made him the youngest-ever controlling executive of a major professional sports franchise. He was 25, and the move was designed to give the elder Snider more time to concentrate on his other businesses.
Jay's tenure would prove tumultuous. Although the team advanced to the 1985 and '87 Stanley Cup finals - losing to the Edmonton Oilers both times - they were not well-equipped to enter the 1990s. They missed the playoffs five straight seasons (1990-1994), an unacceptable run for a franchise that has been a posteason fixture in its 44-year history.
There were embarrassing times along the way, including a squabble between Jay and general manager Bob Clarke that resulted in Clarke's firing. At the 1992 NHL All-Star Game, played at the Spectrum, the crowd chanted, "Jay Must Go!"
After the 1993-94 season, Jay announced that he would step down to pursue other opportunities. The reins of the club were returned to his father, who still holds them today.
Jay says his time with the Flyers taught him some important lessons. "It was an unbelievable training ground, I think, for any business," he says. "You're learning about everything from marketing to sales to media." Since leaving the team, he has founded and sold several companies, and he still owns a Philadelphia bike shop.
Jay does not miss the limelight, or the heat from fans and the media, but said he does miss the game. "When you're in that spotlight and you're in that microscope and you're getting criticized, you take it worse than anyone else takes it," Jay says. "But the guy feeling that heat thinks it's the biggest thing in the world. I can finally read a critical article about someone and move on."
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