COLLEGE HOCKEY: New commissioners have strong direction for league's future
BEMIDJI -- If their first official visit to Bemidji is any indication, the new commissioners of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association are working quickly to permanently keep the league on the map.
Bill Robertson, the men's commissioner, and Aaron Kemp, the women's commissioner, are making their way to each league member institution on what Robertson called a "goodwill tour" of the WCHA; and Bemidji State and the Sanford Center was one of the first stops. The two met with season ticket holders and fans at Select-A-Seat Night, but beforehand they met with the media to discuss the league and its future.
And both specifically mentioned how key BSU was to its success.
"The kind of support Bemidji State gets from the fanbase here, how the community comes out for it," Robertson said. "(BSU athletic director Tracy Dill) talked to us about the connection to the community and what they're trying to do on a local level, and it's is so impressive.
"It's a model for many schools to follow. We're excited about the future here in how they conduct themselves on the ice and off."
"It seems like people here are engaged with the success of this hockey team," Kemp added. "Not just from the community perspective but the administration and the school. Everyone is doing what they can to put Bemidji State hockey on the map."
Although only two members of the league -- BSU and Minnesota State Mankato -- are in both men's and women's configurations of the WCHA, Kemp and Robertson both stressed the importance of improved exposure.
Robertson mentioned his background in public relations -- he's done PR seemingly for everybody, including the Minnesota Wild and the Xcel Energy Center, the Anaheim Angels and the U.S. Olympic Hockey teams -- as helpful to that cause.
"One of the big criterias for me in growing this league is exposure of this conference," he said. "There are still people who don't know all the schools in the WCHA, on the men's side at least. I think what we have to do as leaders in college hockey, we have to have staff who are willing to work in that realm and want to help grow. We have to do a great job in all the different media platforms that are available -- whether that's streaming, television, radio, internet or social media."
The men's league last year started a new streaming service through AmericaOne. Robertson said the streaming service was successful but needed a bigger marketing push -- which is something currently being discussed.
"We have several alliances in particular we're working on," he said. "I think media outlets are going to want it. The WCHA has to do a good job of promoting it. But we need to get it out there better, make sure people know they can buy it."
Kemp said the women's league was also looking into a similar service.
"It's something we're exploring," he said. "Hopefully we can put it in place a year or two down the road."
Kemp especially is aware of some of the challenges he faces as the women's commissioner. A former women's hockey coach at Mercyhurst, he knows all too well the dominance of a certain number of WCHA teams. He said he's trying to promote league parity while still making sure the league keeps its dominant stature nationally.
"That's a concern, and it's a challenge that's been brought to my attention since taking the job," he said. "I don't have an answer for that right away.
"We are fortunate that we have won 14 national titles out of 15. That is pretty impressive and I want to keep that going but if we can have more parity in the conference I think that would be great. It all starts with support of member institutions and communities."
He also said the league was looking into ways to get more of its member teams in the NCAA tournament -- a process complicated by the fact that College Hockey America will likely receive an automatic bid to the tournament.
"On the women's side it all comes down to the RPI and how our teams fit within our RPI," he said. "We've talked to the championship committee about how we can tweak those percentages to align more with the men, and if it makes much of a difference, they're willing to take a look and evaluate that.
"Right now we're looking at some potential scheduling agreements with other conferences to see how we fare in more arranged matchups."
Both Kemp and Robertson also noted the importance of the conference tournament experience.
Kemp said the women's Final Faceoff tournament -- which was held last season in Bemidji and will be in Grand Forks this season -- would be moved from a Friday/Saturday to a Saturday/Sunday format with looks to making it a "destination" event with youth hockey clinics, FanFests and entertainment.
"We want to make it more of an event than just a few hockey games," he said.
As for the men's marquee Final Five, Robertson said he was excited to see it return this year to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Last season's was held in Grand Rapids, Mich., and benefited from having nearby Ferris State in the finals. He said BSU and Minnesota State Mankato making it this season would help but he thinks people will come as long as there's good hockey.
"We've had meetings with Xcel about how to sell the tourney and how to package it properly," he said. "Ticket pricing will be a big component. We're trying to get youth hockey programs to the tourney. We obviously want television exposure. That's what I'm working out in the first few weeks on the job, trying to figure that model out with a committee of people from the league."