‘Welcoming’ AHL community has helped Caruso carve out career

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Calder Cup Playoffs keep chugging along, but work for the 2023-24 season is well underway at AHL headquarters.

Much of the heavy lifting is done by Melissa Caruso, the AHL’s vice president of hockey operations/governance. Caruso has worked her way from intern to a full-time role in 2009, fresh out of Springfield College. From there she has worked her way through a variety of roles to her current post.

“I’ve had an interesting journey,” Caruso said, “but I will say that it’s been really fun.”

In short, Caruso handles the off-ice component of the AHL’s day-to-day hockey operations while vice president of hockey operations Hayley Moore oversees on-ice matters like the league’s officiating staff.

Chief in her portfolio is the annual construction of the AHL schedule, a massive task in a 32-team league that spans multiple time zones from Quebec to California. Dealing with 32 buildings that often have other tenants, and balancing the needs of both hockey and business considerations, it takes Caruso months to build the 1,152-game slate.

Together with Alison Izzi, the league’s manager of hockey administration, Caruso tackles the annual project armed with spreadsheets, emails, and a giant magnetic board. The 2022-23 schedule was among the most difficult to assemble, Caruso said, with one fewer week on the calendar than the year prior, the addition of two new markets in Calgary and Coachella Valley, and the expansion Firebirds needing to spend two months on the road while awaiting the completion of Acrisure Arena.

Every team wants as many weekend dates on its home schedule as possible. Road trips must be logistically efficient.

“I call it my ‘pride and joy,’” Caruso said of the yearly task that is essential to putting the AHL’s 32 teams on ice. “It’s a project all in its own.”

“When Ali started, I said, ‘You’re going to watch me do this. It’s going to take two or three months from start to finish, and you’re just gonna have to sit there and observe.’ Now it’s way more of a cooperative process.”

Collaboration is a hallmark of working in the American Hockey League’s offices.

“You’re wearing so many different hats, getting so many different experiences that you really become a well-rounded employee,” Caruso said. “I’d say the possibilities are endless, really. The hockey community is welcoming, and it’s kind of the only environment I could ever really picture being in for my own personal career.”

Caruso’s work also includes managing the league’s central player registry. By-laws, regulations, league rules, player eligibility — it’s all on her daily to-do list, as is regular communication with the Board of Governors. People skills are essential, as is a sports-oriented mindset to manage a spectrum of personalities and different perspectives. Problem-solving abilities are a must.

“I know how GM’s think,” Caruso continued. “I know how coaches feel. I know how important the AHL is to them, so wanting to provide the best service I can to them is something that I pride myself on. Certain times of the year can be pretty hectic and stressful and contentious. But my approach is just to treat everyone equally and try to find the best solution.”

Certainly Caruso’s is not a typical job, and there is no one course or field of study that can really prepare someone for the specifics and nuances of such a role. And unlike a lot of people in the hockey business, Caruso never grew up playing the sport. But she had grown up playing sports through high school.

“I knew I needed to be in sports,” she said of her decision to study sports management at Springfield College. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my career in some aspect. It just became kind of natural for me to put my head down and work hard and see where it was going to take me.”

One class in particular put her on her current path.

Dave Andrews served as the league’s president and CEO for 26 years. On the side, though, he was an adjunct professor in Springfield College’s renowned sports management program, which has produced several front-office hires for the AHL through the years. Caruso took one of Andrews’ classes, and immediately applied for an internship with the league when it became available.

“It was great to have had someone with real-life experience in the field to talk to us,” Caruso said. “He’s got so much history in the game. It was just so valuable at a young age.”

The internship began a journey that has made her part of a “community” working with the AHL. She has both learned the ins and outs of the hockey world and built a career.

“What clicked for me was my passion for the AHL,” Caruso said. “I basically fell in love with AHL from the minute I started my internship. Things took off from there. It’s always been a fun place to be.

“For me, it was really the people that I work with. A number of them I still work with now. Some of them who have moved on, I’ve become lifelong friends with. It was really just the community that the league has built.”