On the first day of practice, Nicole Kupaks walked across the gym floor and stood in front of the 12 sneering young men she was to coach in an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball league. Each of the players stood at least a head and shoulders taller than she did. She began by introducing herself and explaining her goals for the next season and then gave the instructions for the first drill of practice: running suicides. Some players shook their heads and proceeded to lollygag their way down the court and back.
"All right, guys, let's bring it in," said Kupaks, now the general manager of the St. Charles Chill, a minor league hockey team scheduled to begin play at the Family Arena in 2013. "What the hell was that? I tell you what. I'll run the next drill with you, and if I beat you, then you guys will be running suicides all night."
A few weeks later, their first game went into overtime. With only a few seconds left in the match, Kupaks called a timeout. She brought her team over and drew up the strategy that would eventually win them the game. After that they never questioned her intensity or her abilities. And the fact that she was the first female AAU basketball coach for a boys team suddenly didn't matter to them anymore.
"People always want to know if there really is substance under what is external," says Kupaks, who coached in the AAU when she was in her mid-20s. "And when it comes to being a woman working in sports, you have to show that you know what you are doing."
Her choice to go into sports as a career path has brought on this situation over and over. It is almost too predictable now. Unlike her male colleagues in leadership, she must constantly prove herself as worthy of her title or place within a team.
Many would tire of this exercise after some time, but Kupaks is no stranger to being the underdog. Now she is facing perhaps her greatest challenge of all. She is charged with starting a new hockey team from scratch in a new market, far from her home, as a single mother, in an arena that has already hosted one failed hockey team, as the only female general manager in the league. Faced with these odds, few league veterans would have the stomach to do what she is doing. Recently, five teams from the Central Hockey League, the midlevel professional league to which the Chill belongs, folded after just a couple of years. But if you ask Kupaks, she could not be more certain that this was the right place and time.
"No one has told me that I can do this," says Kupaks. "But you can't stop a fight just because it gets tough. I have to show that I am not going to be a pushover."
Love of ice
Kupaks got her start in hockey after working in the corporate world of Dell in Austin, Texas. She always had an affinity for sports and began to feel a calling in that direction. That was when she went to her first minor league hockey game.
"I fell in love with the game of hockey immediately," says Kupaks. "It is different than other sports. Hockey players were guys who would just suit up and play. They are also more accessible than most other professional athletes."
While still employed at Dell, she decided to attend a job fair in Austin for careers in hockey. She had no experience in the industry, but she appealed to owners and managers on the basis of her passion for the game and the intensity of her drive. After the job fair, she had seven offers to work for different organizations, but one, the Laredo Bucks, stood out to her.
"They [the Bucks] told me that they did not have a position ready for me but that they wanted to meet and figure out how I could work there," says Kupaks, who joined the Bucks as a community relations coordinator in 2004, right before their championship title run. "Jumping into the team at that point was a trial by fire, but I am glad that I did it. I had to organize signature events and order all kinds of championship gear. I didn't even know the players."
Kupaks spent the next three years champing at the bit of any constraints put upon her. She took every opportunity to learn the business side of hockey. Kupaks eventually moved into a public relations and marketing role. Each time someone said that she could not do something or that she was not qualified, she made sure to prove that person wrong.
"I'm sure there is a better business word for this, but Nicole has what I would call an innate ability to figure stuff out," says Glenn Hart, CEO of Laredo Energy and the majority owner of the Bucks, who remains a mentor to Kupaks and is currently a minority owner in the Chill. "Every time she was assigned something new, she would attack it. There was never any hesitation and I never heard her say, 'I don't know how to do that.'"
2007 brought a lot of changes for Kupaks: a marriage; a move to New York; a separation; a move to College Station, Texas; and the birth of her son. Through it all, her professional connection with Hart and her track record of overachieving kept her moving on a career path. She ended up back with the Laredo Bucks, but this time it was a vice president of operations role.
"Nicole was in charge of everything but ticket sales," says Hart. "It really broadened her understanding of what it takes to run a team and how to be in charge."
According to Hart, the recession economy hit Laredo particularly hard. As early as 2008, unemployment started to climb. Sponsors started to reduce their amounts, and ticket sales were way down. By 2011 Kupaks was helping in the effort to find a new home for the franchise.
Sweet Home St. Charles
Kupaks and Hart are both excited about starting a new franchise in St. Charles. Kupaks recalls the first day they scouted the area and saw St. Louis Blues team gear in store windows. She talked with residents who said they would love a new hockey team.
"That is something that we did not get in Laredo," says Kupaks. "We had to explain what hockey was to those people. This market is family-focused and has a strong hockey following. It is perfect for us."
As for all of those obstacles that most would see, Kupaks shrugs them off. After all, it is not anything new for her to face seemingly hard times and insurmountable odds. She has a strategy, a long-term focus and deadly earnestness that are present in most entrepreneurs.
"Nicole has an ability to build relationships with people," says Hart, who has been in ownership of a number of minor league teams. "A lot of general managers and owners think that they can put up a billboard or radio ads and people will come. But you have to weave into the fabric of the community. That is what Nicole does. There is no better person for the job."
A woman in the locker room
As a general manager, Kupaks now attends the governors meetings, in which all of the league owners and managers are represented. During those meetings, she still hears the occasional "Wow, you really do know what you are doing." She receives phone calls from scouts asking her three times whether she is sure she is really the general manager and not the secretary. Rather than shy away from this, Kupaks confronts the stereotype.
"I once approached a manager at a governors meeting and asked him: 'Hey, remember me? You once thought I would make a great executive assistant,'" says Kupaks. "He just said: 'Yeah. Look at you now.' Yeah. Look at me now."
On that topic, however, Kupaks' success thus far has come with some degree of sacrifice. The long work days and grueling demands of being in an entertainment business make raising a son on her own a difficult prospect. She recalls times in Laredo when she would pay the baby-sitter to stay with her son in the stands during games or practices so she could see him.
"As a mother, you want to be with your son," she says. "I am working sometimes 15-hour days. But I have a good relationship with him, and he loves hockey. My son's well-being played into the decision on St. Charles. Minor league hockey is family entertainment, and I have traditional values of family. This is the right place for my son and for me all around."
Here are some pearls of wisdom from the toughest person in the hockey business:
Kupaks approaches her day-to-day management of the Chill in much the same way that she expects her players to perform on the ice: with grit and perseverance. There is not much of a trade secret to her success thus far.
"I hate losing," says Kupaks. "I hate losing league awards. I hate losing on the ice. I hate losing in my personal life. So you have to fight."
Take the long view
Kupaks is not interested in any sort of "flash in the pan" sort of team. She is applying very diligently the lessons she learned from her tenure with the Bucks and the leadership style Hart showed her.
"With the lockout this year, there were a lot of people who thought we should have had a season," says Kupaks. "But let's say we were to get a Blues star this year. That would be great, but where would he be next year? I want to create a legacy here, and that means taking some time to put down roots. I can't be so short-term-focused in my thinking. "
Don't be afraid of getting help
Even though this seems to go against the determined nature that Kupaks exhibits, she knows enough to know what she doesn't know. And she also knows how to surround herself with the right people.
"Nicole was the obvious choice for the new market because she knows how to relate to people," says Hart. "She does a lot of the same things that any successful manager does and surrounds herself with good people who are going to help her."
Don't second-guess yourself.
Making some errors is expected if you're going to accomplish anything remarkable, according to Kupaks. She has learned many things the hard way.
"A mistake does not make you a failure," says Kupaks. "You're gonna make mistakes. So you learn from them and then go out there and put it all out on the table."
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