Bill Sullivan is the new leader at Greater Pittsburgh Dek Hockey Center in Penn Hills, PA. He’s taken over the facility as it was passed on from a family member, and Bill is currently deep in the process of revamping the entire program there to bring it into the new era of the game. He’s also the leader of the GPDC Arsenal, their Open level travel team that competes in the Northeastern Tournament circuit. He’s also a 6 time Team USA player and was part of the 2009 squad that defeated Canada. ASHI caught up with him to talk about his efforts over at GPDC…
How did you get started playing at GPDC?
My parents own the swim club that was there originally, and in the mid 80’s Chris Housser-Tom Deery and Mark Madden built the dek rinks on the property. I basically lived at the pool all year round and was heading down the swim path because my family was and is, a big swim family. Both my half brothers swam in college, and both of my parents were big swim coaches. But I took to the dek in the early 90’s, i was terrible for years, but really enjoyed it so I just continued playing every session after that.
How did you get noticed to start playing for Team USA?
I finally started getting half-decent when i was around 8 or 9, and from then on played all the dek hockey I could. In 2005, the ISBHF hosted the North American Youth Championships to run simultaneously during the Men’s World Championships in Pittsburgh. Our Penn Hills team made it to the finals but lost to the Belleville Bulls. But I had a productive tournament and won the tournament MVP. So during that year Mark Madden, coach of the Pittsburgh Wizards and Team USA at the time, had me play up with the Wizards and in 2005 we won the National Championship in Philadelphia defeating the Leominster Jets.
In 2006 Mark selected me for the ISBHF World Junior team to go to Italy, which is the only American team to win a Gold at [an ISBHF] Worlds [Championship]. After that there was just a lot of hockey to be played to ensure my position on every Junior and Men’s National team after that. I was proud to be named assistant captain in ’08 next to Bobby Housser and our captain Andrew Hildreth, and we played well enough to win a bronze medal there. I am also proud to have had a small role in helping improve our Men’s National Team as well, playing on four Men’s National teams since ’07.
What was it that prompted you to take over running GPDC?
I graduated from Franklin Pierce University in New England in 2012, with a Major in Fine Art and History and a Minor in Graphic Design. Almost immediately thereafter, I moved to New York to work in a Modern and Contemporary Design gallery in Soho, also worked a few internships at a gallery and social media website. After about a year or so I moved back to Pittsburgh. And got very involved with GPDC again. And the gentleman who was running it, who did a great job with it for years, was getting somewhat burned out and had another job to worry about as well, so in December I took it over and got to work. There were a lot of things that needed to be upgraded to make it successful again and I needed help. So we got a number of people who I know care about the sport and the presentation of our product, and started re-branding Greater Pitt Dek Hockey.
The history at our dek is so rich and fantastic, that I felt that it would have been devastating to let our facility continue to be [less than stellar]. We have had over 50 Team USA Representatives, over a dozen National Championships, a handful of professional hockey players, and have an absolutely beautiful outdoor faulty to work with. For the 2nd oldest organized facility in the country to basically almost disappear over a few years period, well that was absolutely never an option for me. So we used our skills and dedication to start the re-branding process and made sure that the Greater Pittsburgh Area and the Ball Hockey Community know about our rich history, know about our programs, and what direction we are heading in from here on out.
What has been your focus thus far in your efforts to re-brand GPDC?
The focus thus far has been essentially a program “renaissance” for lack of a better term. We want to present GPDC in an appealing way. For whatever reason, ball hockey seems to be stuck in the 80’s when it comes to promotion and organization. We are focusing on presenting our facility in a way that all successful businesses have done so in the 20th century. And that means upgrades, and upgrades in all areas. We made the GPDC Promo Video to announce this to everyone once I was happy with our current product. I wanted the video to be a portrayal of the kind of products and programs that we offer, which is high quality. We put in a brand new surface on one of the rinks, we are slowly putting new boards in on both rinks, we have inserted a fantastic new stats and scheduling program that allows all of our players to see their career stats – game scoresheets -and scheduling updates. We upgraded our website and social media sites with a ton of visually appealing images of team and scoring champions, tournament flyers, and in-game updates.
We are just going about running our facility in a way that pleases our players and parents, because they are who we care about. And a number of them stuck with us through the rough years, so nobody deserves these facility changes more than them. And I hope they, as well as our new hockey families, enjoy all the upgrades and truly appreciate the amount of hard work that we all put in to our facility on a daily basis.
What has been very challenging for you thus far in your efforts?
Well a small hurdle is that the “persona” of Penn Hills adult hockey is that its physical and dirty and that we let too much go. But thats not the case. We just have the highest level of hockey available for adults in the country, and when competitive hockey is being played tempers are going to flare. But we take the proper measures in ensuring that we offer competitive and fun hockey to our players, but we also offer safe hockey to our players.
Our MAIN focus right now is our youth program, for a few reasons. There have been a large number of rinks being built in Pittsburgh the past few years, which is great for the sport, but has affected the quality and the numbers of our youth program. I have no problem in saying that I was devastated in seeing how our youth program was being ran when I took over. So we have done everything in our power to rebuild the quality of our kid’s hockey, and I am certain that we will soon be seen as a top notch national program at the youth level like we are at the adult level, once people start to see the changes we have made.
