Feature Story

40 Years of Living the Dream

By Jason Karnosky

Have you ever gone to a Admirals game and wondered who was behind the in-game entertainment, the contests during the TV timeouts and intermissions, or the post-game shows?

Have you ever wondered how companies and sponsors get involved with the Admirals, helping the team succeed on and off the ice while increasing awareness for their corporate brand?

Chances are if you’ve been to a Milwaukee Admirals game, you’ve smiled and laughed at the Kwik Trip Human Hockey Puck between the second and third periods, attended a theme-night like Salute to Wrestling presented by Robert Haack Diamonds, or rocked out during a post-game concert series event starring a headline band like Night Ranger, presented by Toyota, Coors Light, and Lee Jeans.

As fun as watching an Admirals game can be, sometimes the other forms of entertainment at every home date at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena can be just as enjoyable for fans. Behind many of those promotions, theme nights, and relationship building with sponsors is Milwaukee Admirals Vice President of Business Development Mike Wojciechowski. Chances are if you’ve attended an Admirals game, you’ve appreciated Mike’s work, even if you didn’t know he was the one pulling the strings.

“If you come to an Admirals game and check out all of the in-game and post-game entertainment, Mike’s been the guy running that show,” Admirals president Jon Greenberg said. “He’s not a guy that is ever clamoring for attention, but we are not allowing him to get away with being so humble. We want Mike to get the credit for all that he’s done here over the years.”

2021-22 marks Wojciechowski’s 40th year with the Admirals, and during his four decade career he’s played a huge role in making Milwaukee’s professional hockey franchise flourish on and off ice.

“I’ve had an outstanding run, and I’ve been blessed to be able to work for and with so many wonderful people over the past 40 years,” Wojciechowski said. “As an organization we know we are in the entertainment business. We try not to take ourselves too seriously, and we try to do things outside the box that end up attracting people that wouldn’t normally come to a hockey game.”

Along with the front office staff, Milwaukee’s players and coaches truly appreciate the work Wojciechowski does night in and night out to ensure a great atmosphere at Admirals games.

“From a coaching perspective and for our players, we love having full arenas and having that lively environment,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “Mike’s a big piece of what the Admirals do in working toward the goals of filling the building. There is nothing he won’t do for the team, and no promotion that he won’t try to help the Milwaukee Admirals move forward.”

For all of his successes in his job, Wojciechowski and Admirals never faced a challenge like what the 2021-22 season presented to them. When the Admirals made the decision to not play during the 2020-21 AHL season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some people had concerns that the storied franchise would never be the same.

Thanks to the efforts of Wojciechowski and many others, Milwaukee was able to retain almost all of its prepandemic sponsors, as well as bring in a few new organizations into the fold. The Admirals were also able to retain most of their previous season ticket holders and continue with a stellar lineup of in-game and post-game entertainment.

“A lot of the continuity of sponsors and their relationships with our organization has to do with the way Mike treats partners,” Greenberg said. “With our season tickets we have a 97% renewal rate, and that’s a wonderful testament to everyone in the organization. But to keep corporate partners around and to have them continue to invest in what we do, even when we weren’t playing, I don’t think there could be anything more significant telling about the job Mike does for us.”

With all that has been going on with the pandemic, just having an Admirals game feel normal for fans has been an enormous challenge this season. Yet, Wojciechowski and the Admirals staff have done their best to provide exactly that. Milwaukee’s fans have really responded to the efforts.

“Missing last year was hard on everybody, and I know there were a lot of people who thought we probably wouldn’t be able to come out of this,” Admirals president Jon Greenberg said. “But it’s been a great experience just getting restarted this season, seeing the enthusiasm of fans, and the appreciation of having Admirals hockey and entertainment back in all of our lives.”

Thankfully most of Wojciechowski’s years with the Admirals were not spent under pandemic circumstances. In fact his time dates back to the end of the 1981-82 season, when Milwaukee was just five seasons into its tenure as part of the International Hockey League (IHL). A chance meeting with then coach Phil Whitliff, resulted in Wojciechowski getting his first job with the team.

“I met Phil Whitliff when I was selling him tires, and when we got done he gave me his card and he said if I ever wanted a job selling season tickets for the Admirals, that I should give him a call,” Wojciechowski said. “So my first job with the team was selling tickets, but soon after I started here our public relations director left so I took over that role. Later I became our marketing director too. What I’ve enjoyed most about my position here is that I’ve had the opportunity to have a lot of fun and wear many hats.”

Wojciechowski didn’t have many issue selling tickets for Milwaukee the following season as the Admirals went 43-30-9. That spring Milwaukee made its only appearance in the IHL’s finals, losing out on the Turner Cup to the Toledo Goaldiggers in a six-game series loss.

“In my first full season working for the Admirals (82-83) we went to the finals with a really good hockey team and lost to Toledo,” Wojciechowski said. “I was really spoiled and thought this must happen every year.”

From his 40 years with the Admirals, Wojciechowski’s has countless memories of successful teams. Those memories are something he’s gotten to reminisce about on many nights while serving as co-host of Aaron Sims’ Milwaukee Admirals Center Ice radio show.

“Being part of an organization that won the 2004 Calder Cup was just incredible and a great experience,” Wojciechowski said. “But what stands out the most to me is just the amount of quality coaches, players, and staff that I’ve met during my 40 years here. During the pandemic we ended up turning our radio show into talking about memories of yesteryear, and we had famous players and alums on the show talking about their experiences of playing in Milwaukee. We ended up speaking to over 70 different former Admirals, including many players and coaches who are now part of the who’s who of the National Hockey League.”

