Q&A with .... College Hockey Inc.'s Mike Snee
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Mike Snee was selected to be the next Executive Director of College Hockey Inc. He comes from Minnesota Hockey, where many of the principles of outreach and education will apply to his new role.
CHN: Talk about your role with Minnesota Hockey, and how you see what you did applying to your new role.
Snee: Minnesota Hockey is the largest state affiliate of USA Hockey — 67,000 members. We have a staff of two people. We report to a volunteer board and oversee the state's community-based structure. It's unique in Minnesota, because you play for the community you live in and not a [Midget AAA] team. You essentially play for your town all the way up. That's our model. What we truly believe that model does is, it first encourages more people to play hockey. There are so many ice sheets in this state and almost all but literally two or three of the full-size sheets are municipally owned, which means that ice time is a lot more plentiful and a lot less expensive. And that's the foundation of it — plus that it's cold. It has allowed hockey to become part of the culture. It's so tied into the community.
Somewhere along the way, I can't say when, the group realized there's a threat here. There's a small but vocal group that want to mimic Detroit's model, for example, which is different — good, bad or whatever, it's different. The AAA concept. You lose the community boundaries, you lose the community support, it costs more. For many reasons, hockey becomes a lot more expensive, more time consuming and it loses a little bit of that — "I'm from Cloquet, go play for Cloquet" — that helps us get families and kids to play hockey.
So that was the role, to continually promote the sport and our model of the sport to our members, so we could ensure it's the one that continues to flourish.
CHN: Is that hard to replicate in other states?
Snee: This is the way our state developed. In other places that maybe would wish they could have it this way, it's quite unrealistic. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube ... I was reading an article on the Twin Cities adding another light rail line. They were comparing it to the subway in New York and Boston. But those lines grew as people grew, and people followed that because that's how everyone moved around the city. So the city grew wherever they put the tracks. But here, the city is already grown out and now is trying to retrofit, and it's quite impossible. Hockey is similar, because this works because it's what we've done from day one, and it's authentic. Neither I nor anyone on the board had anything to do with creating it, but we recognized how special it is, and the threat to it.
Our point [in Minnesota] is to say, your child will reach their full dvelopment potential in this model. So it's similar to college hockey. You're speaking to a 13-year old who has some ability, and deciding what he's going to do with his hockey future, and lettting them know that this player will reach his full potential having college hockey be a significant part of his development path. It doesn't mean he'll make the NHL, but he will reach his potential. And aside from that, you get all else that goes with collegiate athletics.
There are so many wonderful things with college hockey that you don't need to point out any perceived weaknesses with other development paths. You don't need to get into dirty mudslinging. You just need to praise your plan. The number of key decision makers in the NHL — in the [Minnesota] Wild office, the top five people on the management side all have a collegiate background. That only will grow, not shrink. We don't need to create the message, we just need to continue it.
And another you get in Minnesota is that kids play multiple sports. ... Two of the best receivers in the history of high school football in Minnesota [are Paul Martin and Blake Wheeler]. In Pennsylvania, if you're going to be a hockey player at that age, it requires you having to away somewhere. You're not going to continue to play high school football. [Hobey winner] Jack Connolly couldn't have grown up with a more sheltered Minnesota hockey life, but he was one of the best soccer players in the state. He may not end up in the NHL, but if not, it's not because he didn't play AAA.
CHN: Like you said, it's similar to the education you're trying to do in college hockey. Yet there are so many that remain convinced that major junior is a better development path. That's your challenge.
Snee: I've been thinking about a lot of these things a long time, and I see major junior put down college hockey. And my opinion is that they don't think they have enough to praise about themselves. It's like democrats and republicans — they don't have plans, so it's easier to bash the other guy. I'm raising no one's kids but my own, so I would never tell an individual family it's a bad decision to play junior, because you have to make that decision on your own, but overall, statistically we can college hockey is a great route.
CHN: What is your role, then, in this whole drama?
Snee: Certainly in the first many weeks on the job, I'm going out and visiting with the commissioners, coaches, ADs, and other important folks involved, because I do have a lot of ideas. I'm still two weeks from starting the job. So these are just ideas. Some might be validated, some of them we'll laugh at, and there may be others that I haven't even thought of. So this is not my *plan*. But at the core, this job is about educating, and making sure a family that's going to make a decision like this, whatever decision they make, they can make the best decision. From what I've been told, there's still a fair number of people that don't have all that information at a critical point. I've got to believe that since College Hockey Inc. has been formed, there's been wonderful progress made because of what Nate [Ewell] and Paul [Kelly] have done, so it's continuing that education.
