The Commish, Part 1

In many ways, Joe Bertagna was ECAC hockey.

Over the course of 15 years, he ran the full gamut of positions in the conference, going from tournament director to public relations coordinator to sports information director to its first hockey commissioner. His footprints surrounded everything from the ECAC television packages to its corporate sponsorships to its playoff home in Lake Placid, N.Y.

On February 26, all that changed.

Hockey East announced that Bertagna would become its fourth commissioner and its first to serve in essentially a full-time capacity.

“They’re looking at me as the first full-time commissioner even though I’m full-time in hockey, but not necessarily for the league,” he says. “I do a lot of things.”

Such as running his popular goaltending schools and serving as Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association, a position he’s held since 1984. In the latter role, he has recently helped develop an eye-catching “college hockey calling card” that espouses the virtues of the game for mailings to potential sponsors and players who might be considering forfeiting their NCAA eligibility to play in Canadian major junior leagues.

Despite these sidelines, he still ranks as a significant departure from his Hockey East predecessors. Lou Lamoriello and Bob DeGregorio both were full-time athletic directors at member schools, and Stu Haskell doubled as commissioner of the North Atlantic Conference. Bertagna becomes the league’s first commissioner for whom the job draws unquestioned top billing.

“Everybody involved in our sport feels passionately about what the quality of our product is,” Bertagna says. “We don’t think we have to spend a lot of time justifying how exciting college hockey is. Certainly, if you go to a BU-Maine game or Clarkson-St. Lawrence, it’s quite an evening. We like our product. We feel it’s just a matter of getting people exposed to it.”

The SportsChannel Package

The importance of a commissioner struck home for Hockey East schools last year when New England Sports Network abruptly canceled its television contract, a shocker that some felt might have been avoided if not for the year-long void in the commissioner’s office.

“It was during my interview process that NESN dropped Hockey East,” Bertagna says. “One of the attractive things for me here had been the TV package. With the ECAC, we always had to pay to get on. The irony was that I was going to take the job, but we weren’t going to have TV. It was a PR blow, so I knew one of the first priorities was to get television back.

“I’d like to be able to say that my ingenuity and creativity did it, but the thing is that the Hartford Whalers leaving Hartford clicked a switch. I was out in Milwaukee and was watching SportsChannel. There was Peter Karmanos having his press conference announcing they were leaving Hartford.

“I said, ‘Bingo! There’s the opening!’ I called Steve Regan at SportsChannel from my hotel and said, ‘Hey, looks like you’ll be looking for some programming. What about college hockey?'”

Although past ECAC negotiations with SportsChannel had proved fruitless, Bertagna hit pay dirt this time. The cable station needed the programming and liked the idea of taking Hockey East away from its primary rival. Hockey East was also a more attractive package than the ECAC.

“In my first meeting, I tried to sell them on a college hockey game of the week with both leagues,” Bertagna says. “It was part of what I’ve told the athletic directors here. I want to do things in general for both sides. Every once in a while they remind me that I’m not working for those other guys anymore. ‘Don’t worry about doing things for all of college hockey. Remember who’s paying you.’

“But I did what I thought was right. Personally, I believe a college package with as many games for both leagues would be terrific, but SportsChannel was quite blunt. ‘With all due respect to your old league,’ they said, ‘we’re interested in Hockey East because it’s a definable package. It’s all in our audience’s geography. We’re not interested in the other guys.’ Having done that, I could take the dual hats off and zoom in.”

The deal, however, received an initially-lukewarm response among member schools. It contained only nine regular season games — six of which were specified, with the remaining three left as wild cards — compared to NESN’s 16. And while NESN’s more expansive coverage afforded each team at least one turn in the limelight, the SportsChannel package shut out both Merrimack and UMass-Amherst, at least until the wild card games are decided.

“I had to turn to my athletic directors and explain something that’s a little new to them,” Bertagna says. “From my background, I think it’s a great package, because I always had to pay to get on television with the other league. These guys have had 13 years of being on TV and having 16 games as opposed to nine. So for some of them, it’s been a little bit of an adjustment to take fewer games.

“We didn’t have a lot of leverage coming out of the situation we were in with NESN. I think given the reality of the marketplace, we should be very happy that this happened. Yeah, we got fewer games, but more viewers. SportsChannel is going to have something like two million homes compared to half a million for NESN. SportsChannel is in the process of changing over to basic cable, so for most of their viewership it’s free. That’s a great thing for us.”

Although the pact is cable-exclusive, meaning that a purely cable station such as NESN cannot broadcast Hockey East games, there are no limits to how many games over-the-air stations can pick up. Their only restriction is that they cannot go head-to-head with SportsChannel broadcasts.

Already some stations have moved to fill gaps in the package, most notably WABU-68, which now lists 13 games on its schedule. WMUR-TV9 has added a single UNH game, while WNDS-TV50 at one point appeared interested in a combined Hockey East and ECAC package. Unfortunately, that package never materialized.

Bertagna also notes that member schools could conceivably pay SportsChannel to carry additional games that they consider exceptional exposure.

“Let’s say that Lowell wants to put the opening of their new facility on,” he says. “They could go to SportsChannel and say, ‘If you’re not doing a Celtics game that night, if you have an open window, we’d like to pay to put the game on.

“That’s a possibility. Down the line, I would like to think that if our league was financially sound, we could subsidize that so the burden wouldn’t fall on teams to do it. The league would subsidize games for schools that aren’t getting as much as the others.”

