Beyond the Press Box is a regular feature profiling the folks who color outside the lines of sport.
Interview by Kyle Magin
Josh Fenton is the commissioner of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference—a key cog in collegiate hockey (the best sport you’re not watching if you’re not watching it.) The NCHC just dropped the puck on its second season—it’s the product of a seismic re-shaping of the college hockey landscape. In 2011, Penn State announced it would start its own program and the Big 10 became the first ‘Power Five’ conference to sponsor a hockey league. The programs in the six-team league left some of the most august conferences in college hockey—scattering the rest of the schools in the process. The NCHC stepped in and created a college hockey powerhouse conference. Before its first season, Fenton, a former athletic admin with Miami (OH), took the job as the league’s first commissioner. He very generously answered our questions.
Josh Fenton: I grew up in the state of Minnesota, which as many know, has a great history and tradition of people following, participating and loving the game of hockey. My parents, neither of whom had a background or familiarity with playing the game, got me started playing at early age (around 5 years old). I grew up with a group of friends who also got involved in the game at an early age. We were very fortunate that all of us stuck with playing through high school, where we enjoyed success by participating in the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, which is one the most prolific sporting events in the country. (Ed’s note: Fenton isn’t blowing sunshine here. The tournament is better-attended than the Texas high school football playoffs in a state with a fifth of the population. Alums include Olympic heroes like Herb Brooks and TJ Oshie.)
I eventually ended up at Iowa State University. I played not hockey but rather Division 1 golf. My college golf career at Iowa State was short-lived and by my junior year I stopped playing competitive golf and focused more time on finishing my finance degree. Once I stopped playing competitive golf I started to get back involved with hockey again. I coached the Bantam A team in Ames, IA and eventually the high school team at Ames High.
Upon leaving ISU I moved back to Minneapolis and went to work for a worldwide consulting firm (Accenture). I continued to stay connected to the game by assisting with the Minnetonka Bantam program. About four or five months into my new job I knew that the job likely wasn’t going to be my career, which then started a desire to work in the game of hockey. Initially I wanted to become a college hockey coach, even though I knew it would be a long shot. Regardless, I sent letters to about 90 percent of the Division I college hockey programs, inquiring about becoming a volunteer/grad assistant coach with their programs. About 95 percent of the letters went unanswered. The other 4 percent were politely answered stating they already had the position covered. The one positive answer I received was from Miami University (OH). Marc Rogers was the gentlemen at Iowa State who indirectly helped me get started in the college game. Marc was a hockey player at St. Mary’s College (southeastern Minnesota) and had a teammate by the name of Steve Miller. Steve went on to become a long-time assistant coach to George Gwozdecky at Miami and the University of Denver (currently an assistant coach at Providence College). When Steve was a coach at Miami with George they coached a player named Rico Blasi (current Miami Head Coach). When I told Marc what I wanted to do to get in college hockey, he called Steve who eventually put me in touch with Rico at Miami.
I went to Miami in the fall of 2002 as a volunteer assistant coach. Most of my time was spent on video breakdown/analysis but also incorporated on-ice coaching. Video analysis for hockey around this time was beginning the transition to a digital world, where games could be captured, edited and showcased through a computer. Thus, I became very proficient with new digital editing software and became an integral part of Miami Hockey’s coaching tactics using technology. The experience with video editing even led to an opportunity working with the San Jose Sharks as the video coach during the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs. I likely would have stayed with the Sharks or possibly another NHL club for the ‘04-‘05 season as a full-time video coach but that was the year of the season-long lockout.
After I completed my Master’s degree I was hired at Miami in a full-time capacity, serving as the program’s first Director of Hockey Operations while working half my time in the Athletic Department for the corporate relations area (selling and fulfilling corporate partnerships). Eventually my time at Miami transitioned to more traditional Athletic Department administrative responsibilities. I spent a total of 11 years at Miami before I left in the summer of 2013 to take on the role I currently have. I owe a great deal to the people at Miami (including Brad Bates – Current Boston College AD, Rico and Steve Cady – Current Miami Senior Associate AD and founder of the hockey program) for my personal and professional development.
My opportunity to transition into the NCHC Commissioner role came because of my direct involvement of the NCHC’s formation and developing relationships with people who helped form the conference.
