Last season was the first for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and not only did Josh Fenton help establish that league through assisting in the drafting of legal documents, he is also the conference’s first commissioner.
Fenton also helped secure the NCHC’s current television agreement with CBS College Sports.
Still just 35 year old, Fenton spent 11 years at Miami, starting as a volunteer assistant hockey coach in 2002 and ascending to senior associate athletic director before becoming commissioner’s prior to the 2013-14 season.
RedHawkey recently talked to the NCHC commissioner about a range of topics.
RH: So how was your first year as commissioner of the new league?
FENTON: It was quite enjoyable. It was a lot of work, but to be able to do something for the first time and establish a new history, a new tradition, a new level of excitement…made for a lot of fun. So we really enjoyed our first year.
RH: Do you encounter anything unexpected or was anything more difficult than envisioned in the league’s first season?
FENTON: What’s interesting is I’m not sure I had a whole lot of expectations for the things we were going to encounter during the course of the season, because number one, I’d never been through it personally or professionally, and number two, you go something for the first time as an organization, you’re always learning something new about yourself as an organization and maybe you professionally working in the organization. I think everything we did, we tried to plan as best we could for things that were upcoming and I think that helped us taking care of the unexpected things that may have come along the way.
RH: Having dealt with the league site frequently and having experienced the Frozen Faceoff in Minnesota, I thought the league did a phenomenal job. Especially, like you said, having gone through everything for the first time. Is there anything the league needs to improve on in your opinion?
FENTON: Certainly. I think there’s always areas for improvement, and that’s something that we always talk about. First, how do we provide a better experience for our students. So whether that’s through things we can do during the regular season – obviously our officiating program has a big impact on what happens on the ice, and so we want the officiating program to operate in a manner that’s fair and consistent. It’s easier said than done from an officiating standpoint, but it’s something that we take great pride in. I think that’s something that adds or detracts from the student experience on the ice.
And also from a marketing or promotional standpoint, we want to make sure we’re providing great promotion for our member institutions, which then has a trickle-down effect to our student athletes for each particular team. Hopefully, they can use that as a recruiting advantage, and so we’re always looking at ways we can enhance the promotion of teams and providing different ways our students can be showcased in positive manners.
And then obviously the experience that we can provide in the postseason tournament, whether it’s the first-round, campus-site series – although the institutions that host have a lot more control and input at that particular site than the conference does – or if it’s the conference championship at Target Center (in Minneapolis) with the Frozen Faceoff. Certainly that’s the event that we run every single year, kind of our crown jewel, if you will, and the be-all, end-all of the conference season. So the experience we can provide to the students that are fortunate enough to participate in that event is vitally important.
So it will always be about how we can enhance the student experience, secondly, how we can enhance fan experience. And I think what we tried to do over the past year was listen to fans and take feedback and input, be very open and honest and communicative with our fans, and I think people for the most part appreciated that.
We can improve upon some of the things from a technological standpoint. Whether it’s our Web site, enhanced social media – we just launched our Instagram account, so that’s a new thing with social media – whether that’s the television exposure we can provide our fans, not only in local and regional markets but across the country, we’re doing some different things there that will enhance their experience during the regular season on TV. And then certainly when they come to the arenas, what is the product that they’re viewing on the ice.
RH: Other than it being brutally cold in Minneapolis, were you happy with the way the first Frozen Faceoff went off at Target Center went this spring?
FENTON: Similar to the students, at the end of the year the fan experience is vital to building affinity and building the conference brand over time. We certainly want fans to enjoy what they experience in their own venue, but then when they come to Minneapolis we want that to be a destination event. We want them to circle that event of their calendar
and come down and have a great time and to be honest with you, regardless of the type of affinity they have to their particular program, come and support and be a part of it because it’s an exciting time to support college hockey and they know when they come to Minneapolis for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff they know they’re going to have a great time.
We’re working on a lot of enhancements as it relates to that particular event, tweaks to Fanfest, tweaks to the postgame party, some different things – in-game entertainment-wise – but a lot of those details will come together as the season progresses here.
RH: Having eight teams, it seems like what the NCHC has done with a playoff structure in terms of having campus series to cut the field to four and having those teams advance to Minneapolis like you have is the best format. Are you content with that format or do you see it changing at some point?
FENTON: Yeah, we’re very happy with it and we do see it continuing into the foreseeable future. Certainly things can change, but at this point in time the structure and what we discussed as a conference staff with our board of directors at our annual meeting in April was…we’re a little bit early in our history to be altering significant things that make up what we do in our conference, and the postseason structure is one of those things.
RH: Miami coach Enrico Blasi said last season that the current conference alignment is unviable and in the next five years teams will be moving to different conferences. For example, the WCHA now has Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska in Fairbanks and Alabama-Huntsville. Do you envision that affecting the NCHC, since some of the teams in other conferences do have a geographical proximity to NCHC member schools?
FENTON: I guess I would never say never in terms of it not changing again. I think there’s always that possibility. The realignment that college athletics in general went through the last few years – in particular at the multi-sport conference level – and then the trickle-down effect to our little world here of college hockey was pretty significant. I think people are still getting used to new partners, new alignments, new rivalries, so the possibility for further realignment is always there. Our focus has always been – we speak to our board of directors and our head coaches about this – we’ve got eight great institutions and we’ve got a great opportunity to create a great brand with the eight institutions that we have and that it’s my job to pay attention to the landscape in college hockey how and potential shifts in landscape would impact or affect the NCHC, but we really look at membership very closely in terms of how we’re strengthening our current membership.
