The women who put Tulsa in the Tulsa Oilers
A golf cart was as close as Amy Henderson and Jessica Adams would get to their own DeLorean. Their joint ride in it as two fresh-faced Tulsa Oilers employees now lives as the start of their shared journey into the new millennium.
Today their tenures dwarf those of all other Oilers front-office personnel. Henderson, the ECHL club’s vice president of marketing and sales, is in her 19th campaign. This is Year 18 on the staff for Adams, the vice president of business operations.
Only by the end of this season will any of their colleagues hit the decade mark. That distinction goes to general manager Taylor Hall. Everyone else will have been around for six years or fewer, a majority for fewer than three.
Delete Hall’s prior ice-level Tulsa tenure, and he and the other eight front-office employees have combined for 37 seasons of Oilers service. By the time 2017-18 runs out, Adams and Henderson will have matched that 37-year sum.
“The amount of time and energy they’ve put into the team is something I don’t think any of the rest of us can truly grasp,” said John Peterson, the Oilers’ second-year broadcaster and vice president of communications.
This is what happens when no other arrangement can match the evergreen gratification of home cooking. Of the 11 staffers, Adams and Henderson are the lone natural-born Tulsans.
“Amy is not just a fellow local,” Adams said in an interview with Pucks and Recreation. “She is an amazing friend and coworker, and she is my work sister.”
The sisterhood started over the holidays in 2000. Henderson was a sophomore in the Oilers offices, Adams a junior at Oklahoma Baptist University. Although a two-way commute between her campus in Shawnee and the Tulsa Convention Center ranged between three and four hours, Adams was home long enough to insert one foot as an intern that December.
The chaos of the season must have hammered the higher-ups. When Adams made her debut, Henderson was supposed to receive her. But word of the former’s hiring did not reach the latter until it manifested itself that morning.
“I remember that first day like it was yesterday,” Henderson told Pucks and Rec.
“Interns are often the forgotten helpers,” Adams mused, “and that was no different on my first day, except for Amy.”
Indeed, despite the lack of a heads-up, Henderson was anything but David Spade as Dick Clark’s receptionist. Fast-forward 17-plus years, and the two still laugh off that inconsequentially awkward first impression.
“Amy handled the situation with grace, and was kind and welcoming,” Adams fondly remembers.
And so ended the first phase in Henderson bringing Adams along on a once-unplanned, but now-cherished saga. Neither woman had envisioned working in sports, let alone one considered “non-traditional” for the locale. This despite the likes of Hall helping the Oilers to a Central League championship as a player-assistant coach in 1993.
Instead, both wandered a few hours out of town, though still in state, with vastly distinct fields in mind. Henderson majored in political science at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. Adams had figured a career in law was her destiny after clerking for a firm in her hometown. Upon enrolling at Oklahoma Baptist, she also accepted the potentiality of a career outside of Tulsa.
The two had never crossed paths growing up in a town whose population hovers around 400,000. But both were pulled back via a deep pool of connections at the Convention Center. Through a family friend, Henderson landed her Oilers internship. Going in, she envisioned a simple filler for her resume and the scorching hiatus between semesters at NSU.
As it happened, the internship was not merely filling, it was fulfilling.
“I ended up falling in love with sports marketing,” she said, “and my plans for the future changed completely.”
She returned to finish what she started in Tahlequah, an hour east of home. That higher-ed quest would be extent of her venture out of Tulsa.
Within two years, the Convention Center was seeing just as much of Adams’ shadow. Former Oilers owner Bobby Gilbert had helped her land the 2000-01 winter internship. At that point, she was still eyeing a long-term career around courts, albeit of the hoops variety.
“I knew I wanted to work in sports and was looking for any opportunity,” she said. “I’ve always loved in-game entertainment, specifically the NBA.”
This was still a decade before her hometown would nab the WNBA’s Shock from Detroit. It was eight years before her state capital turned the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder.
For the time being, a hockey-centered homecoming would suffice for Adams. With the Oilers, she explained, “my intention was to take the experience and eventually look for something in the NBA.”
By the time of the Oilers’ links tournament — where, as Henderson recalls, “We first bonded while driving a golf cart around” — the conversion was complete. Adams followed her work sister’s lead in completing her undergraduate credits on schedule. But she added a three-day work week with the team to her regimen as a senior.
“What I didn’t expect to happen was to fall in love with my hometown again,” she said. “And, most unexpectedly, love hockey, our staff and the Tulsa Oilers fans so much.
“I realized as I got older that you can’t put a price tag on being close to your family, loving the organization you work for and all the while being in such a great city like Tulsa.”
A Lund-erful foundation
The Tulsa Convention Center is now the Cox Business Center. Even before the corporate bug bit the building in 2013, it lost the Oilers to the larger BOK Center in 2008.
While the old building was modifying its moniker, the team was sold to brothers Brandon, Johnny and Roddy Steven. A year later, the 22-year-old Central League folded, leaving the Tulsa Oilers of 2014 to make like the Edmonton Oilers of 1979 and find new auspices in a stronger league.
Another year elapsed before the Oilers, who once shared the BOK Center with an indoor football and women’s basketball franchise, became solo tenants again. The aforementioned Shock bolted for Dallas in 2015.
At times in this business, the winds of change rival those churning in the current presidential administration. But Tulsa’s puck posse’s stability has let its two native-born, self-proclaimed work sisters settle down and forge a second family.