KM: Non-hockey fans may look at your league and not see a lot of names that stand out from college football or basketball. But, you’ve got multiple multiple-title winners, a lot of perennially-strong Frozen Four-caliber programs, the No. 1 team in the nation in North Dakota and numerous program alums in the NHL. Introduce the NCHC for someone who isn’t familiar with it.
JF: The NCHC is composed of eight excellent institutions of higher learning who have a long history and tradition with their men’s ice hockey programs at the NCAA Division 1 level. The conference came together in the summer of 2011–the member institutions include Colorado College, University of Denver, Miami University, University of Minnesota Duluth, University of Nebraska Omaha, University of North Dakota, St. Cloud State University and Western Michigan University. In their history our programs have won 17 Division I National Championships, competed in 51 Frozen Fours, and claimed 12 Hobey Baker Awards. We have some of the most storied programs in college hockey that make-up our conference. The conference completed its inaugural season during the 2013-2014 academic year. As of 12/8/14, the NCHC has five of eight teams ranked in the top 15 in the country.
KM: Your teams have exposure through CBS Sports Network for TV in addition to the Frozen Four if they get there. Are you looking at other avenues to get your programs in front of viewers? Is there enough interest in the sport where that kind of growth is possible?
JF: Exposure is very important concept to our membership, as stated under one of the commonalities of this conference being formed. Television is one manner in which we attempt to build our conference brand and fan affinity through exposure. We have a great tier-1 partner in CBS Sports Network that does terrific work helping expose and promote the conference to a national audience. The production quality of games done on CBSSN is second to none. Beyond CBSSN we have been able to expand regional and national distribution through a partnership with Fox Sports. We established a package of games being distributed on Fox Sports North (Minnesota’s FS affiliate), which is an important fan and recruiting market for our schools. Further we expanded ourselves nationally by elevating 19 games being done at the local and regional level and allowing the simulcast to take place over Fox College Sports.
With little to no rights fees being paid for content like college hockey (particularly nationally) it is important for us to find ways to create more traditional, linear distribution opportunities for fans regionally in our markets and across the country.
To augment what is already being done with television broadcasts we are also broadening our brand through non-linear/digital distribution of over 100 games during the season via our new digital network, NCHC.tv. NCHC.tv, a subscription based model, is providing us an opportunity to generate revenue we would not normally get from rights fee through television and also expand manners in which our fans can consume more NCHC content. Live and archived video (VOD) is featured on the platform with the live content living behind the subscription service and the majority of the VOD content being free to fans.
JF: Overwhelming, no but fun and challenging, yes! Anytime you do something from scratch it takes a tremendous amount of time to establish infrastructure and policies and procedures as to how the conference will operate. Our inaugural year was spent doing things for the first time, which may have taken us a little longer than if we had been operating within an organization already established. It has been extremely exciting to be a part of something that was started at the ‘ground level’ and be able to mold and shape it for success long into the future.
KM: I was able to watch Western Michigan play last year at Comerica Park in Detroit in an outdoor game and it’s a great experience to watch hockey outside. During your time at Miami (OH) you arranged for the RedHawks to play at Soldier Field in Chicago. Is outdoor hockey a fad or something you see staying around for a while?
JF: I believe this question has now been asked and debated many times for over 5-7 years, given the amount of outdoor hockey you see in the NHL or at other elite levels. Many have said that it is too ‘watered down’ or that we are doing too much of it. However, the popularity and success of outdoor hockey continues to remain strong (Ed’s note: Again, no sunshine from Fenton here. The 25 most highly attended hockey games, ever, have been at outdoor stadiums and mostly within the last decade). It continues to provide great experiences for fans, student-athletes, and other participants. In our conference, we are very focused in our conference on providing rewarding and great experiences for both our student-athletes and fans. Outdoor hockey games are a way in which you can provide a life-enriching experience for both groups. Although the games should be scheduled and managed in a strategic way, I believe outdoor hockey is a terrific thing for the exposure of our sport and also provides an avenue to great experiences for many important constituent groups we serve every day.
KM: The Big 10’s six-team hockey league spelled the end for the old CCHA (Ed: a league anchored in the Midwest combining B1G, MAC and squads from across a number of other conferences). Do you think the conference having its own league is a good thing for the sport of college hockey?