RH: Because of the geographical location of the schools in this conference, there were rumblings about the additional travel and that maybe some schools weren’t totally prepared for that. Then again, Denver and Colorado College would probably say to suck it up because they’ve always had to fly everywhere. Is the extra travel just going to be a fact of life for conference members?
FENTON: It’s something I talk to our members about regularly. The conference sits somewhat removed from the campus as it relates to the actual travel-booking process and the participating in the travel. But the best thing we can do is, number one, understand what all of our members go through from a travel standpoint, number two, think of unique ways in which we may be able to help them, although that’s somewhat limited, and then just pay attention to how that travel is impacting or not impacting their overall experience. Sometimes a flight on a Thursday morning and a flight home on a Sunday after a series is better than a 10-hour bus ride. Some people may say that’s not the case. It’s the experience and the ease of travel that we need to continue to take a look at.
RH: As well as balancing that with travel expenses, I assume. As a season ticket holder at Miami I can vouch for substantial increases in ticket costs, which the university has flat-out told us is the direct result of the increased travel in conference play.
FENTON: No question, there’s certainly a financial consideration, and I know Miami and Western (Michigan) and the schools that were part of the WCHA in the past have all had to look at travel from a financial standpoint and adjust it in a manner that allows them to continue to travel in the ways they need to.
RH: Shifting gears to the recent rules changes announced by the NCAA. As a member of the rules committee I was hoping you could address a couple of them. First, the possibility of an interference major. Is that to give referees more leeway if someone gets taken out away from the play?
FENTON: That’s exactly right. It’s all about labeling, and it’s all about labeling correctly and making sure that when officials have options to label a penalty can label that penalty effectively. That particular play that you’re referencing didn’t give the official
a whole lot of flexibility in how to label that penalty and now this change does.
RH: About increases instant replay. If a goal is scored and there is reason to suspect a team was off-side or had too many men on the ice, now that can be reviewed starting this season.
FENTON: That was in place in the previous rulebook, so we clarified the language in the rulebook a little.
RH: If a player shoots a puck out of play in the offensive zone, the faceoff will now stay in that zone instead of coming to the neutral zone as it had previously. What’s the spirit of that change and does it open up the possibility that players exploit that by intentionally putting a puck out of play if they know they’ll keep the faceoff in the attacking zone?
FENTON: The rule previous was if a puck was shot with attempt toward the net and that puck left play without hitting a defender or hitting the goal post, that faceoff came outside of the zone. We’re taking it a step further, and somewhat in line with the NHL, saying if a shot is attempted toward the net – and that puck goes out of play, or frankly hits an offensive player, let’s say in front of the net and is deflected out of play – that faceoff will still stay in the zone. And the intent of the rule is to continue to reward offensive play and offensive opportunities to encourage more offensive play in the game and scoring opportunities.
Also, let me clarify: A puck that’s just dumped into the zone or chipped along the boards that’s not a shot toward the net that goes out of play, that faceoff does come outside the zone.
RH: The three-point system the NCHC is using for games – three for a win, one for a tie, zero for a loss and an extra point for a shootout win – was also used in the CCHA while you were at Miami, so is it safe to say you’re one of the people behind that?
FENTON: Yeah, when the shootout came into play and appeared it was going to be part of our game, we wanted to look at a point system that rewarded those that won a game in regulation of the five-minute overtime span and made up a little bit of that gap for those who win in a shootout and then also obviously provided a point for those that got to a shootout but lost a shootout.
RH: The coaches don’t have much of an appetite for four-on-four in overtime, which is something I’m a big fan of because it basically doubles the percentage of games that are decided in OT. What is the objection to adopting that format?
FENTON: We had an NHL representative in the room with us during the rules committee discussion and certainly four-on-four was a large part of the discussion as it has been in years past. It’s actually in the rule book to be allowed (by conferences), but it’s not a mandatory thing. If conferences want to deploy usage of four-on-four they certainly could. I think the biggest challenge from the coaching side of things, and it’s certainly valid, is that when you’re looking at statistical rankings from a national standpoint that select a field at the end of the year for the national tournament, you’re taking into account games that are won and lost in the same manner in overtime in the same manner that they’re won and lost in regulation. So I think the coaches’ concern and the concern of others is we get into a situation where we’re in overtime, but the game means the same as it does during the 60-minute regulation period, whereas if you look at the NHL model – and it’s completely different – but there is some reward for the teams at the end of regulation for the teams that are tied, and then they go to a four-on-four overtime and obviously a shootout after the fact if they’re still tied. But there’s some reward of getting to the end of regulation, so I believe our coaches would have probably more appetite for four-on-four overtime if it was looked at in a manner where the statistical rankings in terms of the PairWise provided some level of reward for teams that end regulation tied before they go into a four-on-four overtime.
RH: If that’s the argument against four-on-four for overtime, is it safe to say the NCAA will keep ties and is not prepared to allow shootouts to determine wins and losses any time soon?
FENTON: Yeah, I don’t see that being a huge factor within the national body from a mandatory standpoint. As you know, we only have two conferences in Division I men that use a shootout (Big Ten is the other), and obviously it’s only affecting points standings within that particular conference. I don’t anticipate that changing much into the future.
RH: Is there any discussion about incorporating outdoor games at the conference level or is that just going to be handled by the individual schools?
FENTON: There’s always discussion, and there always seems to be more and more talk about continuing outdoor games, although there’s been a lot written about and said that enough is enough, but we continue to have them. There’s certainly still a benefit to a lot of parties that are a part of them. The conference doesn’t get involved too
much in those discussions – those are typically done at the institutional level – but sometimes there are things that have to be cleared through the conference before moving forward with something like that. We haven’t had any real substantial discussions – at least in recent history here – of hosting something like that.
You can follow John on Twitter at @RedNBlackhawks .