KENNEWICK -- Bob Tory is a glass-half-full kind of guy. That attitude helped him drag the Tri-City Americans out of the muck and mold them into one of the most competitive teams in the Western Hockey League.
"Bob has been responsible for building that team into a championship-caliber team," WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said. "Not many years ago, some felt it wasn't a viable franchise. Now, it's one to be respected. Bob is the architect of the franchise. Others have contributed to the success, but he has been responsible from the outset."
Under Tory, the Americans have 10 playoff appearances in 11 years, four U.S. Division titles over the last five years, a Western Conference championship in 2010, six consecutive 40-win seasons and three 100-point seasons in the last five years.
Not a bad track record for a team whose previous owners wanted to move the franchise to "a pure hockey atmosphere where we can turn a profit," then-co-owner Darryl Porter said in 2005.
"Darryl Porter, Brian Burke and Glen Sather, for whatever reason, they didn't feel this was a viable franchise," Tory said. "I wasn't ready to throw in the towel when they wanted to move. Fortunately, I was able to convince Olie (Kolzig), Stu (Barnes) and Dennis (Loman) to believe in my vision. At the time, it was a risky investment, but I thought we could make it work and be a viable part of the community.
"I couldn't ask for better partners. Olie and Stu know the game, and Dennis is a committed partner. They are supportive, and they let me make the decisions I feel are best for the business and the hockey team."
While Robison is pleased with the franchise's turnaround, he also is encouraged by the support from the community.
"Eighty-six percent capacity each game, that registers with us," Robison said. "It shows how exciting the on-ice product has been. In order to achieve success with attendance, you have to have an active role in the community and put resources back into the community. Tri-City has always been a leader in that area."
But to get to where the Americans are now, one must take a step back in time.
Tory, 54, came to the Americans in May 2001, hired by then-owner Mark Wagstaff as the general manager.
After successful stints in Prince Albert (1982-89) and Portland (1989-94) as a scout, Tory spent a season as GM in Seattle (1994-95), then was the GM with Edmonton/Kootenay from 1995-2001.
"I saw this as a challenge," Tory said of coming to the Americans. "I'd been in Cranbrook (British Columbia) for six years. We went to the Memorial Cup, and I enjoyed the community. Tri-City was a nontraditional hockey market. People said it was a place careers ended for coaches, players and management."
That no longer is the case.
"It took longer than I thought. Instead of two years, it took four," Tory said. "Not getting Jonathan Toews (in 2004) set us back. My first season, we averaged about 2,200 fans a game. That was a little depressing."
Tory knew it would take good people to make his vision a reality. That plan started with the hiring of coach Don Nachbaur in 2003, and bringing in players who were willing to work hard on the ice and help the team reconnect with the community.
"There were a lot of obstacles and a culture where losing was acceptable," Tory said. "There were off-ice issues, and instability in owners and coaches. There was a small and loyal fan base, but not enough to survive."
With Nachbaur's arrival came player accountability on and off the ice. He was demanding but fair, and turned the Americans into the team Tory envisioned.
"When we first started, there were a lot of players who didn't want to come to Tri-City," said Tory, who mentioned Toews, Lucas Bloodoff and Colton Grant in that group. "These were obstacles we had to overcome. Now, players want to come here. Players who have played here have passed the word. That carries a lot of weight among the players."
In 2005, Tory parted ways with Porter, Burke and Sather, and joined forces with Kolzig, Barnes and Loman.
"All those years after Olie and I left after playing here and coming back, we really wanted to be involved," Barnes said. "We talked to Bob in 2004 about making that happen. We thought Bob could make it work here if he were in charge and could direct the ship. None of us thought we'd have this kind of success for this many years. The team's accomplishments, the individual accomplishments and being a part of the community, credit Bob to putting the right people in place."
It has been seven years since the current ownership group took over, and Barnes is pleased with his investment.
"No regrets," Barnes said. "It's been a lot of fun. We feel good about everything that has gone on with the team and the community. For the players, they can be proud they played for the Americans during their junior career. They can look back on this as a good time and a good place to play hockey."
Nachbaur left the Americans after the 2008-09 season for the American Hockey League, and now coaches the Spokane Chiefs. When Nachbaur left, Tory hired Jim Hiller, who had been a Tri-City assistant coach in Tory's early days with the team.
"I've been blessed to work with two really good coaches the last nine years," Tory said. "I have the utmost respect for Don and Jim, and that makes my job easier."
With good coaches in place, it was time to get the players. Tory and his scouting staff scoured Western Canada and the United States. From Williams Lake, British Columbia, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Manor, Saskatchewan, major cities and small villages got a visit.
"I do a lot of scouting," Tory said. "I'm a scout first and a general manager second. It's my strength. I try to go to most of the major tournaments and see our list players at least once."
Robison said that "a good eye for talent" and "being able to swing deals that pay off" are qualities clubs value.
"The whole Manitoba thing, how he orchestrated that was impressive," Robison said. "The number of prospects from Winnipeg, and to have them relocate and form the core of the team was innovative, and that has led to success."
At the height of the Winnipeg invasion in 2008-09, Tri-City had 15 players from the Manitoba capital on its roster. Now, that number is down to four, including this season's overage trio of Adam Hughesman, Brendan Shinnimin and Mason Wilgosh, and rookie defenseman Justin Hamonic.
Tory has been able to fill his roster with quality players such as Carey Price and Hughesman, who came through the bantam draft, and Taylor Procyshen, Shinnimin and Kruise Reddick, who were list players.
"We're most proud that we have been able to establish a high level of play during a long stretch of time with good draft picks and unheralded players," Tory said. "It's not just about the stars, but the team. We have embodied a team-first atmosphere -- not just the Carey Prices, but the guys around him.
"The draft is important. That's where you get the Carey Prices, Connor Rankins and Eric Comries. They are special players. Then, you get the later picks like (Patrick) Holland and (Justin) Feser that pan out, and the list players like Procyshen and Shinnimin -- that's where you get your character."
And then there are the players acquired via trades.
"We have made good trades to fill the gaps and help guys turn their careers around," Tory said. "When they come in, they aren't a threat for ice time, but a part of the family. We help them with their confidence. A lot of it is believing in yourself. We get a lot of mileage out of guys who were role players elsewhere."
Tory said one of his best acquisitions was Colton Yellow Horn from Lethbridge in 2006. Tory paid a pretty price, but Yellow Horn was worth every penny. In 126 games with Tri-City, Yellow Horn scored 88 goals with 86 assists. In 2007-08, he helped the Americans to their first U.S. Division banner.
"What Colton did was come in here and bring excitement to the game," Tory said. "He did things you didn't expect, from the way he scored to threading unbelievable passes. All of a sudden, our players believed, and our fans believed, and that became a dangerous weapon. Colton deserves a lot of credit for helping turn this program around."
Which brings us back to the present.
The Americans are a competitive hockey team that draws on average 4,800 fans per game and gives back to the tune of 2,500 man hours of community service each season.
"We didn't get into this to get rich, but because we love hockey," Tory said. "We all believe in this community. We have been able to become a business that is viable, turns a profit and treats our players in a professional manner. We are a humble organization that carries itself with class, dignity and professionalism. We want to be a prominent franchise in the Western Hockey League."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; email@example.com