All-Star events a showcase for booming San Jose sports market

Photo: Andreea Cardani/AHL

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The American Hockey League develops so much more than on-ice talent.

People in front offices across the league’s 32-team map are honing their own skills as well. Whether it’s accounting, marketing, sales, executive roles, or more, these people help to put on a show in each city 36 nights each season. And among the most significant tests for any AHL club is hosting the annual AHL All-Star Classic.

The San Jose Barracuda are hosting the 2024 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Tech CU, and nearly two years have gone into planning and bringing the two-day event to the Bay Area.

But when tragedy struck the Barracuda last month, they had to pull together even more.

Frank Torres, the team’s vice president of business operations, passed away suddenly on Jan. 15 at age 38. A 16-year veteran of AHL front offices, Torres had come to San Jose to help the Barracuda as they opened Tech CU Arena last season. Now the San Jose front office had a friend and colleague to mourn as well as flagship league event to complete.

“It’s a unique time for us with the passing of Frank,” said team president Jon Gustafson. “Our staff has done an amazing job pulling together and getting ready for this event.”

Torres did considerable work to help the Barracuda pull off this endeavor, as well as making inroads in a competitive sports market.

“First and foremost, he was our leader,” Gustafson said. “His staff adored him, and he was a very well-respected leader in our organization. He had done great work in pushing our AHL business forward, and we were definitely starting to see the fruits of his labor. He had started to bring in his own staff. We were definitely going in the right direction.”

When the Barracuda came to town, they played out of SAP Center, the building that houses the parent San Jose Sharks. But SAP Center holds more than 17,000 for hockey, and the Barracuda found themselves looking for a facility to call their own. Tech CU Arena opened in 2022 as an addition to Sharks Ice at San Jose, the organization’s practice facility and a bustling community rink complex. It provides the Barracuda with a more intimate setting, an ability to tailor the game experience to their crowd, and more scheduling options.

The Barracuda share one of the U.S.’s largest markets with the Sharks as well as NBA, NFL, MLB, MLS and NWSL teams in the region, along with several collegiate athletic programs. That’s a lot of competition for the sports dollar.

“We certainly knew that was always going to be a challenge,” Gustafson said of bringing the AHL to Northern California. “We always looked at it as an opportunity as well where we potentially could bring our game to folks that may not necessarily have the ability to come to the NHL or a major-league event. The AHL is the second-best hockey league in the world, and the Bay Area’s a crazy hockey market. It gives our fans the ability to see the future of hockey.”

Gustafson and the Sharks organization view the Barracuda as a means to develop business talent capable of someday working at the NHL level as well.

“It’s a great proving ground from our business side,” Gustafson continued. “The AHL’s traditionally a lot of new folks that are coming in to try and stretch their legs from business and sports backgrounds. This allows us to go and see what people can do, give them the opportunity to grow and expand. There’s a nice pathway for people to go from the AHL to the NHL.

“So effectively we are developing not only our hockey players but our team staff as well.”

Few projects will test that growth for an office staff as much as welcoming the rest of the league to an annual showcase event like the AHL All-Star Classic. Along with that fight for the attention of Bay Area sports fans, the Barracuda also find themselves battling to attract top employees in a job market packed with corporate competition.

“It’s not every day that you get to put on an All-Star event,” Gustafson explained. “Certainly it allows folks to spread their wings, develop, and try new things, and that’s exactly what we want to do.

“I think that’s what drives great employees to various employers: the opportunity to do something different, to do something unique, and to put their stamp on it. I think that’s what everybody wants, just an opportunity to create something of their own.”

Gustafson and his staff are already seeing the work pay off after all these months of meetings, planning sessions, and late nights. Staff from Sharks Sports & Entertainment, the organization’s parent company, have been able to pitch in as well where needed.

“We’re excited to have a full building both nights,” Gustafson said. “We’ve got great title partners. We’re honored and excited to be able to do this and to bring this event to San Jose.

“Now all we’ve got to do is enjoy it.”