(In the first installment, new Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna talked about the league’s SportsChannel contract and a potential national TV package.)
The ECAC vs. Hockey East
As ECAC commissioner, Bertagna oversaw not just the 12 Division I schools under the ECAC umbrella, but all the Division II and III programs competing in ECAC-sponsored leagues. Eventually, this grew to over 90 schools.
“It was one of those jobs that grew horizontally,” Bertagna says. “I wasn’t gaining in authority. I was just gaining work to do. And, in a perverse way, I was creating the work. I was actively trying to create a women’s league, and I was actively trying to create an alliance.
“At the same time that I got permission to start these things and considered it a victory, I stepped back and said, ‘Oh, geez, now I’ve got to create a schedule for these people.’ After 15 years, I had 90 some-odd programs. Even though there was support help at the ECAC office, I was the hockey guy. So a call to the ECAC, meant to call Joe.
“Some of it was comical. I’d get a call from an athletic director complaining, ‘it was a rough game and we thought we handled it pretty well, but the PA announcer out there said, “And that’s the end of this fiasco!”‘ So I’d have to call an AD, and call a coach, and find an observer that watched the game, and find the PA guy. I’d have to write a letter to the PA guy and copy everybody saying that it’s unprofessional to say, ‘And that’s the end of this fiasco!’ Next thing you know, it’s one o’clock and I had all this other stuff I had to do.”
Eventually, the job just became too much.
“I asked the ECAC for a full-time assistant or to absolutely change things,” he says. “I was a little naive. I thought that I’d established myself so much that I would get a lot of the things that I asked for.
“But they did an internal study of how we did things, and concluded that the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any help. The problem was that we had two offices. If I moved down on the Cape and used their staffing, the problems would go away. Well I wasn’t going to move after 15 years.
“And to be very blunt, they had this huge office, but some of the people there were not assets. They didn’t know hockey. They were upset that hockey was getting preferential treatment. I said, ‘It’s because it’s the only sport that raises the ECAC flag at a national level and makes money for you. You guys should bow down and give hockey the extra attention. No one else cuts you a check like the hockey tournament in Lake Placid does.'”
Instead, they criticized Bertagna’s creation of a hockey-specific ECAC logo, wondering why his sport couldn’t use the generic ECAC one, even though the three competing conferences all sported logos clearly identified with hockey.
At the same time that his unhappiness with his working conditions grew, the Hockey East position opened. He knew the league had an attractive TV contract — at least it did at the time — and that it had a full-time assistant.
“I can’t say this clearly enough,” Bertagna says. “It was a personal decision for a better job. It was not a statement on which league is better than the other. I’m forty-five years old, and my wife and I started a family last year. I have a one-year old son and another one on the way. I got a health plan for my family as opposed to just for myself. There were a lot of things on a personal level that the ECAC just wouldn’t offer.
“My gripes were never with the schools of the ECAC, the coaches, or the hockey programs. It was really a matter of my working conditions and finding a better job. I would hate after 15 years to have anything I say reflect ill on the league’s hockey operations, because I had great relations with all the schools.”
His change in allegiances will initially challenge the instinctive reactions Bertagna built during his long ECAC career.
“I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to have a winning record against Hockey East. Last year the ECAC did it. Given the way I’ve been thinking for so long, when I’ve picked up a paper or called a press box, I’ve always wanted the ECAC team to win. Now I’ve got to do an about-face.
“So now when I go out to speak to teams, I’ve got two messages. One, I want the league to have the reputation for being a tough, but clean, league. The other message is,” — and here Bertagna laughs — “‘you guys have to beat up on the ECAC.’
“When I was with the ECAC, there were a lot of things I was proud of, but there was that feeling of looking at the other guys for on-ice success. It’s nice to have people looking at us now. The strength of our best programs is a real strong suit. The top 20 comes out and we have three teams in the top seven. Some of our coaches have 500 wins and are still coaching, and there are a lot of guys in the National Hockey League that played in Hockey East. So there are a lot of things that we can sell.”
