What other things are on Jeff Fanter’s mind? Are there more items on the agenda that he wishes to pursue? If so, how will he address them? How is he working with his predecessor, Joe Bertagna? How is he handling Division III schools and women’s leagues?
The ECAC always had one of the most unusual playoff structures in all of college hockey. In the past few years, the format has allowed ten of the twelve league teams to participate in the playoffs — the four teams finishing at the top of the standings earned home ice for a quarterfinal series, the next two teams received a road quarterfinal series, and the last four teams played in a Tuesday-night preliminary game. That setup created a situation where almost everyone was always playing for something.
That all changed last fall, when the ECAC adopted a five-series playoff structure identical to the WCHA’s. In that system, five first-round winners advance to the championship tournament, with the fourth and fifth seeds squaring off in a play-in game on the first night, and then the two semifinals the next day.
The change was already in the works when Fanter took office, and he followed it up with the finalization of the new structure and called WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod for advice.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the switch was the coaches’ hatred for the Tuesday preliminary game; still, there are a lot of critics of the new playoff structure, but Fanter sees positives for the ECAC, Lake Placid and the teams.
“You have to look at the big picture,” he said. “What happens when you get five teams at Lake Placid? You don’t know what it’s all about until you get there. I don’t know if there is any championship out there that has the aura of Lake Placid.
“Can the CCHA come in and take over Detroit? No. (The ECAC tourney is) the biggest thing going on (at Lake Placid).”
The new playoff structure also makes for new twists to both the regular season and the playoffs.
“If you finish in the top 10, you know your next step could be Lake Placid,” Fanter said. “I think there is more to fight for out there in the regular season now.
“It gives the school that traditionally may have been in the eighth spot a chance to get to Placid,” he added. “Take Union (which finished fifth last season), for example. They would have been in great shape to go to Placid.”
Fanter also points out another advantage to the new arrangement. “Why not reward the three teams that finish up top?”
“You also really reward your regular-season champion. Their first opponent at Placid is coming off a game the night before, and then they (only) need to win one more,” he added. “We’re giving our regular-season champion the best opportunity to get a bye in the NCAA Championships.”
One of the biggest efforts Fanter has undertaken is the push to get more sponsors for the ECAC, all of which go hand-in-hand.
“We’ve opened some sponsors’ eyes with the combination of Empire and NESN, and we hope that spells more sponsors,” he said. “At this point we have more sponsors for ECAC ice hockey than we ever have. It shows that we’re on the right course.”
The ECAC versus Hockey East
“I don’t play the game of (the ECAC) versus Hockey East because I think we need to promote Eastern college hockey and that’s what we’re going to do. I can sit here and rattle off all the numbers about how the ECAC dominated Hockey East last year, but I don’t know what good that does us. We’re not going head to head, ECAC vs. Hockey East. We need to get over that and look at the big picture.
“We’ve got a clear vision ahead of us,” he added. “We want to talk about what the ECAC does on a national level and not what it does against just Hockey East. That’s the game plan that we’re going to take in the future.”
Speaking of Hockey East, that league’s new commissioner is Joe Bertagna, the man whom Fanter succeeded. He is also a man whom a lot of people believed was ECAC Hockey, and still more believe that he is college hockey. Fanter sees Bertagna as a guiding force in his new position.
“I want to thank Joe for what he has done for me,” he said. “We got to know each other at Colgate, and now he’s been great. We’re consistently bouncing ideas off each other. It’s good that we’ve got two people out there. The combination of Joe and I has never been done before. We’ll have a great relationship in the future.
“He had things so organized, and we have such a relationship that I can just pick up the phone and ask him questions. We both talk a lot about promoting college hockey in the East. We don’t talk about how Hockey East can promote itself so it does better than the ECAC and vice versa, and we’re both on the same page.”
There is no competition here either, just respect.
“We work together all the time, and from a commissioner’s standpoint, Clay Chapman has been my number-one mentor and Joe has been 1A,” he said.
That cooperation has already led to the creation of a holiday hockey festival at Madison Square Garden featuring two teams from each conference, beginning next season.
The ECAC is the largest of the Division I conferences at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that expansion isn’t a possibility.
“We have a structure in the ECAC called the Future Growth Committee,” said Fanter. “(Expansion) is for them to discuss. A school may come to me and ask how (it) can be a member of the ECAC, and it goes through them. We talk about them — the decisions are not made by me as the commissioner, but by the 12 athletic directors.”
With the explosive growth of ice hockey at the collegiate level, there are more and more teams out there that might want to be a part of the ECAC. One of those schools might be Niagara.
