If David Morehouse was only running a hockey team, his job with the Pittsburgh Penguins would be much less challenging.
“We’ve never been charged with just winning the Stanley Cup and just running a hockey team. We’ve always had the ambition to create a longer-lasting impact,” says the team’s president and CEO.
For example, a few months ago, Morehouse was going 100 miles an hour and spending 85 percent of his time on the new mixed-use development plan for the 28-acre site of the old Civic Arena, which is expected to attract $750 million in private investment.
The owners, led by Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, want to be the best organization in sports and contribute to the community in significant ways — in addition to succeeding on the ice.
“As an ownership group, they’ve never said no to anything that we’ve asked that would improve the team,” Morehouse says.
That includes a cryogenic machine in the practice facility, a full-time elite trainer and being one of two NHL teams to pay a doctor to travel with the team.
All of those competitive advantages add up. Morehouse and his staff also have built a culture that treats players so well that the Penguins often hear from free agents that Pittsburgh is the best place to play.
“We’re capped on how much we can pay them, but we’re not capped on how well we can treat them,” he says.
That ability to treat others well translates to the fans, too.
“They invest their heart and soul in the team. You have to think about them in ways that you wouldn’t if they were just customers,” Morehouse says. “They are invested in what we do. They believe it’s we — it’s not us and them — so we treat our season ticket holders and we treat our fans as stakeholders.”
Leading the way
A strong culture and a brand that’s well-respected in the community are things Morehouse modeled after the Steelers. He grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s when the team — and its winning culture — was the heart and soul of the region.
Before coming back to Pittsburgh, Morehouse was the traveling chief of staff when John Kerry ran for president. But after a two-year stint as a senior consultant on the team’s new arena project, ownership asked him to become president.
“I came into the job without having had experience running a hockey team, and I actually think that was a strength,” he says.
For example, the Penguins were the first to install a video screen outside the arena during playoffs. Morehouse says NBC was upset and the NHL wanted to fine the team, but today it’s part of hockey.
More than a decade later, Morehouse has to push himself to be as inventive as he was when he knew nothing — by looking for new partnerships with innovative companies.
“My challenge is how do we continue to run the team in an innovative way, so that our team that was innovative remains ahead of the curve on things. That’s why we’re working so much with universities,” he says.
During spring break, for instance, the Penguins did a makeathon with Covestro and Carnegie Mellon University. Students looked at how the skeletal composition of rams and woodpeckers helps dissipate impact. Morehouse says they ultimately redesigned the team’s goalie mask to make it safer, and now he wants to partner with a hockey equipment company to test it.
This past offseason, the executive team also focused on the generational switch. They met with consultants who have expertise in millennials and Generation Z to discuss the differences between these groups and Generation X and baby boomers.
“We’re taking a hard look at how the world is changing around us,” Morehouse says.