It’s the second week in October. The Dow Event Center — home of the Saginaw Spirit, a major junior OHL hockey team based in Saginaw, Michigan — is buzzing with activity.
Hockey season is back. The puck drops this Saturday.
And unlike last season, which (due to Covid precautions) melted away like the ice that the players skate on, Kae Pankow has found herself happily back in the thick of the sport.
Kae works because they play – which means she’s got tickets to deliver.
As the Vice President of Sales for the Saginaw Spirit, Kae has helped connect the community to the hockey team that is so much more than a hockey team. It’s a platform to shine a light on community causes. It’s a place to recognize neighbors and reunite friends. It’s entertainment, it’s competition, it’s fun. It’s spirit – in every sense of the word.
With nearly 20 years at the Spirit under her belt, Kae can see her retirement on the horizon. But she’s not quite done yet.
Besides…this season is just getting started.
A Step into Sales
The Spirit is an entity under the Garber umbrella due to Dick Garber’s ownership of the team. By bringing the team to Saginaw, he helped Kae find her career path by creating a new door for her to open.
She wasn’t even looking for one.
“Before getting hired by the Spirit, I wasn’t working,” Kae explained. “I would travel with my husband; he’s been a national sales manager for 48 years. During that time 20 years ago, he used to do trade shows, and I would travel to get away.”
As details solidified that yes, Saginaw would be getting a hockey team, Kae learned of a potential job with the team — a group sales director role — from a friend.
“I found out about the job from Linda Marr, who is friends with [hockey legend] Wren Blair who presented the idea of the Spirit coming to Saginaw to Dick,” Kae explained.
Kae was skeptical of applying at first.
“I didn’t have a lot of sales experiences other than going to trade shows with my husband,” she said. “I wasn’t even selling for his company; I just watched. So I said to my friend, ‘Linda, I don’t even have sales experience.’ But I knew they wanted someone to represent the Spirit and help build a relationship with the community and the schools, so I applied.”
Kae landed an interview with Mr. Blair in February 2002. The duo met for two hours at a restaurant in Sarnia.
“He said to Linda when I finished with the interview, ‘I just think we found the group sales person,’” Kae said. “I was thrilled.”
All signs pointed towards a new beginning for Kae. But timing is always everything – even if it means taking a pause.
“That night at about 5:30, Dick Garber called me and he said, ‘I understand you had an interview, but we aren’t ready to hire a group sales director right now.’ I was deflated; I was all excited but I explained to him why I would be a good candidate and had a connection to the schools. He said, ‘You are our number one candidate, but we aren’t ready to hire someone at this time.’”
Kae waited. In the spring, the timing turned right. Kae got a call from Craig Goslin, president and managing partner of the Spirit. He invited her to an interview.
On July 3rd, 2002, Kae was hired to work in group sales. Then, on an October afternoon, Dick Garber made the moment come full circle.
“We were walking out to our cars and Dick came up to me,” Kae explained. “He said, ‘I just have to tell you that I wish I would have listened to Wren Blair and hired you back in February. You are doing a phenomenal job.’ Coming from the owner of the team, it really hit me in the heart and it showed the quality of Dick Garber – how he isn’t afraid to tell the truth or change his mind and admit it. I can’t be prouder of being a part of this organization. I get teary-eyed talking about it.”
With nearly two decades of experience working for the Spirit and the Garber organization, Kae is well-versed in the company’s culture.
She describes the organization as “incredible.”
“Garber is always an open door,” she said. “There’s nothing we can’t discuss. They are just incredible. I’ve never felt so good about working anywhere. They have totally impacted my life. They just care. There’s always that caring commitment. They go above and beyond for you.”
Kae immediately experienced the way that Garber cares for team members. She was just one month into her role in sales at the start of her career.
“I was hired in July and both of my parents went into different hospitals in August,” she explained. “I needed to be there to hear what the doctor was saying. Craig and Dick both said, ‘Whatever you have to do, go be with your parents.’ I had only worked here for a month. I couldn’t believe they were willing to let that happen and they knew I’d still get my work done. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.”
Soon after she started excelling in group sales, Kae got promoted to handle corporate partnerships. She became the Vice President of Sales.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Kae said she is a completely different person thanks to her role with the Spirit.
