Milwaukee Admirals VP of Business Development Mike Wojciechowski is fond of saying that he’s “just livin’ the dream."
Wojo, as most know him, is one of my heroes. Among other things, he taught me that it’s important to stand up for your team and defend a free press even when it means taking a punch to the face by someone who should know better.
No one succeeds in life without heroes, role models and mentors. I have been fortunate to have several of each. My parents and siblings taught me much growing up. Athletic heroes like Bobby Hull, Bart Starr and Dick Allen were heroes to me in almost a comic book fashion.
Off the field sports role models included former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck and Shorewood’s own Lloyd Pettit. Pettit was a hero to me twice – first as the Hall of Fame Chicago Blackhawks broadcaster in the 1960s and 1970s then again as my ultimate boss as the co-owner, with his wife Jane, of the Milwaukee Admirals hockey team. My most influential hero though was one of Pettit’s employees - Wojo.
Last Friday, the Admirals honored Wojo during and after the American Hockey League team’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Bradley Center. He was being recognized for an amazing 30 year career that continues to provide entertainment to Milwaukee ice hockey fans with no end in sight. The event included an extended emotional between-periods ceremony emceed by Woj’s friend, WTMJ’s Gene Mueller. The festivities appropriately continued after the game at Saz’s, one of Milwaukee’s many iconic drinking and eating establishments that consider Wojo a dear friend.
Any success I’ve had in my own career, I owe to Wojo. Early in his Admirals career he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of marketing and selling a professional sports team with a limited budget. A year earlier, Admirals legend Phil Wittliff met Wojo at the Bayshore Goodyear Tire store where Woj was selling tires to the Admirals General Manager. Wittliff, who also starred for the Admirals in their early years as a player, then had five stints as head coach, was impressed by the tire salesman’s personality and desire to get into sports, so he quickly brought Wojo aboard.
Wojo was in his early 20s and already had his dream job without ever studying sports administration, interning for a pro sports team or taking any other “traditional” paths to the sports world. After his first year publicizing the Admirals, he found himself in the middle of a scene straight out of the classic film “Slap Shot”.
Wojo’s name was on page one of the Milwaukee Journal MAKING the news instead of his customary role of spreading the news. The setting was Toledo, Ohio for game five of the best of seven Turner Cup finals for the International Hockey League’s 1982-83 championship against the Toledo Goaldiggers.
The series was tied 2-2 and both the Admirals and Wojo were beaten up in game five. The Admirals merely suffered a 16-4 shellacking on the scoreboard. Wojo, on the other hand, was physically abused by the owner of the Toledo team simply for defending his local press’ right to write. Bill Beagan, the Goaldiggers owner (and previously the IHL commissioner), wanted to use the press box for his own personal use and wanted to remove the two writers from the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel. Wojo asked Beagan where his writers were supposed to do their work when, according to Don Burke, the Journal reporter, Beagan pushed and then punched Wojo in the face.
According to Burke’s Milwaukee Journal report at the time, witnesses said they saw Wojo come reeling in the door backwards with Beagan pushing him. “He just lost it,” was how one witness told Burke. Beagan then stormed into the press box where the Milwaukee writers sat and said, “This is my _ _ _ _ing box and I want you the _ _ _ _ out now.”
Burke went on to write: “After another exchange of words, Beagan punched Wojo in the face before the Milwaukee writers could separate them.” Beagan went on to an exemplary career in hockey administration and was even inducted into the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame and ironically enough, won the Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal in 2001.
The Toledo incident was an early example of Wojo standing up for what he knew was right. It was even a form of civil disobedience. That act and 30 years of less physical acts of support for the Admirals, many charitable organizations and countless friends have made Wojo one of the most popular sports executives in town.
Working in a small organization (front office staff of seven employees) meant I got to do it all. During my four seasons with the Admirals (1983-1987), Wojo taught me how to handle every aspect of the team’s business operations: ticket and sponsor sales and service, marketing, game operations, promotions and community and media relations. That experience served as a graduate level education and I had the best teacher anyone could ever have. Wojo had high expectations, gave me confidence and showed me how to enjoy the work and make it part of my life without ever becoming “a job”.
Living at the Wisconsin State Fair for two weeks every summer, meeting with hundreds of bar owners to sell group packages, dressing up and skating in dozens of mascot outfits and attending dozens of booster club events were some of the memorable parts of my education at the University of Wojo. Making hundreds of sales calls, unloading truckloads of giveaway items and stuffing thousands of envelopes were some of the less memorable, but equally important tasks I did for my boss and mentor. Fishing trips up north, road trips to Kenosha Twins games and too-many-to-count unofficial pub crawls made Wojo a lifelong friend.
I took those lessons to the soccer world where over the next 25 years I managed front offices for the Milwaukee Wave (twice) and five other pro soccer teams. Wojo has stayed with the Admirals for that quarter of a century. During that time he has made Milwaukee smile with the best promotional lineup in the state including a concert series that is unparalleled in the sports world, regular promotions like the human hockey puck that have become part of Milwaukee’s sporting culture and entertaining commercials featuring Bob Uecker. And along the way Wojo always makes friends wherever he goes.