February 24, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Between the Lines: The Disconnect

Kelly Illuminates Rift Between Coaches, Commissioners

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

The firing of Paul Kelly from his post as executive director of College Hockey Inc. continues to generate conversation.

Kelly took exception to the portrayal of him as a renegade going around the system to try to gain more authority. In an interview with Chris Peters, he acknowledges that he was trying to explore, or set up, an entity that was not under the auspices of the Hockey Commissioners Association, but instead was an independent singular authority overseeing college hockey. But he insists that it was just exploratory and at the coaches' urging.

It's possible that previous characterizations exaggerate what actually took place. But clearly the commissioners perceived his cumulative actions as insubordination or they wouldn't have fired him.

We're not interested, however, in the personal issues. We respect Paul Kelly and his work greatly, just as we respect the coaches and commissioners. Whether this theoretical new entity was being arranged to give Paul Kelly/CHInc. more authority or someone else, that's just semantics at this point.

More importantly, there are larger issues to address. Going forward, Mr. Kelly's firing and his response illuminates an apparent conflict between the coaches and commissioners over the direction of college hockey.

With all due respect to the coaches, this consternation is mis-directed.

Kelly acknowledges that he and the coaches believe that the commissioners are getting in the way of progress. In the interview, Kelly said:

“Having commonly five conferences, soon to be six conferences, and you may one day have the Ivy League spinning out for seven conferences, what you get is very parochial interests."

The parochialism that Mr. Kelly mentions is indeed unfortunate. We have all lamented it many, many times ourselves. But it's not the commissioners getting in the way of peace and harmony between all the hockey-playing schools — it's the schools themselves.

If the coaches want to all cooperate and be on the same page, and discard the parochial interests, that's awesome. But it wasn't Joe Bertagna's fault that Nebraska-Omaha decided to bolt the CCHA for the WCHA, and then bolt the WCHA for the NCHC. It isn't Steve Hagwell's fault that Michigan won't play at Lynah Rink. It isn't Bob DeGregorio's fault that the Big Ten came into existence. And it isn't Fred Pletsch's fault that the NCAA — i.e. the schools — legislated full face shields.

No one denies that what Paul Kelly was trying to do would be good for college hockey. No one denies that what the coaches want would be good for college hockey — things that are for the benefit of everyone as a whole and not just the select few.

Who among us wouldn't love that?

But there needs to be a major reality check here.

When have the schools themselves ever had a consensus on anything? And does anyone honestly believe that the schools would give up their authority to a singular entity overseeing one sport?

— Which school is going to give up its authority to do its own television contracts? How did that work with Notre Dame?

— Which school is going to give up its authority to make its own schedule? Which entity is going to convince Michigan to play a pair of games at Dartmouth next season?

— Which school is going to give up its authority to decide what conference it wants to be in? Which entity was going to stop Nebraska-Omaha from going to the WCHA? Which entity was going to force the CCHA to take in Alabama-Huntsville?

— Which entity is going to stop the NCHC schools from breaking off to form a new conference? The schools apparently did this because they were dissatisfied with commissioner Bruce McLeod, even though the schools themselves hold the authority to fire Bruce McLeod. What does that mean? It means that the WCHA schools could not agree on whether to fire Bruce McLeod.

If it won't do these things, then what would this singular entity do?

I disagree with Mr. Kelly when he says:

“[The commissioners] are looking at these developments through the lens of their conference, their region of the country. They’re not looking at it through the lens of the greater good, the long-term best interest of the sport as a whole and that’s what concerns the coaches.”

In my experience, time and again the commissioners group has gone to bat for college hockey as a whole. That's the whole reason why it was formed.

Again, it's the schools themselves that ultimately dictate what is happening, and the schools themselves don't agree. This point can't be hammered home enough.

Certainly the coaches are all in agreement that Paul Kelly was doing good things, but to say they all agree on everything would be incorrect. Coaches have always been split, for example, on whether major junior players should retain NCAA eligibility. The commissioners were ready to go to bat for the coaches with the NCAA many times to change the eligibility rules, but the coaches couldn't reach a consensus themselves.

Are there individual commissioners to gripe about? Well, yes. It's no secret that a large portion of WCHA people are displeased with Bruce McLeod as commissioner. But he's an example that proves the point. A) if they are so displeased, then why couldn't the schools all agree to fire him? Why did it take forming a new conference to get away from him? and B) It was indeed very disappointing when Bruce McLeod wouldn't have a conversation with then-CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos on how to best handle Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha. But Anastos and the other commissioners did have the best interest of college hockey as a whole in mind. They were the ones trying.

Again, we could not sympathize more with the frustration there must be in getting universally good things accomplished. But the frustration lies with the schools, each with their own agendas, and not the commissioners.

Hopefully someone can keep going with all of the good work Kelly was doing — meeting with the NHL and NHLPA to work on issues, continuing with the marketing and educational efforts, holding player evaluation camps, pressing the NCAA on legislation that college hockey wants.

But college hockey is never going to work like the NHL or CHL. To hope otherwise is just a fantasy.

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