“I am so grateful that Jessica and I have shared this ride together,” Henderson said. “We’ve been through the ups and downs of 9/11, the changes in the economy, different bosses and an ownership change.”
As one of the ups, Adams and Henderson were both there when Angela Ruggiero broke new ice by dressing for the Oilers in 2005. The four-time Olympian and future Hall of Famer made the Oilers famous as the first pro team to roster a female skater.
More generally, Tulsa has sustained stable fanfare, with average attendance staying above 4,000 and sometimes crossing 5,000. This despite having won only one playoff series since 1994 and missing 10 postseasons since Henderson arrived.
That does not mean the franchise has been immune to scares. Early in the post-Great Recession recovery, an intrastate rival and fellow founding Central League franchise of the Oilers’ caved in. The Oklahoma City Blazers, one-time perennial CHL attendance leaders, folded in mid-July of 2009.
In response, a Tulsa World headline speculated, “Blazers’ end might spell trouble for Tulsa Oilers.” Reporter Bill Haisten wrote, “The news had a chilling effect on Oilers owner Jeff Lund. As Oklahoma City loses its CHL team, the Oilers could be doomed to losing a lot of money.”
Naturally, the franchise made it through, along with its then-nearly decade-long employment of Adams and Henderson. Ditto the squad’s then-new lease at the newer, bigger BOK Center.
But four years later, the last of the four upheavals Henderson cited implicitly had the greatest internal impact. From the Oilers’ 1992 inception, Lund had been their front-office anchor. He was their inaugural general manager, then assumed the owner’s box in 1999, mere months before Henderson’s internship.
“Jeff helped create the family atmosphere that we love about our team,” Adams said. “Through the years, he has been like a second dad to both Amy and me.”
Both women’s tenures had hit their teens by the time the Steven brothers took the reins in 2013. Now at the five-year mark of the new ownership, Adams, Henderson and Hall are the front office’s chief Lund-era holdovers.
A hockey mind first and a second-time figure in the organization, Hall represents the Oilers from before they had Adams and Henderson. As proud locals, Adams and Henderson represent Tulsa from before it had its current hockey franchise.
Adams went on to credit Lund, Hall and Hall’s predecessor as general manager, Corey MacIntyre, with fostering her professional growth. As far as Henderson is concerned, Adams burgeoned into “the glue that holds this office together” on their watch.
Besides accumulating her administrative adhesive, Adams tore the hardwood out of her mind. She has long learned about the enriching elements in the surface beneath, and not just for those whose blades have touched it.
“What is so amazing about our team is that we truly are a family,” she said. “Hockey is family. The players, coaches, fans and staff, we each play an important role.
“My favorite quote about hockey is something Wayne Gretzky said: ‘The greatest thing about hockey is the people you meet. The people I’ve met….the friendships I have, the memories, and there’s nothing like it. It’s the greatest game in the world.’ Mr. Gretzky was so right.”
Long familiar, never old
For both of Lund’s homegrown business daughters, embracing a family tree made of Sherwood twigs has meant branching out to other gratifying roles. On their respective paths to vice presidencies, they have vocationally matured into the cool aunts of adopted Tulsans and born-again hockey and Oilers devotees.
“I’ve watched little babies grow into adults, and have become so close to so many people through the years,” said Henderson. “We are a family. I have stayed this long because I truly believe in sports marketing and what it can do to help other businesses grow and because I love the people I have met and relationships I have built through the years.”
That R-word is all but a refrain around the Oilers staff. Peterson singled out the two locals’ roles in forming “relationships with many of our season-ticket holders and sponsors.”
And in another testament to their synced status, Adams cites Henderson’s self-proclaimed passion as her forte.
“Amy is great at taking on new challenges,” Adams remarked. “She has been an awesome leader in group and corporate sales for our organization. What she is best at, though, is building relationships. She has been able to establish and grow our partnerships in a way that affects not only our organization but also our community.”
All 25 Oilers home games between New Year’s and the 2017-18 regular-season finale have promotional flair on the side. Per Adams, a breast-cancer fundraiser Jan. 20 and a military appreciation night Feb. 23 were particularly rife with Henderson’s fingerprints.
“What I didn’t expect to happen was to fall in love with my hometown again. And, most unexpectedly, love hockey, our staff and the Tulsa Oilers fans so much.” – Jessica Adams
As the regular season dusks, St. Patrick’s Night, Euro Jersey Night, Marvel Night and a block party are still to come. With her oversight of group ticket sales, Henderson also takes charge of getting the Oilers to put other uniquely Tulsa entities’ names in lights.
The sheer game-by-game variety of highlighted clubs, corporations and causes properly reflects the adage of no two hockey games being carbon copies. Just as appropriately, it meshes with the definition of daily Double-A hockey business.
“Minor league sports can be tough sometimes” Adams concedes. “All our employees wear lots of hats. That is a challenge, but it is also something I love about working for the Oilers. Each day seems to include a new adventure of some sort.”
But at least two of the adventurers have spent this century symbiotically ensuring each other at least one familiar face.
“I don’t know what it is like to have a job without Amy by my side,” Adams said.
“She knows me better than most people,” Henderson reciprocates. “We have shared so many of the best and worst of life experiences. I don’t know what I would do without her.”