If you are going to run GPDC full time, are you worried that your degree and the knowledge it imparted onto you will kind of fade away and not be useful to you in the future?
Of course. I have been worried about that before I even graduated. However I know there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who have a degree in one thing, and yet took a job in something that doesn’t require a degree. It’s unfortunate, but I’d rather have my degree than to paint myself into a corner and have less options. But I’ll always use what I learned at college, there is plenty of ways to incorporate art into any field of work, especially marketing for a dek hockey rink. We want to have visually appealing campaigns, and if I couldn’t create them, I’d have to hire someone else anyway.
How many players does GPDC have in the adult league and the kids league?
I believe we currently have exactly 40 adult teams spaced out between 4 leagues, With most likely around 500 or so players. Kid’s leagues this past winter we only had 24 kids playing combined between Penguin, Beaver, and Cadet, and they all had to play in the same league. Now we have 4 youth leagues between Chipmunk and Cadet, with 11 total teams, and about 122 kids playing in the programs. The Chipmunk program is the best its been in years though, with almost 30 kids playing in our 3-6 year old program.
When people play at GPDC, you seem to be big on making sure their experience is one that can’t be matched. Now that the NHL and the Penguins have begun their program of building rinks all over the greater Pittsburgh area, do you think that will give you an advantage because of your history and your talent level there or are you afraid it might dilute the talent pool there?
Our history will definitely eventually give us a huge advantage. But as for right now it is two different ends of the spectrum completely. In adults, more people get involved and take it more seriously because of all the available rinks and tournaments now, and once they realize that we have the best competition west of Massachusetts bar-none, then they start to put teams in at our rinks so they can play better players and play the highest quality of competition. Some of our adult players have to pass 2-3 rinks on their way to our rink just to play an in-house game. Hell I even pass a couple.
Youth is a different story. A few of these new rinks are starting travel teams as well. Which again is great for the sport, but our storied youth program has been diluted down to almost nothing because of this, and other factors. But to be honest, more so because of other factors. However it is hard to say “Hey! Come play for Penn Hills All-Stars!” when they have a rink right next door that only goes to local tournaments. So these kids don’t want to travel because they don’t know the level of competition out there because there are so many local B tournaments. The kids and parents are content with just playing B tournaments all of the time and getting a trophy at the end of the weekend. Well, you don’t get better that way. So forget that, you EARN your trophies and All-Star roster spots at Penn Hills. And we are rebuilding our Youth All-Star program with a mindset of winning and with knowledge of our history. We offer in-house for fun, and eventually All-Stars for this who want to compete against the best.
You’re a 6 time Team USA player. Describe what it is like playing for Team USA. How does it feel? What is the competition like?
Nothing like it. Any time you get to represent your country in something special. It feels justified, because you played so much when you were younger and always heard it was a waste of time form ice hockey players. and then boom, rockin’ a USA sweater.
The competition varies. When any of the big 4 get together for a World Championship game (USA-Canada-Slovakia-Czech) its going to be the fastest, most physical, and toughest game you will ever play in, every time. Everyone gets up for those games, both teams, and you think you’re pretty good and fast at your normal pace, well everyone is a little better and a little faster including yourself in those games. Everyone gets to a level they didn’t know they had. It’s the mecca of our sport. Those games should be played as such. And you should be honored to have been selected to have the chance to play in one of those games because it is the biggest honor you can achieve in this game. You have to soak in every second, whether you get selected one time or 6 times.
What do you think the sport of ball hockey needs as we move forward to increase participation not just in Pittsburgh but all over the country?
A unified tournament or season schedule for different areas of the country would be nice. Arsenal-Buffalo-Gods-Stars n’ Snipes-Erie-Harrisburg play in one division, Saints-Rams-Jets-Americans have another division, Supreme-Caspers-Kings-Graffix in a Jersey Division. And we keep regular stats and standings for a set period of time just like a regular season, and then we do an organized playoffs after that. And not just for A-League, we can do it of a few different levels. And continue doing tournaments for a number of reasons too of course. I’m not saying 82 games or anything, but how about 12-15 game seasons where you play 3 games on a weekend? Canada has been doing Provincial leagues for years and they tend to be bit more ready for the World championships than us when it comes time usually, right? This will allow the youth players to strive for something in OUR sport and see that at least one area is extremely organized and that there are some things you can do with this sport.
Ball hockey is a blast to play and you can do great things with this game. Why do we promote ourselves with half-assed facilities, tournament teams that don’t have the same shirts on, and tournaments that don’t have anything physically to see about who won or not? People like to see stats and standings and past champions and how those champions won, and its not to hard to give them those things in my opinion.
Unification on a national level would be very nice as well, but that goes without saying. As long as we keep everything tight, and keep nice stats, and develop a written history of the sport, our sport will begin to look more attractive. Right now everything is kind of by ear. With some social media promotion, we can upgrade as a sport, and make it much more appealing to non-players.