State of the Game
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
In Part II of our "State of the Game" series, we speak to Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. The one-time Harvard goaltender is starting his ninth season as full-time commissioner of Hockey East, after previously having worked in the ECAC.
CHN: Things seem pretty quiet so far. What are the big issues out there that you see.
Bertagna: The hitting from behind is an emphasis that's important. There's a lot of talk about how many hitting from behind penalties there have been. I'm not sure you can argue with paying attention to the potential downside of those hits, but there are always issues there.
CHN: I guess there's concern players can turn into hits.
Bertagna: We tell players, when you approach an opponent between you and the boards, he may turn, but it's your responsibility to be under control. We could back off, but you can't send mixed signals to the refs because the first time someone gets really hurt and you've called off the dogs, how do we feel?
What's helped is the NHL. The NHL's crackdown — which is not to be confused with what we're doing ... it's a bit more pervasive — but the presence of it is good for us. It takes the "special-ness" off it of people trying to regain the rulebook. People made (the college hockey initiative) a bigger thing than it actually was. We focused on three (obstruction) situations and taking the discretion away from referee. (In the NHL) any time anyone lays a stick on somebody, they're approaching even closer to zero tolerance than we are. We have noticed very specific situations.
We're expanding it to include faceoff interference ... and what I've termed "situational standards." The standard for a cross-checking (has been) different for a guy killing a penalty. He's been given a little more leeway in front of the net. The culture has frowned upon (calling it). They'll say, "He put us down 5-on-3." The referee didn't put you down, the player did. We told the referees, define in your mind what you think a hook is, what interference is, and once you're comfortable with it, call it all the time.
CHN: The faceoff interference is interesting. Some teams have perfected that.
Bertagna: Yes. But there's a difference between interference and two guys just moving laterally into a space. Both players have a right to that space. ... One thing we've done is said a larger, stronger player should not be unduly penalized. We told the refs, make sure you see the infraction. Don't assume because a guy is down it's a penalty.
When you can get refs and coaches in the same room, it's a good thing. You can hear the guys express legitimate concerns in a calm environment. And the other thing is, the act of seeing the other side as a normal individual, and not with their Sat. night personalities.
CHN: There has been chatter about the new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement and the August 15 (deadline for signing seniors) date which may cause players to leave early. What kind of talks have you had on this?
Bertagna: Certain guys under any CBA — (Jimmy) Howard, (Patrick) Eaves — there was talk in the last two years that these guys wouldn't stick around. It probably plays a factor in some guys. We might have been looking at our first All-Star team. ... The spin you put on it as a league is, it says something as a league that you're able to attract these guys.
CHN: What about the recent developments with the CHA, and not being able to land a sixth team? (Kennesaw State was thinking of joining, but cancelled its plans. If the CHA can't maintain six teams, it would lose its NCAA automatic bid).
Bertagna: I was surprised. From talking to (CHA commissioner) Bob (Peters), I thought it would happen. So it's a little discouraging. ... I don't know what we can do. Everybody wants to see six solid leagues, but in the end it comes down to the schools and what's right for them. Don't indict schools that make decisions in the best intersets for their campuses. It's not like you're a major league baseball office that creates a new division. Schools can do whatever they want. We wish it played out where six leagues kept stability.
CHN: But if the CHA can't maintain an autobid, there is talk that schools could drop programs, and that would ripple through college hockey.
Bertagna: Believe me, nobody's being cavalier about it. It could lead to programs being dropped. I don't want to be seen that I'm cold to that fact. But I do bristle — there's so much emotions around the issue sometimes. Schools that are moving or won't move (get criticized). We've got to understand, most decisions are made on the presidential level.
One other thing to keep an eye on. There's NCAA legislation proposed that would eliminate the phone call to a (high school) junior. The hockey community didn't know anything about it. The proposal would remove it for any sport but football and basketball. There are some pieces of legislation that give waivers for football, basketball and hockey, such as the (one-year) transfer rule. This issue, we never had a chance to talk about it. Given that best players have a choice (of college or major junior), the ability to have that phone call is more important than even those sports (basketball and football). We're not even giving those kids a chance to hear about us.
CHN: But the NCAA usually, once hockey says something, has been accomodating to taking their concerns into consideration in the past, right?
Bertagna: The problem is, basketball and football interests are pretty well represented (on NCAA committees). We're always hearing about it through the grapevine and playing catch-up. It's not that they're out to get hockey, they just don't know. Thankfully, on the Management Council this year is Bob Driscoll from Providence and Joel Maturi from Minnesota. So they can make some noise, hopefully.