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BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
A Wall Street trader from New York stood on the streets of Bakersfield 17 years ago and promised to bring a hockey championship to the city.
Jonathan Fleisig, who finalized a sale of the Condors to the Edmonton Oilers last week, never made good on that brash boast, and that still saddens him.
Utah at Condors
When: 7, tonight
Where: Rabobank Arena
Radio: KHTY (970 AM)
Grizzlies record: 18-16-3-4
Condors record: 17-18-1-3
Series: Bakersfield is 2-1-0-1
Notes: A fan at tonight's game will win a gift to die for, but the Condors aren't in any hurry for the winner to cash in on the prize. The Condors are giving away two cemetery plots at Historic Union Cemetery (cremation services available upon request). The winner will be announced in the third period ... Condors captain Joel Broda is riding a seven-game point streak with five goals and six assists during that time. He leads the team with 19 goals and 35 points ... Condors goaltender Laurent Brossoit continues to lead the league in goals-against average (1.49) and save percentage (.942).
"What's really difficult for me is that I failed in that department," Fleisig said in a phone interview with The Californian on Wednesday. "I promised community involvement, charities and championships. I did pretty well on two of them. Not the third.
"I cannot tell you how hard I worked and how much effort I gave to trying to win a championship and how much it hurt to fail every time ... what's really difficult to me is I failed in that department."
Fleisig purchased the Bakersfield Fog of the old West Coast Hockey League in 1997 with an eye on the future. A new arena was being built adjacent to the convention center where the team played on a theater stage and Fleisig wanted to be a part of a new era of hockey in Bakersfield. In the fall of 1998 the arena was ready and so was the renamed team: the Condors.
The Fleisig-owned Fog/Condors were never that successful on the ice. There were a handful of pretty good regular seasons -- ECHL division titles in 2009-10 and 2010-11 -- and a couple of trips to the second round of the playoffs.
But the previous two seasons were dreadful, and Fleisig met with season-ticket holder before the end of last season and promised changes.
And he made good on it. He brought in John Olver as a general manager and set up a hockey operations department much like that of an AHL team.
"I was devastated (at the results of the past two season)," Fleisig said. "I said I have to change the paradigm and that's the word I kept using."
It was that new hockey model that led to the Oilers -- who apparently already had their eye on Bakersfield -- purchasing a team that was not really for sale.
Patrick LaForge, president of the Oilers, met with Fleisig last June during the NHL draft, inquired about a possible affiliation as well as a potential sale.
"I've had overtures over the years, the expression is everybody likes to kick the tires. But I was so tired of tire kickers," Fleisig said. "Patrick Laforge is a serious individual with an amazing background of business. When he says something you have to take it at face value and believe.
"We met, talked about hockey, affiliations. There were no big discussions because I wasn't looking to sell. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I had no intention of really wanting to sell the team but did take Patrick and his organization seriously."
In December, Fleisig got the proverbial offer he could not refuse.
"How was this not the best thing for the city of Bakersfield and the fans?," he said of the team being owned by an NHL team. "I didn't want to step away at all. It was painful and still is. I still have a heavy heart. To me, it was about doing the right thing."
And if the Condors should go on to win a championship this season, Fleisig made a request to LaForge: that he get a championship ring.
While a championship proved elusive, Fleisig, however, succeeded in the turbulent waters of minor-league hockey where many others have failed.
Heading into this season, nine teams that were in existence when Fleisig bought the Fog, or came into the WCHL or ECHL afterward, had failed. With the San Francisco Bulls folding days after Fleisig sold the team, that really makes 10 teams that have failed in Fleisig's 17 years of ownership.
Six of the nine teams from that 1997-98 season are gone. Four of nine teams that have played in either the WCHL or ECHL since then have also failed.
That's a whopping 56 percent failure rate.
San Diego, Fresno, Phoenix and Tacoma, Wash., all won championships in the WCHL or ECHL. All are on the list of failed franchises.
The Condors do not have a championship, but Bakersfield still has hockey and its two biggest rivals early on -- San Diego and Fresno -- don't.
"You do have to have deep pockets (to own a minor league team), but you have know how to market and brand yourself properly," Fleisig said. "I have an MBA in marketing but more importantly I had Matt Riley. "I think that's a pretty important combo."
Riley, the team president, has been with Fleisig every step of the way, from the Fog to the sale to Edmonton.
"I have probably lost more games in minor league hockey than anyone else (the Fog/Condors were 368-356-36-48 during his ownership) and yet my team in Condorstown is thriving. If I had to say two words: Matt Riley," Fleisig said. "Also, guys like Kevin Bartl, Justin (Fahsbender) and Jose (Rivera). People who have been with me for a long time. Keeping these people and them doing it for the love of the game. Lord knows they don't make enough money.
"The secret to our success has been hard work and more hard work and we never gave up."
And, Fleisig added, picking the right city for ownership.
"This is an incredible town with incredible people who are incredibly generous," he said. "When somebody bids $2,000, $3,000 for a jersey for charity, when 7,000 teddy bears get tossed on to the ice for kids. It's not about me. Not about Matt. It's the people of Bakersfield. It's their team and they support it. Buying advertising, season tickets, coming to games is what has made it successful.
"All these other teams folding got me thinking what do we have that they don't. What is different? I was just fortunate to have a different type of individual as a fan in my city than say Fresno, San Diego, Tacoma or Phoenix. People in Bakersfield are that special and different. Give them credit. They're the reason hockey is still there."
And selling to the Oilers, Fleisig said, was the best way to ensure the survival of hockey and just maybe, get that championship.
"These guys are class acts," he said. "They do things the right way and I have not a worry in the world about them and their organization
"It's ironic. When you drive into Bakersfield you see oil derricks. Bakersfield High is the Drillers and then we get bought by the Edmonton Oilers. Could there be a more perfect match?
"It's good karma."