THROWBACK THURSDAY: UW has a Stanley Cup champion. For real.
CHEYENNE – Alex English had never worn ice skates.
Until he came to play college football in Laramie, he had barely seen snow.
He was all about the pigskin. Most Texas boys are. So, it may be surprising to most that English has a Stanley Cup championship ring.
Every year around this time, English, a former wide receiver and kick returner at Wyoming, peeks at a wooden box in his Florida home. The front is glass. Etched in it, the Tampa Bay Lightning logo on the left, 2004 Champions on the right.
Below: “Alex English.”
“If you would’ve ever told me that my biggest team sports success – the most hardware I would ever earn – would come from NHL hockey, I would’ve told you that you are crazy,” English laughed into the other end of the phone Tuesday afternoon. “I’m an inner-city kid from Houston. I’ve always been about football.”
How did English find himself celebrating outside the Lightning locker room that humid June evening?
Well, it all started with football.
After playing for the Pokes from 1998-2000, English said he was trying to keep his dream alive of playing professional football. He got that chance from the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm.
Though he was still in pads, English said he knew it wouldn’t last forever. Let’s just say, he kept his eye on what was going on across the hall in the other locker room at Amalie Arena, then known as the Ice Palace.
That sanctuary was home to the NHL’s Lightning. They had better digs than the Storm, to say the least, English chuckled. There, English started to make friends. Whether it was the towel boy or the movers and shakers in suits.
One of those men was Lightning General Manager, Jay Feaster.
“I knew I could put that Wyoming business degree to work,” he joked. “When I was offered to hang it up with football and start putting that degree to work, what better way than to stay in the professional sports world as an executive? That’s how I transitioned to entering the business world.”
OTHER THROWBACK THURSDAY FEATURES:
* Brett Smith: 'I just wanted to be great'
* Dana Dimel: 'I could've left it better'
* COLUMN: A small gesture goes a long way
* Chris Stutzriem: 'Rocky Toppled'
English was named a marketing executive. He quickly moved up the ladder to become one of the Directors of Marketing for the team.
The work wasn’t all that foreign to him -- the game was. He didn’t grow up in a hockey market. Tampa’s fandom was still in its infancy.
English laughed when he recalled the 2003-04 season. The Lightning became a legit title contender after compiling a 20-4-1 record in December and January. They became the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Fans were starting to catch the fever.
So was English.
“I remember in the second round of the playoffs we went to Montreal,” he said. “People say Flyers fans are rough – wow. Montreal fans made them look friendly.” (Funny enough, Tampa Bay won another championship last night, knocking off Montreal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals)
Tampa Bay, led by Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and “The Bulin Wall,” goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin, outlasted Philadelphia in seven games in the conference finals, punching its ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals and a date with the Calgary Flames.
As much as English was enjoying the ride, then in his mid-20’s, he couldn’t help but think about the perks that were coming his way.
“On the front office side of things, if your team wins a championship, team revenue drastically increases,” he said, pointing to ticket sales, suites and merchandise. “The revenue stream was set to explode. So, as executives, our income was set to double.”
Winning the Cup would just be icing on the cake.
And after another grueling seven-game series, that’s exactly what the Lightning did.
English recalls the chaos of it all. Champagne flying, flash bulbs popping and bearded -- some toothless -- men joyfully crying. It was a whirlwind of emotion. English was in the middle of it all.
With the party raging in that locker room across the hall, English and his other front office coworkers got their turn to hoist the 34-plus pound silver trophy.
English said he couldn’t help but think about the irony of the moment -- A football player from Texas is holding sports’ greatest hardware high over his head.
Now, 15 years later, English wishes he would’ve taken more time to appreciate the moment. He has a new perspective of just what it takes to win a championship. Especially in a sport steeped in tradition.
“Looking back, I probably didn’t have as much appreciation for it as I do now,” he said. “Now, knowing that some of the greatest players and hockey lifers have never even got to lay a fingerprint on that Cup, it’s special. It was fun then, it’s fun to think back on now. I just have a greater appreciation for it.”
English didn’t get a traditional “day with the Cup.” He said that was reserved for players and coaches. So are the engraved names on the trophy itself.
But he did get to cruise through downtown on a fire truck, the Cup on full display for thousands of fans below at the championship parade.
Life was good. English was young, making a six-figure paycheck, working in the pros and, now, a champion.
Then, just like that, it all went away.
The following season, the NHL had a lockout. Players and owners couldn’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement and the entire season was lost.
There would be no banner raising, no cheers and a once promising executive career was now hanging by a thread.
English said he was offered to keep his job. However, he would have to do it at half the pay. Ownership told him he was one of the lucky ones. Most around the league just lost their jobs.
English wasn’t prepared to take that financial hit. Plus, he had other plans.
“The lockout closed a really fun, interesting chapter of a football guy being part of a hockey team and a title,” he said. “But it ended up being a huge blessing in disguise. It was the catalyst that lead to creating 908 Group.”
Along with fellow former Lighting executive, Justin Wilson, the duo started the real estate development company in 2006, specializing in building high-end student housing at major college campuses around the country. As co-founder and managing director, English now oversees development execution team management, product evolution and user experience, project design and construction, marketing and branding.
In 2008, he was named to the prestigious 30 Under 30 by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, which highlights young people doing big things in local industry.
The late 2000’s was a risky time, especially in the world of real estate. While the recession wiped out the bigger companies in the area, English said he and Wilson “stayed in their tent and waited for the storm to pass.”
When it eventually did, English said they were one of the few companies left standing and growing.
“Our model is: go slow and grow steady,” he said. “Don’t get greedy. We do two or three really big class-A student-housing projects a year.”
A perk of this career – and the success of his company -- he can still go to Lightning games. Now, as a fan.
“We have two season tickets on the glass behind the goal,” he said.
Perspective is big with English. He doesn’t take anything for granted. He reminisced about transferring to Wyoming on a promise from then head coach Dana Dimel that he would earn a full-ride. While leading the Pokes and the conference in kick-return yards for much of the season as a junior, he was told he would be featured in the offense during his senior year with the departures of Wendell Montgomery, Kofi Schuck and Willie King.
Unfortunately for him, Dimel went to Houston.
The scholarship part quickly came true. The rest didn’t.
Instead, English said he took on the role of mentor for guys like Malcom Floyd, Brock Ralph and Ryan McGuffey. He never saw eye to eye with new head man, Vic Koenning while bridging the Dimel/Koenning transition and what turned out to be two of the best Wyoming wide receiving corps ever.
English’s college highlights includes taking the opening kickoff at Louisiana-Monroe 88 yards to the house.
He’s the only Cowboy in history to do that.
I think it’s safe to say he is the only Cowboy to hoist the Stanley Cup, too.
“I’d be surprised if I’m not,” he joked. “If there is someone else, you have an even better story.”
Wednesday night, Boston and St. Louis will meet in Game 7. The winner will get to do exactly what English did all those years ago, become a champion forever. He will never claim to be the world’s biggest hockey fan – can’t kick those Texas football roots – but he will have an eye on the game.
“I would normally go for the Eastern Conference team,” he said, “but I like the St. Louis story.
“Plus, I'm a Tampa Bay guy now so I'm all for teaching my twin boys to root against Boston teams."
Blues it is.
* This feature was originally published June 12, 2019