By James Hayes | Field Pass
1 On 1 with James Hayes | Ellen Tully, Owner Vermilion County Bobcats
This week I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with the newest owner in the SPHL, Ellen Tully. Back on March 9 it was announced that the SPHL would be adding an 11th team for the 2021-22 season. The Vermilion County Bobcats. The team is going to be based out of Danville, IL and will play at the David S. Palmer Arena.
To kick off the conversation I asked Ellen to tell me a little bit about her professional career leading up to becoming the newest owner in the SPHL.
Prior to the Bobcats, I was actually photographing hockey. I photographed it at all levels from the NCAA to Minor Pro, Team USA, I did two World Juniors, and I did a little bit of SPHL. My background in hockey though, goes back almost 20 years. It's something that has always been a part of my life.
Next, I needed to know who was your biggest hockey influence in life?
It was my older brother, which was the youngest of my 4 older brothers. In addition to that, it would be my father. We grew up going to Danville Dasher games in the Colonial League. My brother saved up his money secretly and bought some goalie pads and went on to play youth hockey, college hockey and finished his career at Saint Thomas in Minnesota. He then went on to a coaching career. We were 9 ½ years apart and I just wanted to be like my big brother. He would take me down to the rink and lace up my skates for me. He would take me out there and then he would get so mad because I was a better skater than he was.
That lead me into the next question which is one you have to ask all the hockey people:
What was your favorite hockey moment?
My favorite hockey moment was watching my brother and the family team win the Robertson Cup in 1999-00 in the NAHL. It was just such a fantastic moment for my dad and my brother, for all of us. It’s something that I will always carry with me.
From there we moved along to the present. I asked what was the turning point that made you realize you wanted to own a team, and why the SPHL?
I reached a point in my life where personally and financially it was something I knew I could do and do well. Also, though while looking at the community and looking at the lack of opportunities and lack of unification, I really wanted to put a team into place that would unite not just Danville but the surrounding areas. Which is why we called it VERMILION COUNTY and not Danville. I really wanted something that would bring everyone together, whether you were any one of those small communities sitting on the outside of Danville or Danville itself. We have within a 60-mile radius, 250,000 people we can reach and it just seemed like the perfect time.
As to why the SPHL, it seemed like the best fit. I didn’t want to go to juniors because of the extra work that comes with those kinds of leagues. I really wanted to work on the pro side and when I found out the SPHL was offering some different incentives that no other league was doing, I felt it was the best choice for the town.
What are the incentives that the SPHL offers?
They do a tuition reimbursement program that I believe is on a team by team basis on whether or not you want to participate. We will be participating. I feel very strongly that there are a number of players that leave the game of hockey without the necessary skills or education to move on and makes it difficult to know what to do with their lives. This gives us the opportunity with having 3 community colleges to create a foundation for your life after hockey. We are also establishing a mental health care program because I have seen it far too many times where players are depressed or there is anxiety with the way they play or their personal life. We want to ensure that when our players leave our organization, whether they move up to the ECHL or into the world outside of hockey, they are ready both mentally and professionally to do so.
You are the first female owner in the SPHL since Wanda Amos, who owned the Columbus Cottonmouths with her husband. On top of that, you are the first sole female owner to start a hockey team from the ground up in North America. What does this mean to you, knowing you broke down that barrier?
It has been very surreal. It wasn’t really brought to my attention until recently. I feel very honored and privileged to have broken that glass ceiling. I’m also very fortunate to be in a league where whether I was male or female , it didn’t matter. I’m just an owner in the SPHL as far as the other owners are concerned, I’m no different than they are. It wasn’t like when I filled out the application to the league there was a question of whether I was male or female. it was 'can you do the job?'. That’s why it never really occurred to me that I was the first to do this. I hope this encourages other women to try and do the same type of thing.
With all that said, what would you have to say to aspiring young women that are pursuing a career in what is considered as the “men’s world"?
You need to be conscious of your behavior. It’s a very misogynistic world. Understanding that some of these people will be looking at you in that light and look at you as an object as opposed to a woman. Throughout my time in hockey, I have faced harassment when I have worked with certain teams and it's not a fun feeling. You just have to be thick skinned and have the confidence and perseverance to plow through it.
The other side too is networking. Get out there and network as much as possible. Don’t just put those business cards and contact numbers in your phone and disregard them. Go out of your way every couple of months to reach out and touch base with them. You want them to know who you are. You want them take notice at what you’re doing. If you’re pioneering something, you want them to remember it. There may be a time that you need some help and they will say 'I know who this woman is, and she has already done this. I absolutely I want to work with her.''
Moving onto the team's plans for the upcoming season. What are the plans to fill the arena and promote the team?
We will be upgrading all the locker rooms and coach’s office. What we will be doing audio visual… well that’s a surprise. I'm not going to let any secrets out on that , but it will be one heck of a show. We will have a male and female mascot named Bob and Kat in order to appeal to everyone. There will be some great promotion nights of course. Just stay tuned!
We have former Danville Dashers and Danville Wings that have offered to volunteer their time to come in and help with some of the upgrade work. That to me, just shows how much of a family hockey is. There are past players who are excited for this and encouraging the community to really get behind this because it is going to be something special.
Finally, what are your goals for the team in its inaugural season in the league?
I have every intention of winning. We intend to make the playoffs. We don’t expect to be at .500. We expect to win. We have already joked with Quad City and Peoria that to get out of the state, you have to go down I-74 and you have to go through us first. We will be prowling that highway, just looking for you.
Other than that, I want to create a fun atmosphere that makes people want to keep coming back. I expect my team to be active in the community and set good examples, be proud to put that jersey on and proud to have it out in the community. I want to ensure my coaches get developed and move on, as well as my players getting developed and move on. If that’s not happening after 2 or 3 years, then we are not doing our job. I expect to develop players that move up. I have very high expectations for the team both on and off the ice. Ultimately, we want to have fun and win.
Sounds like the Bobcats, although in the early stages of development, are already putting the league on notice and show promise to add even more excitement to the SPHL.. Stay tuned into the team because things are moving very quickly and there will be coaching announcements, jersey reveals, and a lot more coming in the near future.
Learn more about the Vermilion County Bobcats by following them on Social Media.