Barry Soskin, the majority owner of the Carolina Thunderbirds, said there would be changes after winning the Federal Hockey League championship.
One of those changes has been made with Scott Brand, the popular general manager who resigned to take another job in the sports marketing field. Brand would not say where he was going, but hinted that he will see the Thunderbirds again.
“That’s very likely,” said Brand, 53, who has been in Winston-Salem for three years.
The Thunderbirds finished their second season and dominated the FHL, going 48-6 in the regular-season and then winning their two playoff series to win the Commissioner’s Cup.
“I have no animosity whatsoever because I’m leaving here with so many good friends,” said the 53-year-old Brand. “It was a lot of fun, and we did a lot of good things here. An opportunity has come up, and I have to take it at this point in my life.”
The Thunderbirds have named Jimmy Milliken as president and general manager. He comes to the Thunderbirds with years of entertainment experience, and for two years was an assistant general manager in the Southern Professional Hockey League. He also worked on the FHL’s expansion committee the last three years.
In a statement on the Thunderbirds’ website, Milliken is looking forward to joining a winning organization.
“I am very excited to take this position with such a great organization like the Thunderbirds,” Milliken said. “The fan base here is second to none, and I can’t wait to meet everybody and cheer on the Birds with them.”
Milliken is a South Carolina native who was in Winston-Salem when the Twin City Cyclones were the city’s minor-league hockey team from 2007 until 2009.
The Thunderbirds, who have already sold more than 1,000 season tickets for next season, are on much stronger ice, according to Milliken.
Milliken praised Brand for his ability to promote hockey in Winston-Salem after a long absence.
The Thunderbirds led the FHL in attendance in its first season and this past season averaged 2,700 in the 3,000-seat Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex, ranking second in the league.
Nearly 95,000 fans came to see them play at the Annex this past season.
“There is such a strong group here that was built up, and I’m extremely excited to lead this front office staff into the 2019-2020 season and beyond,” Milliken said. “Scott Brand did a tremendous job with this group, and we’re set up for a lot of success right away.”
The Federal Hockey League had six teams this past season but could have as many as nine by the time the season opens this fall. There was an expansion draft that took place and reports have said the Thunderbirds lost five players from its 23-man roster.
Brand, however, was not at liberty to say which Thunderbirds were taken in the expansion draft. The new franchises in the FHL are likely to be in Danbury (Conn.), Columbus, Ga., and Delaware, according to reports. That would mean the FHL could have nine teams this fall.
As for the Thunderbirds roster, which is very much in flux, Brand said the players lost to the expansion draft will likely be revealed soon.
“We have a roster of 18 right now,” Brand said.
Brand also said that Coach Andre Niec is still with the Thunderbirds, but Niec is being courted by other organizations.
In an e-mail, Niec said he was exploring his options.
“I am talking to some teams in the SPHL and Europe but to be back in the FHL is also still on the table,” Niec said in an e-mail. “I want to talk with my family first, because I have to look out what’s best for my family and myself.”
What made the championship such a big deal to the fans was it was 30 years since the last championship in Winston-Salem. The old Thunderbirds won the title in the 1988-89 season.
As word leaked out that Brand was headed elsewhere, he left a heartfelt message on his Facebook page.
He also made sure to thank Soskin, Niec and the rest of the organization for his time in Winston-Salem.
“I was honored to be part of this great revival of Thunderbirds hockey,” Brand said. “Once a Thunderbird always a Thunderbird.”