GLASS SHATTERED & A SEAT FOR EVERYONE
How GM Toni Will has raised the K-Wings to new heights with her love of Kalamazoo & her ability to teach others through experience.
By Pam Shebest for K-Wings.com
KALAMAZOO, MI – Smashing through the “glass ceiling” was never a goal for Toni Will, general manager and governor of the ECHL Kalamazoo Wings.
In fact, “I didn’t even notice the female part because I was so focused on what I had to do here probably for two years,” she said. “I didn’t walk in here thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to break the glass ceiling.’”
In addition, she never actually applied for the job.
Her hope nine years ago was to become manager of Sydney’s, a high-end fashion boutique inside the Radisson Plaza Hotel. She had just left her high-pressure position as vice president of Southwest Michigan First, running the chamber division, and was looking for something less stressful.
“They called me at Greenleaf and said, ‘Toni, we love that you’re interested in (the Sydney’s job), but you’re way overqualified.’
“I said. ‘I know and I’m totally okay with that. I don’t want more responsibility. I’ve spent my whole career in high responsibility.’”
Then came the phone call from Greenleaf asking about the K-Wings GM position.
“The hockey team?” she asked. “They’re still around?”
Her next statement was, “I don’t know (anything) about hockey.’”
She was assured that, yes, the K-Wings were still around and that Greenleaf was looking for someone who knows the community, knows business and who can lead a team on the business side.
“I said okay, I can learn the rest. I love a challenge and this job was that.”
Will said one of the biggest surprises of the job was the passion of the fan base.
“I am a recreational athlete, but not an avid fan of a team,” she said. “I was really learning what fandom was. There’s rational side and a fanatical side.”
She certainly heard a loud roar from the fanatical side, complaining that she knew nothing about the hockey side.
“I try to explain how this works in AA men’s professional hockey,” she said. “Most franchises, the GM is focused on the business and works in tandem with the head coach, but does not do the recruiting and all of that. Ninety-five percent of the teams in our 28-team league right now, operate under that model.
“I’m open about not needing to know about that part. (Head coach) Joel (Martin) does that and
(former coach) Nick (Bootland) did that before Joel. I’m learning about their side as much as they’re learning about the business side, so we’re great partners in that.”
Will’s first goal was to turn the franchise around through attendance and sales growth in the first three to five years she was in the position.
"I was on the cusp of where we were hitting those goals as we hit the pandemic,” she said. “We would have hit it by the end of that season (2019-20).
“Currently, we are at 72 percent occupancy on average for the first 22 games of the season. Our revenue growth is 20 percent year over year and we are selling out more games than ever.”
Game themes, promotions
One idea that helped spur that growth was implementing more game themes and promotions.
“One thing we tap is those areas that touch our lives on the cause side,” Will said. “I wear a hearing aid, so Deaf Awareness and we partnered with Bronson on this.
“Alzheimer’s Awareness, my son (Landon) happens to be an intern here and presented the theme in honor of my mother, his grandmother (who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), and that has touched many lives. Those are just two examples.”
Another promotion was the lightsaber battle that is still in the Guinness World Records book.
The “battle” between the 3,889 participants lasted 3 minutes, 45 seconds.
Ideas for the promotions come from many sources.
“Clay Coltson, who is our game operations manager, works hand-in-hand with me and we laugh because I think we have next season built out already, just with ideas,” she said.
“What we also draw off of are our interns. We do an intern Shark Tank every year and they’re able to present their ideas, because who has better ideas than the people who aren’t here every day? A lot of great game themes have come from those individuals. It’s a lot of fun.”
Other ideas have come from players and other franchise promotions.
One of the themes she is proud of is launching the ‘Rainbow Ice Game.’
“The initiative is about hockey is for everyone, it’s not just for LGBTQ+,” she said. “It’s for everyone: gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, religion and I’m still very, very proud of that.”
Giving back to the community, the organization raised more than $100,000 in a “We Are Kalamazoo,” benefit for victims of the Uber Driver shooting spree in 2016 and later the victims of a pickup truck crashing into a group of cyclists.
“I’m also really proud that we have retired five player numbers since I’ve been at the helm. We only had one number retired in the 45 years prior to me coming on.”
As governor, Will represents the K-Wings on the ECHL Board of Governors.
“The league is governed by two individuals, a governor and an alternate governor, of each team, so our board is about 60 people deep,” she said. “What we do is manage the overall vitality, growth, financial stability of the league along with partnering with the players union with what we do with the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), getting into new markets, creating new bylaws, player protection to ensure their health and wellness, and growing revenues.”
Relationship with alcohol
With a degree in business management from Western Michigan University, the Vicksburg native started drinking socially in her 20s.
Married at age 23 and beginning a family at 25, she was focused on family and career until the family part came to a screeching half with a divorce in 2008.
“I come from a Catholic family and so did my ex-husband and there was a lot of shame in that,” she said.
“I didn’t realize it back then, but I started to cope with that shame with alcohol and so began my 30s, which became a giant tug of war between me and my relationship with alcohol.”