“I’ve totally come out of my shell working here,” she said. “With the Saginaw Spirit, I found my confidence. I didn’t know that I could sell like this, but Craig Goslin has completely supported and encouraged me. I also was not very good at public speaking, but one of the first things I had to do working for Spirit was go to a group of hockey parents and talk to them about the Spirit. There were 400 of them. I used to get hives when I was told I needed to give a book report, and there I was, speaking to a group of 400.”
Not only has her confidence increased thanks to her work over the years, but Kae’s knowledge of hockey has increased, too.
You could say it comes with the territory.
“I didn’t know that much about hockey when I first started, but I did my due diligence as much as I could,” she said. “After my presentations, the hockey parents came up and said, ‘That was such a good speech.’ That was huge for me. I thought, ‘Maybe I can really do this.’”
She said the Spirit has become her second family. So much so, that her actual family has placed the Spirit in the center of the family’s own monumental life news.
“One of the biggest moments for me was two years ago, when my daughter announced she was pregnant at the game,” Kae said. “Totally surprised us. She knew that the Spirit was my second family, so she arranged with Lindsay — one of my colleagues — to announce it during one of the time outs during intermission. It was a trivia question: ‘How many grandchildren does Kae Pakow have: 3, 4, or 5.’ At that time, I had three, so I answered three. They then said, ‘No, four,’ and then my daughter was standing there smiling. I jumped a mile in the air. I was so surprised. My daughter said, ‘Mom, I know the Spirit is your second family, and that’s why I wanted to announce it here.’”
Born and raised in Saginaw, Kae learned at an early age how important it was to be involved in the community. It was that community aspect of the role with the Spirit that also drew Kae to working for the team.
“My father was the business manager for the City of Saginaw schools,” she explained. “I knew a lot of the teachers and principals, and my father always said, ‘Whatever you do, make sure it is in connection with the community and give back to the city and community you live in.’ When this opportunity to work for the Spirit came up, I figured that was a great way for that to happen.”
In her role, Kae has helped make an impact across the region and beyond.
“The Saginaw Spirit has positively impacted our community,” she said. “For example, we created our Adopt-A-School program. The corporate partners adopt a certain school; they get tickets and also give tickets to the school to give out. We grew from 11 corporate partners to now we have over 90 partners that adopt 130 schools. People just want that team that they can support and know it’s a great community connector.”
The Saginaw Spirit Foundation also plays a huge part in giving back, Kae added.
“The community impact as far as what we give thanks to our foundation is huge.” Kae said. “We give multiple donations to various nonprofits and fundraisers…we give back that way. We’re always looking for different ideas to give back through the Saginaw Spirit Foundation.
Over the course of each season, specialty nights shine a light on certain causes and local organizations in order to show support and increase awareness. Kae said the events have created powerful moments for many.
“Our Pink Out night is where we honor 50-80 survivors of breast cancer every year,” she explained. “Those ladies come off the ice in tears. To be recognized in that way…that’s the kind of impact we make. That’s something that I’m humble about.”
The Pink Out night is just one example of the many different specialty nights that make an impact, Kae shared.
“Craig Goslin said to me, ‘Do you have any idea the number of dollars we’ve raised or the number of AEDs (Automated External Defibrillator, a device designed to revive someone from cardiac arrest) we’ve helped place due to our Shocks and Saves event, or the number of people we’ve given rooms to in homeless facilities, or the number of breast cancer survivors we’ve been able to honor…?’ I’m so happy and proud to be a part of such an impact.”
Kae said the Saginaw Spirit has been number one in corporate sales out of 20 teams for nearly a decade. It speaks to the support and dedication of the staff and team.
“I can’t say enough about the Saginaw Spirit and Garber,” Kae said. “We are a family.”
First job? Babysitting when I was 14.
First car? A ’72 Nova. I had no radio!
Three things you can’t live without? My family & my grandkids, golf, and Spirit Hockey
Something people would be surprised to know about you? I was a real introvert until I was about 40. This job at the Spirit changed me. I was a late bloomer when it came to confidence, but here with the Saginaw Spirit, I found my confidence. This job gave me confidence.
Best advice you’ve received? My father told me, “Stay involved with your community and try to make an impact.” It feels awesome to know that I am doing just that.