Bertagna and SportsChannel programming director Norm Schraeder picked the games by comparing the Hockey East schedule with that of the Celtics and the Fox network. (Fox, which has purchased SportsChannel, requires it to carry considerable Fox national programming, especially on the weekend.) After determining the open dates, Bertagna helped identify the most attractive games, which then was combined with SportsChannel’s preference for the Greater Boston area and for certain facilities.

“We had a meeting with the athletic directors where I told them I would be very sensitive to those schools that weren’t on,” he says. “I’ll be asking SportsChannel that when they come down to picking those three wild card games, if they’re looking between two games and it doesn’t make a lot of difference to them, could they please give some extra attention to the schools that haven’t been on yet.

“And then when we go into year two, I’d almost like to make it a priority that anyone that doesn’t get on the first year gets guaranteed to be on the first six games, because the first six are going to get more exposure. Even though you might eventually get on games seven, eight or nine, you’re not going to get the year-long exposure of being on that TV schedule.”

Still, the spread-the-wealth philosophy can only go so far in Bertagna’s eyes.

“I don’t think it’s in the league’s best interest to put certain games on,” he says. “If there’s a rink that comes across dark, or if it’s a rink that traditionally doesn’t draw well, or if the game has no particular meaning in the standings at a certain time, it’s not only in SportsChannel’s interest to stay away from the game, I think it’s in our interest.

“Now, it’s not in [every school’s] individual interest. I’ve got AD’s that will say, ‘My school’s not on. I want my school on.’ But you’ve got to go with your best. You’ve got to put your best individuals up front and your best teams up front.

“At the same time, you have to be sensitive to a potentially growing gap between the traditionally stronger programs and the traditionally weak programs. You have to take care of everybody.”

Those competing desires to showcase the league’s best while also spreading the wealth also translate into other tough decisions for Bertagna and newly appointed Director of Media Relations Ed Saunders. After every weekend, the two will choose Hockey East’s Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week. The choices will then be announced in the league’s press release. Inevitably, somebody will be displeased.

“I used to get this problem with the ECAC,” Bertagna says. “Coaches would call up and ask, ‘Why did you pick that guy? What about my guy?’ You almost want to say, ‘Don’t you have other things to do today? I didn’t call you and tell you your power play looked brutal.’

“This weekly release is a league public relations tool. Certainly if some guy gets five goals, whether he was Player of the Week two weeks in a row or not, he’s the Player of the Week. But most weeks, two or three guys have done something unique. What I’ll be saying to Ed will be, ‘Who haven’t we done anything for lately? If you’ve got three schools each with a pretty good candidate, and one school looks like it’s in for a long season, let’s pick that guy now because we may not get the chance to pick him for another month or two.

“So there is a little bit of a spread-the-wealth mentality in the things that we do, but at the same time you’ve got to go with your best whether it’s the TV package or the cover of the media guide or when a writer calls and asks for some feature ideas. If you’ve got a Chris Drury and you have a chance to put him out there in some way or another, you should do it.”

A National TV Contract?

The premise of putting your best foot forward could be taken to another level in future years if Bertagna has his way.

“I’ve been part of an effort with WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod to go down to the National Hockey League and try to enlist them as a resource to create a national game of the week,” he says. “To put a national TV package together, however, the college hockey community would have to produce some really attractive games.

“One of our problems is that some of our traditionally strong programs are small, Division III, northern colleges that don’t have national recognition. We know that a Clarkson-RPI game would be a great game, but if you go to a sponsor on a national level and you have 16 games like that or Lake Superior-Miami — ‘they play hockey down in Miami?’ — you’d have trouble.

“We’d be under pressure to put the Minnesota-Wisconsin game, and the BU-BC game, or maybe BU-Minnesota on. Ironically, there are some games, in reverse, that we know aren’t necessarily marquee hockey games, like Army-Notre Dame. Some sponsor might think that one is great. Or to a sponsor with certain demographics, Harvard-Yale is a great game.

“If three out of the 20 were Clarkson-RPI, then fine. But 16 or 17 of the 20 would have to be big package-able games.”

Although such an opportunity might seem like a pipe dream, Bertagna and McLeod have already cleared many hurdles. The NHL’s promotion of The Coolest Game on Earth could soon encompass college hockey.

“It’s foolish to be publicly optimistic about these things because you only get slapped,” Bertagna says. “But the last meeting we had with the NHL was very positive. I came away with the sense that we didn’t have to sell ourselves. The people to whom we spoke knew college hockey.

“They all but said, ‘You go back to your campuses and put together an inventory of everything you have to offer, from how many rinks you could do between-period promotions to how many rinks you could have sign ads to print ads to TV spots. Come up with all the things you can offer. If what you show us is substantial, we’ll go out and try to put something together.’

“One of the issues we’ve been dealing with as commissioners is who should be knocking on doors? Should the four commissioners be doing it? Should we hire some sort of pro who goes around and knocks on doors on behalf of us, and we give that person a commission?

“When that specific question was asked, the NHL people said, ‘You get your act together, and we’ll knock on the doors. We know how to do that.’

“I felt like tap-dancing on the table. On the outside I was trying to look professional, while inside I was giddy, thinking, Oooooh, This sounds great!

“So Bruce and I got our walking orders and we went back to the CCHA and ECAC, the coaches’ association, and the NCAA. Now we’ve got to put a combined inventory together, school-by-school and league-by-league, in a professional presentation form and schedule another meeting with the NHL.”

(In the next installment, Bertagna talks about the ECAC, expansion both for Hockey East and the NCAA tournament, officiating, and an Internet presence for the league.)