On Thursday, May 19, Henderson Silver Knights General Manager Tim Speltz and other members of the Vegas Golden Knights Hockey Operations staff were on site at the brand new 7,500 seat Enmarket Arena in Georgia to meet the newest member of the VGK hockey family – the Savannah Ghost Pirates.
After five seasons partnered with the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets, who won a Kelly Cup in 2021, the Golden Knights are now teaming up with the ECHL’s newest franchise. The Ghost Pirates will play their inaugural regular-season contest this coming fall on October 22.
The new partnership with the budding franchise offers numerous benefits on the ice for the Golden Knights as they expand their role in top-to-bottom prospect development in the pro ranks.
“The Fort Wayne relationship was always a great one. Yet from our standpoint, no different from what Bill Foley’s businesses have done in starting everything from scratch, we were looking to do that with an ECHL team if there was an opportunity,” said Speltz, who just completed his first season as GM in Henderson. “When Savannah presented that opportunity with a new building, we began to ask ourselves if that made sense. It came together very quickly at the end of the year.”
The founding of the Ghost Pirates in Savannah has been led by President Bob Ohrablo, who has significant past experience in professional hockey. Ohrablo has served as President of the Jacksonville IceMen of the ECHL, a founding partner for the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, as well as executive roles with numerous AHL franchises and with the NHL’s Florida Panthers. He was also at one time the Vice President of Marketing for the AHL.
With the business potential of the Ghost Pirates well established, the team was looking for a partner that could take a hands-on approach to building the product on the ice. The Golden Knights were looking to fill that role with a potential partner, making it a perfect fit.
“When we looked at it, we asked ourselves what the partnership could look like from our side. That was important,” said Speltz. “We knew that we had an opportunity here to be a three-tiered development system, with the first tier being the Vegas Golden Knights, the second tier begin the Henderson Silver Knights, and then the Savannah Ghost Pirates. I think it’s a good place for our players to get the opportunity they need to get the reps, ice-time, and starts for their development to come into place.”
Developing a player to reach his full potential and skill set is a process, one that may take longer for some players than others. There are prospects who jump straight to the National Hockey League out of college or junior, and many break in at the AHL level.
While the ECHL rosters may not be at the forefront of every fan’s mind as they follow their teams prospect pool, well-managed ECHL operations are crucial for polishing young players and providing organizational depth, especially at the AHL level.
Since it began operations for the 1988-89 season, the ECHL has produced 727 players who have gone on to play in the NHL, including 28 players this season. That list includes Golden Knights Brayden Pachal, Ben Jones, and Daniil Miromanov.
Even players like Gage Quinney (45 games with ECHL Wheeling in 2017-18) and Logan Thompson (32 games with ECHL South Carolina in 2019-20) had to prove themselves in the ECHL before catching the eye and climbing the ranks with the VGK. The league has been a solid setting for player growth and expanded opportunity, especially for goaltenders.
“Look at what it’s done for a player like Jiri Patera. Jiri was a prospect who needed to start in Fort Wayne. He had a good camp with us, but he went there to get the starts,” said Speltz. “He wasn’t going to get the starts in Henderson in the beginning and a backup role wasn’t going to give him the development he needed. He went to Fort Wayne, took those necessary steps, and came back and ended up being a starting goaltender for the HSK at the end of the year and is moving forward as our starter next year.”
“It’s a good starting point if you can get the proper organization that gives players the resources to be successful. We want to be successful, we want to win games, we need to win games obviously. But at the same time, it’s about the development of prospects, and I think that’s the key there. It’s the same mission for them as it is for HSK and VGK, and it’ll be something we have control of.”
That mission for creating the right culture for the VGK and HSK at all levels with center on the coaching staff, with the head coach already in place. Rick Bennett was introduced as the first head coach in Ghost Pirates history on May 19 after having spent the prior 11 seasons as the head coach of the NCAA Division I program at Union College. Bennett won a National Championship with Union in 2014 and won the Spencer Penrose Trophy that season as the NCAA Coach of the Year. He was also the ECAC Coach of the Year in 2017.
“He’s a true-blue hockey coach and a hockey mentor. I think he’s the guy who is going to be able to provide not only great hockey direction for these players, but also help with their life skills and the growing-up process,” said Speltz. “That takes some time with players, when everything seems like a big rush in a lot of cases. I think Rick is going to be able to help these guys significantly both on and off the ice.”
The staff in Savannah will work with a broad network of Golden Knights personnel, including Director of Player Development Wil Nichol, to create a winning product in Savannah. That will of course include creating a positive environment for prospects and draft picks, but the task goes well beyond that.
The Silver Knights this season relied on numerous players on professional tryout agreements, such as Matt Boudens. Boudens played 30 games for the HSK after joining the team from Fort Wayne in November. Colt Conrad joined the team on a professional tryout and ultimately turned it into an AHL contract.
“Building relationships with those types of players to be a part of our operation, whether it’s HSK or Savannah, you need those kinds of players who understand what we’re all about as an organization- how we want to do things and how we can carry that forward with the prospects there. In Savannah, we’re going to have access to players we want to place there, guys who maybe aren’t going to be VGK prospects but are going to be players that can help us win in Savannah and with the HSK to develop our culture.”
In that sense, while the long-term benefits of the partnership in Savannah eventually will be evident on the Golden Knights roster, the greatest short-term impact might be felt by the Silver Knights and Head Coach Manny Viveiros as they work with Bennett to navigate the hurdles and surprises of the regular season while rearing young players in the mold of Golden Knights.
“Our responsibility is to put together a competitive program there as quickly as we can. It won’t happen overnight, we’ll be starting with a clean slate and trying to find players. It’s an expansion franchise, so other teams that can qualify their current players are going to have a head start,” said Speltz. “But we are going to do the work to show players that Savannah is a desirable place to play and a good spot for prospects to develop and take that next step in their careers. That’s what makes this exciting.”