JF: Any time our sport can allow for expansion and growth it is a good thing for college hockey. With only 59 Division I teams currently, we are still a small and niche sport compared to many within the NCAA structure. Therefore, things that encourage and promote growth are benefits to our game. The Big Ten provides all of us a tremendous opportunity to enhance the overall national profile of the sport across the country, particularly through the power of media (e.g. television and media coverage). Having a ‘Power 5’ conference sponsoring men’s ice hockey is unprecedented in the history of our game but is something that I believe will only strengthen and encourage growth into the future.
KM: Putting fans in seats has been a historic struggle for some college hockey teams, including a few teams in your league. What’s the NCHC and the sport in general doing to expand its appeal to fans?
JF: First, I should start off by stating that we regularly have five to six of our programs in the top 10-15 in the country for percent of capacity in overall attendance most years. Second, and more importantly, I believe this question is not specific to hockey but rather fan attendance at many sporting events across our country. Not that long ago, we used to just open the doors to the venue for a game and fans would attend, without them asking for much other than a competitive game to watch. I believe a societal shift in how people live their lives, particularly with an influx of technology and media expansion over the past 15 years, has caused us to really think about what strategies we deploy to encourage attendance at athletic events. Some of the most storied Division I athletic departments around the country are struggling to fill stadiums even though the programs are still very competitive. Much has been written about the significant increase on television (and to some extent now digital viewing) opportunities to watch games rather than attend in-person, which certainly has something to do with our change in fan behavior. However, that can only be used as an excuse by us in the industry. Increased television opportunities have brought additional exposure to build a brand and in many cases are enhancing revenue streams with the influx of rights fees being paid. Many college sporting entities rely upon the in-arena/stadium attendance to maintain and grow revenue and also provide great environments for student-athletes to have memorable experiences while competing. The bottom line is that entities, like our conference with the Frozen Faceoff (the NCHC’s Minneapolis-based tournament) or schools with their home games, must continue to provide engaging and fun experiences, while providing a great product on the ice, so that fans will want to be a part of the in-arena experience.
KM: A few very high-end facilities have come online in college hockey in the last few years—the new arenas at Penn State and Notre Dame immediately come to mind. Is there an arms race going on in the sport when it comes to facilities?
JF: I would not call it an ‘arms race’ but rather the importance many institutions in our sport are placing on providing their student-athletes and fans a great experience. Certainly there is an aspect that relates to recruiting and attracting the best possible talent to consider your institution for a degree and to play hockey. However, I look at new construction and renovations of hockey facilities in a similar manner to how an entire University or business views their physical infrastructure over time. In order to attract top students/employees, maximize efficiency and productivity, and give your organization the best change for overall success you must have a physical infrastructure that allows you to accomplish these objectives. Therefore, if we are placing institutional importance on student-athlete experience and part of that experience is maximizing our competitiveness, it is a normal part of the process that institutions are doing what they can to enhance physical spaces.
College hockey is no different than any other sport in college athletics, what transpires in a business or within the general university. Investing in physical structures is appropriate and necessary to ensure success can be maximized.
KM: What’s your favorite rink in the NCHC?
JF: Ha! Loaded question! I do believe we have the best collections of facilities in our conference compared to the rest of college hockey. However, what makes each facility unique and great are the passionate fan bases that fill those venues every weekend!
KM: Should the NHL continue to allow its players to participate in the Olympics?
JF: This is a complex question with a lot of moving parts. I believe the NHL (and to some extent NHLPA) gets some undeserved bad press when this question is posed and they provide an answer. I definitely want to see the best players in the world continue to compete at the ‘pinnacle’ of international competition. However, I’m sensitive to the topics that make this a complex issue with the National Hockey League, including a lengthy break as they begin the ‘stretch run of their season,’ having limited opportunities to use the Olympic Games as a manner to promote and grow the popularity of the league, and many other complex issues. I know NHL players who have an opportunity to participate in the Olympics love the experience and I hope that can continue into the future.
KM: How’s your golf game these days? Scratch?
JF: I wish! With a family that includes two small boys and working within the college athletic profession for the past 12.5 years, my golf game has not been a priority, which is OK with me. I do enjoy getting out there to play but I am reminded often that my game is not where it once was many years ago. Maybe someday I can get back into ‘golfing shape!’
KM: What book(s) are you reading now?
JF: The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni – for those who are really into reading books on management, organizational culture/health, and business operations, this is a must read. I consider Jim Collins’ books, Built to Last and Good to Great to be timeless pieces but Lencioni does a terrific job constructing a book from his previous publications that ranks right next to Collins’ work.