“I’m sure we’ll get a letter from Niagara’s athletic director,” said Fanter. “And then it will go to a committee. I won’t go on record to say whether or not we’ll add teams. That’s not my decision.”
There is also the formation of the MAAC conference in ice hockey, and Fanter sees an important role for himself in the success of the MAAC.
“When we find out who the commissioner is there, we’ll be picking up the phone to call them,” he said. “That’s key because we need to keep everyone on board with the big picture. I want to be a source for them to grow. Joe and I want to be there to help them grow.”
There has also been talk over the past few years of teams leaving the ECAC. For example, note the public flirtation a few years ago between Rensselaer and Hockey East.
“I’ve talked to coaches, and people aren’t talking about (leaving) anymore,” he said. “People are excited about what the future is going to hold for this league. People are saying that we don’t have a problem with what’s going on on the Cape anymore. Joe didn’t want to live on the Cape, that was his choice. I live here on the Cape, I work in these offices, and it makes a difference, I’ve seen it. So what’s happened before, let’s not talk about that anymore, it’s old news. Our coaches and administrators aren’t talking about it.
“This is my show, along with all the administrators and the coaches out there, and we’re running this league the way we want it to be run, and people are happy now,” he added. “Things happened in the last few years that people have had grudges about, but it’s going to change and it’s going to change in the next three years — no ifs, ands or buts.
“I can tell you right now that there is no talk with my teams of anyone leaving.”
The ECAC has had a storied tradition in the past, and Fanter wants to carry it on.
“I want to be able to talk about the tradition of the league because some of it has been lost in recent years,” he said. “We have Hobey Baker winners, we have national champions, we have had great teams go through here. We’re going to have those teams again, we’re going to have a national champions, we’re going to have a Hobey Baker winner.
“And when that happens, because we’ve done our homework with the media, and we’ve talked about the tradition, people won’t say `Who is this guy and where does he play?’”
“There’s no league out there that can say they have the history that we do,” said Fanter. “We need to bring back the tradition of this league, and it’ll open people’s eyes. We’ve lost that tradition recently.”
The other six leagues
Let’s not forget the other six leagues of ECAC ice hockey. In addition to the Division I men’s league, the ECAC is also comprised of the ECAC East, ECAC West, ECAC North/Central/South, ECAC SUNY, Women’s League and the Women’s Alliance.
Fanter was hired to oversee all seven leagues, though there has been a lot of talk of consolidation, restructuring or dissolution of the Division III conferences.
“I have 80 other teams that I am commissioner of,” he said. “I can go to a sponsor with 92 teams — Division I, II, III, and women’s leagues — and it opens more eyes than the other three conferences can. When you go to an equipment sponsor and you tell them you have 92 teams to work with, they listen to you.
“I’m pretty sure all 92 of those teams have to wear helmets, pads and jerseys when they are out there, he added. “These other 80 teams are helping us in our marketing, and I don’t think it cheapens the product at all.”
Fanter has a plan for the other leagues as well.
“My focus is to let people know what is going on,” he said. “For example, Middlebury is the three-time national champion, and women’s ice hockey is huge, especially after the Olympics. It’s just a matter of informing people right now.
“It’s been a poor job at the top in the way that it was done. We’ve changed that completely, tenfold, on the work that we’ve done with Division III and women’s hockey. They’ve never gotten the attention that we are giving them, and they are loving it.
Of course, nobody in men’s hockey cared more about the women’s programs than Bertagna. But with 92 teams to oversee, Bertagna had enough of dealing with it all on his own. It must be a tough job for one person to handle — except, perhaps, for the un-shy Fanter.
“No it’s not,” said Fanter. “I’m very well organized and that’s why I got this job, and that’s why I was the most qualified candidate for this job. Period.”
The ECAC is in a new era with Jeff Fanter as its new ice hockey commissioner. There are critics who say age and experience made Fanter a questionable choice, but in the end, results are the only thing that matter.
“I think you’re going to see people in the age group of 25-30 start to be the leaders in college hockey, and they’re going to make the difference,” he said. “I am the first full-time commissioner that the ECAC has had, and it’s made a difference.
“On the average we get two calls a day that say, `Hey you’re doing a great job,’ and, `We didn’t realize what the ECAC has to offer college hockey and we’re seeing it now.’”
Fanter is trying to make a difference in the ECAC, and only time will tell if he succeeds.
“I’m trying to get out as much as I can to talk to fans, media, administrators and support groups to let them know what we’re doing here,” he said. “It’s never been done before. It’s not real hard to make a real difference.
“We’re making the difference and people are taking notice. It’s not going to happen overnight, (but) people are saying, `I can’t wait to see three years from now what you have accomplished.’”