CHN: Is there a place to reach out to the CHL and have a dialogue? Do you see that being something you'd want to do or that would be productive?
Snee: I would certainly think so. At its core, they develop great hockey players and great people. It's not, as I say, our widget's great and everyone else's is not. It's — let's make sure everyone has the facts about our widget and they decide what's best for them. So there's certainly a place to have a very positive relationship with anyone involved in the development of young players. They'll all bring certain biases and objectives, that's understood, that's how life is. But the outcome we all want is more hockey played by more people, and people reaching their full potential.
CHN: Have you formed an opinion on whether there are any feasible ideas that could alleviate poaching of college players by major junior teams?
Snee: There are so many great things to focus on in college hockey, I reallly think the answer is to continue to increase the education. If we do that, if we nail that — I don't want to say it will be just fine, because I think we already are — but it will continue to get better and moving in the right direction. It's not like I'm joining a business that's going down. That's my focus at this point, and I start in 2 1/2 weeks, and I haven't had about 52 conversations I want to have.
CHN: What do you want to know [about the landscape] that you don't already?
Snee: In Minnesota, we have a lot of different folks, they all want the same outcome, but they're coming from different situations and have different issues. There's four types — there's the classic, thriving Northern traditional hockey town; then you have the traditional town that is struggling, not what they once were, for population reasons or whatever; then the traditional places that were top places and still are, like Edina, Minnetonka, White Bear Lake; then there's new, developing hockey towns, like Marshall, that don't have much history but are creating it. Each of those four has different threats, opportunities, but have different ways of getting there and different priorities.
So I'd imagine Boston College has different issues than Canisius, and Canisius has different priorities than Air Force. But they all ultimately want the same thing. I want to understand what those are, and put a plan together on how we can accomplish that. In the end, what we're doing is promoting college hockey.
CHN: The catch-22 is, there's a misconception publicly to just how much this position can do. Not to downplay it, but, for better or worse, you can't be Gary Bettman. Ultimately, the power to do major things like move conferences, TV contracts, and other matters that effect college hockey, lies with the schools. Have you discussed the role, and what it is and what it isn't?
Snee: I can't answer that, not having done it. I took the job, so that says a lot. I took it by leaving a place that I love. I certainly wasn't looking for a new job. I wasn't going to take something that was just pretty good. The only thing to motivate me leaving was something I believe in. If i didn't think I could make a big impact, I wouldn't take it.
The word I'd fall back on is "education." It's not rule making. We're not putting up barriers. We're an advocacy group for college hockey. And most accomplishments aren't done from one year to the next. It's a process.
CHN: The big thing right now is the NHL and what can be done there. But can you gauge how much influence college hockey can really have there?
Snee: I wouldn't point to an unintended consequence and say they don't care about college hockey. (Snee is referring to the thought that the last Collective Bargaining Agreement would help college hockey, only to see it go the other way. -ed.). GMs understand college hockey is important, but they have limitations and certain things they're going to be judged on. ... I believe this can be impactful, and we can get it to a better place.
I expressed some ideas [about approaching the NHL] when I was meeting with the board. And I assume, because they offered [the job] to me that they like what I had to say, so I have some confidence in that. I talked to some [NHL executives], so I feel good personally where I'm at, but I'm not at a point where I can publicly say what will happen. But clearly it will be a process.
CHN: The question is whether it's too late to impact the current CBA talks?
Snee: I don't know. ... When I look at how things happen at the state capital and how laws are made, and how things come together in the last minute — I'd like to contonue to try to have a voice with that group as they look towards a solution. But I don't believe that whatever happens this time, that's it. It will be a continual process, building a relationship. And if you really want a strong answer, [College Hockey Inc.] is around because of the NHL. Follow the path of the funding. They're saying, "Your interests are important."
I have a lot of experience with USA Hockey. ... When you boil it down, if your association can get two more kids, and keep two more kids that maybe were going to quit — if your association does it and every association does it, your impact is tremendous.