Right from the beginning of his time in Milwaukee, Wojciechowski implemented other ways to get fans to the rink besides just to watch the Admirals. One of the most popular contests Wojciechowski put in place was the human hockey puck, and it’s something fans still enjoy every home night.

“It was over 20 years ago, but I still remember pulling the sling shot for the human hockey puck out of the box, and just thinking that this was the coolest thing we’ve ever had,” Wojciechowski said. “I was actually the first person that got shot using it, and I ended up going across the rink at the Bradley Center, then out through the Zamboni doors and halfway up the tunnel. I was going so fast that I ended up almost out the overhead door and out on State Street.”

Nearly two decades ago when new Owner/CEO Harris Turer and President Jon Greenberg took over the Admirals from Jane and Lloyd Pettit, they knew better than to mess with a great thing—both with Mike and the contest.

“With the human hockey puck, many other teams have tried to replicate it, but nobody does it quite like us,” Greenberg said. “It’s become a lot like the Sausage Race for Milwaukee Brewers games and it’s something we are known for. When you have something like that that everyone wants to do, you know you have something special. Mike was the one who started that here.”

Wojciechowski also started post-game concert nights, which are always popular and usually draw big crowds to Admirals games. This past Saturday country music star Jimmie Allen became the latest act to perform on the Admirals rink post-game after a 2-1 Milwaukee shootout win over rival Chicago.

“Starting the concert series was really great thing for us,” Wojciechowski said. “I remember when we brought the Village People back after not having them around here for many years, and it was really a big deal. We sold so many tickets to that game that we had a line back to the Mortuary Sciences building at MATC with people just trying to get into the Bradley Center.”

Some of the famous bands and performers that played after Admirals games include Foreigner, Styx, Sugarland, REO Speedwagon, Joan Jett, Brett Young, Cheap Trick, and Dierks Bentley. Just a few years before he became part of NBC’s hit show The Voice, Blake Shelton even made a surprise appearance after an Admirals game.

“One of the most memorable concert stories was when we had Jason Aldean booked for a postgame show back in 2008,” Wojciechowski said. “The day before the game I got a bunch of calls from Bob Babisch over at Summerfest telling me Jason’s sick and that we needed to get a replacement. We had over 16,000 tickets sold for that game, so we needed to do something quickly. Somehow, cool and calmly, we were able to book Blake Shelton to take his place.”

Themed nights such as Salute to Wrestling, Military Appreciation Night, and Hispanic Heritage Night are also popular with fans, and those nights are something very easy for sponsors to get involved with. For all of the great ideas Wojciechowski’s had over the years, many of them would not have been possible without sponsors clamoring to support them and the team as a whole.

AHL teams don’t survive or thrive without their corporate partners. Having someone like Milwaukee’s Wojciechowski assisting with sponsorship plans makes it easy for corporate partners to get involved with the Admirals in a mutually beneficial relationship.

“The benefits for my clients working with Mike and the Admirals are boundless,” said David W. Refinski, who serves as the Director of Account Service with Milwaukee’s Jigsaw advertising agency. “Wojo and the entire organization are all consummate professionals, who have a customer and partner centric approach.”

Refinski represents some of the team’s corporate partners like Landmark Credit Union, and he knows just how valuable getting involved with the Admirals can be for his clients.

“In terms of investment, the value of an Admirals’ sponsorship far exceeds the agreement amount,” Refinski said. “Plus the team does not stop with just an initial return. They are constantly providing added value that delivers opportunities for greater awareness of their business and engagement with fans.”

One of the people Wojciechowski got to know as both a business partner and later as a friend is Steve Sazama, owner of Saz’s Hospitality Group and Saz’s State House restaurant in Milwaukee. Sazama was impressed right away at what Wojeciechowski brought to the table for his businesses.

“Mike’s always been a very organized guy and a good businessman, but he’s also a very giving and fun-loving person,” Sazama said. “With Mike, and Harris Turer, and Jon Greenberg, there is such a great team over there. The Admirals really care about their sponsors, and really worry about making sure their sponsors are successful, rather than just going about their business and collecting a check from us.”

With a relationship with the Admirals that dates back to even before Wojciechowski’s time, Sazama knows just how valuable partnering with the Admirals can be.

“Because of Mike a lot of doors have opened for our business,” said Sazama, who also partners with the Admirals to sponsor the famed pig races at the Wisconsin State Fair. “Admirals fans are my customers too, so any way I can reach out to those fans and be in contact with them is just great for us. We have a food stand now at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. We are very proud of that and it’s been very successful. We’ve had corner board advertising that we’ve been doing for a number of years and those boards are something that we are very proud of.”

Wojciechowski has played a big part in fostering mutually beneficial relationships between Milwaukee area businesses and the Admirals.

“I tried one day to see what kind of money Mike’s brought in to the Admirals, just from a sponsorship perspective,” Greenberg said. “When you start thinking about tens of millions of dollars that Mike’s brought in here, that’s really a big deal for a minor league sports team. It’s been amazing that he’s been able to do that kind of all by himself.”

Despite having 40 years under his belt with the Admirals, Wojciechowski isn’t showing many signs of slowing down. He loves what he does, helping Milwaukee (30-21-4-3—67 points this season) have a very successful minor pro team. However, retirement is not in Wojciechowski’s plans anytime soon, even with his kids, Heather and Nick, both working for the Admirals and having taken over some of the entertainment coordination that their dad is most known for.

“With all of the terrific staff we have now with the Admirals, I don’t have to do all of the jobs that I used to do with the team,” Wojciechowski said. “But even now I keep coming to work every day and love every minute of doing what I do.”

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