She knew that relationship was not healthy and did the “start and stop thing.”
The first time, she stopped drinking for 2 1/2 months.
Then it was, “Oh, I must not have an issue with alcohol because I can stop,” she said. “Then I would go back out and I didn’t like how I’d feel, how I’d behave. Again the shame. I stopped for 15 months. It’s not just a light switch you turn off. I was using different tools and resources to try to understand it better.”
Finally, with the K-Wings dark in 2020 because of the pandemic, Will had a chance to work on herself.
She gave up alcohol for 30 days, then kept adding more alcohol-free weeks. Three and a half years later, she is still alcohol-free.
“Alcohol is a drug, even though it’s classified as alcohol and drugs, it is a drug,” she said. “It is highly addictive and that’s no judgment on anyone who drinks it.
“My husband (Josh) drinks socially and plenty of friends and family do. But how my brain operates and when you put alcohol in this body and brain, I don’t like that.”
Her commitment to healthy living has spawned a new online business, Mindfulness Elevated (https://mindfulnesselevated.me/).
“I coach people from all over the U.S. and Canada on either reducing their intake of alcohol or completely removing it,” she explained. “We do everything virtual by Zoom.
“Dry January is very popular. I had 19 clients make it successfully through Dry January and I have one client who celebrated one year alcohol-free. It’s amazing. I love what I do on both sides, I love Mindfulness Elevated and I love the K-Wings.”
Far surpassing what she thought she could accomplish with the hockey team, she is now reaching out, hoping to inspire other women and young girls to attain their dreams.
“I have two daughters (Grace and Chloe) and I want them to be able to achieve their goals,” she said.
“If I’m achieving mine and helping other young women take that step up and show them the way and pave a path, that’s what I’ve been doing."
Will said it goes back to one theme: eradicating shame.
“I felt shame in a lot of different ways,” she said. At the Board of Governors meeting, “I looked around and realized I was the first female governor. There were other governors in that room, but they were alternate governors that were female.
“I’ve been treated differently at times. Sometimes micro, sometimes macro. I take that energy and ask where can I put that energy to make positive change. Creating a mentor, mentee program for women in sports for the ECHL is my next step.”
Will said one false impression is that women have to “belly up to the bar with the boys” to be part of that group.
“I thought I would be respected more,” she said. “The truth is, I’m respected more for being alcohol-free. I live in line with my core values and that means more to me than trying to keep up with the guys.”
Will is also on the National Sports Forum steering committee and has attended their February meeting the last eight years.
The organization includes all levels of professional sports and she applied twice to be a speaker for women in sports leadership and was declined twice.
Through her contacts, she was finally added to the agenda last year, speaking virtually. This year, at the conference in Pittsburgh, she is hosting a super panel of all different women executives in all different sports.
“I also asked for a women’s only networking event after my session and, as a non-drinker, I asked for us to have options to have non-alcoholic drinks, not only soda and water but Bud Zero because Anheuser Busch is a big sponsor of the event.
“They were like they never stopped to consider that.”
Will uses the phrase “beating the drum” to create change.
“I know that some people will roll their eyes and get annoyed, but that’s okay,” she said. "That means I’m making progress.
“I’m not trying to talk to everyone. I’m trying to talk to those individuals who happen to be a minority in their life or in their field or a non-drinker, which is another version of a minority. I happen to be two of those things.
“It’s all about taking the shame and the stigma away from all of this: gender, health and wellness, whatever.”
Will continues to work on her own health and wellness.
In her 30s, she competed in more than 60 triathlons, including two Iron Man competitions, and was an avid cyclist.
Now, at 45 years old, she works out like a “normal person,” she said, but even that is on the back burner while she recovers from a broken ankle suffered six weeks ago.
“Luckily I’m very connected to athletic trainers here,” she said. “I’m moving now from non-weight bearing to partial weight bearing but no surgery. Emotionally it’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be. I work out every day, which helps me stay grounded.”
The booted foot has not slowed her down. Last week, the ECHL announced that Kalamazoo will be the site of next year’s Hockey Heritage, a league-wide event that includes the K-Wings 50th anniversary hockey game Jan. 18, 2025.
The organization will also have special golden anniversary specials throughout the season.
“I love working,” Will said. “A body in motion stays in motion. I’m super driven. I’m a big fitness enthusiast.
"As long as I love it, this doesn’t feel like work. My path was I didn’t want this. I wasn’t trying for this. I just wanted to be the best version of myself I could be.
“I know we’re much better than where we were nine years ago. This is the best job I never knew I wanted.”
The K-Wings continue their colored ice tradition with Pink Ice on Feb. 10, presented by Bronson. Click HERE to secure your tickets now!
The Kalamazoo Wings are a professional hockey team located in southwest Michigan that has been a staple in the Kalamazoo, MI professional sports landscape since 1974. The K-Wings compete in the ECHL and are the AA affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks and the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Canucks. Kalamazoo plays their 36 regular season home games at Wings Event Center from October through April.