One advantage that the ECAC holds over Hockey East, at least in Bertagna’s mind, is its 12-team composition.
“It’s really tough to schedule an odd number of teams,” he says. “Look down the stretch and it’s a shame that on a Saturday night in February, there are Hockey East teams that can’t play because non-league opportunities dry up. Everybody is into their conference schedule from Beanpot time on.
“Down the line, there’s the new league that has just been announced, but they have an even number of teams, so near the end of their schedule they’ll all be busy. If they expand, and they probably will, if they expand by an odd number, my first phone call would be, ‘let’s try to match our odd number with your odd number and make sure everybody is playing every weekend.’ But they’re a few years away from being competitive on the ice.”
Ideally, Bertagna would like to see not only a tenth team added, but also an eleventh and twelfth if the teams are a good fit.
“I think most people who follow hockey know that 10 works better than nine, and, in some cases, 12 works better than 10,” he says. “If you can get to playing each other fewer times, I think it makes every single game more important. I like the ECAC schedule. If you missed Harvard this time, that’s it. They’re not coming back until next year.
“If you’re going to play somebody three times in your schedule, once in the Governors’ Cup, maybe once in the Beanpot, maybe three times in the quarterfinals, then all of sudden at the end of the year you’ve played somebody seven times and two of those games were televised. The importance of getting to that single game has been diminished.”
The catch, of course, is finding teams that are a good fit. Teams like Niagara and Alabama-Huntsville might be interested, but pose geographical problems.
“Part of the attraction for SportsChannel to Hockey East was that we weren’t spread out,” Bertagna says. “We were all in their market. The fact that we weren’t too spread out made us more attractive.”
Finding teams within the region to add won’t be easy, pointing to an immediate future stuck at nine teams.
“One thing I personally won’t do is knock on the doors of the ECAC schools,” he says. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. I didn’t think it was appropriate when I was on the other side. I’m not going to do an about face now. I think some of the athletic directors might have hoped that I would do it, but I won’t.” Laughing, Bertagna then looks at Saunders and adds, “I’ll have Ed do it instead.”
The MAAC and the NCAA Tournament
The introduction of a fifth Division I conference, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), affects Hockey East in ways beyond simply providing for additional interleague foes or potential expansion candidates. Over time, it could have a major impact on the structuring of the sport’s NCAA tournament.
“The presence of that league requires a lot of us in college hockey to think differently,” Bertagna says. “We’ve been thinking about Division I hockey as these four conferences. You can argue about which league is stronger, but for the most part, they’re pretty competitive.
“But look at basketball. When basketball announces its 64 teams for the national tournament, no one thinks that the Ivy League teams top-to-bottom are as strong as the ACC. But the basketball people understand that there are a lot of Division I leagues and they all get invited to the party in March. Nobody thinks that they are all at the same level, but so what? We’ve got to get used to that.
“I hope there’s a sixth conference some day. I hope Syracuse and maybe Penn State — large, well-known schools that have club hockey — look at this new league and say, ‘Hey, there is another way of doing it. I don’t have to go from nothing to BU or Michigan State. There’s a half-step; there’s something else we can do.'”
This growth has fueled speculation that the NCAA tournament could soon grow to 16 teams to accommodate an automatic berth for the new league. The NCAA looks for a six-to-one ratio between the number of D-I teams playing a sport and the size of the tournament field. Until now, that ratio has prevented the move from 12 to 16 teams.
“A lot of the average fans are getting too excited, too early about this,” Bertagna says. “They’re thinking, ‘Oh good, there are eight new teams.’ Unfortunately, most of these teams have already been counted in that formula. Only three make a difference. Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac are moving up their entire athletic programs, and AIC is playing up in hockey. So we’ve added three teams to that formula, but it’s still a ratio that’s troublesome to people in the NCAA that watch that stuff.”
Even so, the NCAA has recently restructured itself in a way that each sport has its own specific committees, such as one for the tournament and one for rules changes. Additionally, there are NCAA-wide councils that establish policies that all the committees have to follow. So, for example, if the rules committee passes something that affects either finance or safety, the overall NCAA can veto it.
In a similar fashion, the tournament committee, which is presumably more familiar with hockey’s specific needs than the general NCAA population, could vote to expand to a 16-team draw. Although this still would be subject to an overall veto, this route to a larger tournament appears to be an easier path than in past years.
“The committee has already voted not to do anything for at least two years to give the new league a chance to get its act together,” Bertagna says. “But let’s say three or four years from now, they can make a case to get an automatic bid. And somebody else makes a case that it shouldn’t come from the 12, it should be in addition to the 12. You’d start moving to 16.
“The sport, right now, can support a 16-team tournament. I don’t think anybody knowledgeable will suggest that if you added a team from each conference, that all of a sudden the tournament would be diluted. Just look at who got selected in March, and then look at who just missed. You’d still have a good tournament.
“And from the fans’ point of view, you’d have a much better tournament, knowing that there were four regionals, each producing a winner as opposed to the six-team thing that we all have trouble explaining to people: ‘Who won the East regional?’ ‘Well, nobody won it.’ It just would make so much more sense.”
Additionally, the larger draw would also eliminate the enormous advantage given to bye teams that can advance to the Final Four with only one win over a team that has played the previous night.
“I don’t think anything is going to happen in the next two or three years,” Bertagna says. “But I can’t see that this new league isn’t going to help somewhere down the line. They’re going to demand, and legitimately so, that they have to be recognized. Why shouldn’t they be?”
Referees and “Calling the Book”
As both a member of the NCAA Rules Committee and the Hockey East Commissioner, Bertagna is in a unique position to affect the way games are officiated.
“I’ve had the opportunity to speak to our coaches and to our refs, both separately and in the room together,” he says. “I have one clarification that I always have to make. When I tell a referee that I expect him to call the book, some people will invariably ask, ‘Are you telling them to call penalties?’
“No. There’s a difference. Some nights there are no penalties to call. You tell a ref that he has to call penalties, and he’s going to be looking to call penalties. If he’s doing a game where the players are doing their job, the coaches are doing their job, it’s a great hockey game, and there are no penalties to call, then don’t make things up.
“But I think we all know what it’s like to go to a game as fans where all of a sudden you realize that it’s starting to get a little out of hand. I’m not going to be involved too much directly, because we have a supervisor of officials who is good.
“But the one referee who should feel nervous about my input is the guy who has the reputation for not calling the book. If over a ten-game period, [the other officials each] call 120 penalties and another guy calls 40, that’s the pattern that somebody should not want to get hung on them, that they just don’t call things, or that the assistant is calling eight or nine penalties that the ref saw but didn’t call. Those are the things that bother me.”
Hockey East and the Internet
“On college campuses, Internet and computer usage is so great that it’s a perfect match for college hockey,” says Saunders, a recent UNH export. “Especially if we want to increase our visibility and on-campus presence with the students, the Internet is where they are and where they’re hanging out, so it’s a great place to reach them.”
The two Western conferences, however, have been quicker not only to realize this, but to act on it as well. Both the WCHA and CCHA provide official websites for their fans.
“As a league, we’ve been slow to catch on,” Bertagna says. “We have to catch up to the WCHA and CCHA. But let’s not only try to catch up, let’s try to be creative. We should create some contests that fans can play and win tickets to the tournament and do some things that are fun. That’s what we should be doing. We don’t identify fun as a priority a lot of the time.”
Luckily, fun happens all by itself in college hockey. And with all the potential goodies on the horizon — a national TV contract, an expanded NCAA tournament and a Hockey East presence on the Web — fans may soon be having more fun than they know what to do with.