Man On A Mission

You know the story well. You’ve seen it a hundred times before.

Rocky Balboa defeats Apollo Creed.
The 1969 Mets win the World Series.
Rudy sacks the Georgia Tech quarterback.
Team USA claims hockey gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Jeff Fanter becomes ECAC ice hockey commissioner.

Jeff Fanter becomes ECAC ice hockey commissioner?

“I was a darkhorse when I applied, and rightfully so,” said the new head of ECAC ice hockey.

And why wouldn’t he be? A lot was against him when he applied for the job. Fanter’s resume included a stint as an assistant director of media relations and athletic publications (i.e., assistant sports information director) at Indiana University; a degree in journalism with a minor in business from Indiana; and one year in the sports management graduate program at Indiana. None of those had much to do with ice hockey.

Fanter was an assistant SID at Colgate from 1994-96, with responsibilities that included ice hockey, but that was it. Nevertheless, he thinks his experience at Indiana helped.

“At Indiana, I was with the Big Ten [Conference],” he said. “I was around the marquee conference athletically in the country. I was exposed to the Big Ten and the media and all the things associated with it. The media is more than one can comprehend, especially when you’re talking about Indiana basketball.

It was at Colgate, however, that he learned about college hockey — more specifically, ECAC hockey.

“When I went to Colgate I was exposed to a whole new conference,” he said. “I hadn’t been able to find another conference out there that I could put my finger on that could match it. The biggest thing that I learned at Colgate was the uniqueness of [the ECAC].”

In 1996, Fanter left Colgate to return to his alma mater, but something just wasn’t right.

“When I got out there I realized there was something that was missing in my life, and that was college hockey,” he said.

There wasn’t anything that he could do about it until earlier this year; that’s when Joe Bertagna announced he was resigning as ECAC commissioner to take a similar position with Hockey East, leaving the conference without a leader for its most visible sport.

Fanter kept tabs on the ECAC, but immersed in his work, it took a phone call to get him going.

“It started in March and [Colgate head coach] Don Vaughan contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in something like this,” Fanter said. “I said that I’d love to try to make an impact, the impact I couldn’t make at Colgate.”

Vaughan liked Fanter’s work at Colgate, especially in publicity.

“He saw what I could do for one team, and he knew that if I could do this for one team, I could do it for the other 11 teams. He backed me and supported me.

“I told Donnie to keep me informed. I thought about the whole thing and I sent in my application and I waited it out. I thought my resume was strong — different from others, but strong. I thought they needed someone with a different background. When this position came about. I wanted to be back and be a part of the league.”

Knowing the odds were against them, Fanter set out to lobby the other Division I coaches for their support. He explained to them his ideas. He also called many Division III coaches.

Then he waited.

One day during the summer, Fanter got a phone call from the ECAC. They asked him to come to the Troy, N.Y., campus of Rensselaer to be interviewed in front of the executive committee. Fanter had made it to the next step despite being young, and to some, not experienced enough.

“I felt that once I got that interview I had as good a shot as anybody,” said Fanter. “I thought [with] the energy that I had and the dedication that I was going to put in, a 26-year-old person was the right move to make.

“Yeah, I was a darkhorse for the job, but I knew that if I got an interview that was all going to change real fast. I walked in there with a 50-page proposal on what I thought the ECAC was going to be about in the future. I left that with the committee and it had an impact on them.

Thus armed — with energy, enthusiasm, a 50-page vision statement and plenty of confidence — he won over the committee. The experience issue, he says, should never have been.

“We had plenty of controversy (at Indiana) with Bob Knight there, and we learned how to handle it,” he said. “I also got real inspired by the new football coach at Indiana, Cam Cameron. Listening to him talk, he had so many ways on how to get the media, the fans and the support behind you.

“I went into the interview with the ideas as to what the ECAC was to be in the future. I was able to answer all of their questions. When I walked out of there, one of the members of the committee asked me what pills I was taking because of the enthusiasm that I had.

“I think that was a key.

“That’s what this position needs: energy, enthusiasm, organization. I wasn’t an athletic director, and I didn’t have 50 people working under me, but I had energy, enthusiasm and a focus for the future.”

Fanter went to Centerville, Mass., to meet the ECAC staff. The selection process was down to himself and John Weisbrod, a former player for Harvard and director of operations for the AHL’s Albany River Rats.

In the end, the committee chose Fanter. Rudy had just sacked the quarterback on his first play.

Said Fanter, “If you’re going to lay on paper the director of operations for the Albany River Rats, and Jeff Fanter, the assistant media relations director at Indiana, and you’re talking about a hockey job, I can see where people said `Why did they choose that guy?’

“But all that matters is those six people [on the selection committee] made the decision, and they know why they made that decision, and I think they made the right decision.

“I think I opened eyes with my vision of the future, and I was prepared to work damned hard. I wasn’t taking this job to be the youngest commissioner of the league. I want to bring the ECAC to where it should be.”

The executive committee, comprised of athletic directors Mark Murphy of Colgate, Bill O’Flaherty of Clarkson (now director of player personnel with the Los Angeles Kings), Dick Jaeger of Dartmouth, Tom Lawson of Middlebury and Mary Barrett of UMass-Boston as well as ECAC commissioner Clayton Chapman, made a decision which prompted no small amount of controversy.

Critics from all corners publicly and privately wondered how someone with so little administrative or hockey background — especially in relation to the other commissioners in Division I — could get such a prestigious job.

“Maybe they should have gotten a big name in for this job. Yeah, it might have made a difference — for about a week,” Fanter said.

“But after that week, when that big-name person wouldn’t be able to handle the 92 schools and do all these things, because maybe they didn’t have the energy or because they [were] using this job as a winding-down in the career like sometimes commissioners’ jobs are, the ECAC would have suffered.”

But the criticism went deeper than just the hiring of a no-name. Youth serves Jeff Fanter well for all he needs to do — including overseeing 92 schools — but was he picked for only that reason? Would a more experienced administrator be unwilling to be the league’s target for criticism? Would he have enough respect to be the enforcer when league members got out of line?

Jeff Fanter doesn’t buy any of that.

“I am what this league needs,” he insists. “They need an energetic person who is going to devote as much time as humanly possible to this league, to market and promote it the way they need to. And that’s why they hired me, because I’m that person.

“I’m going to get everything in that proposal done. It may not happen in the next year or two, but it will happen in three.

One of the reasons Joe Bertagna left was because, with a growing family, he was no longer willing or able to devote every waking moment to the league. The ECAC then asked him to move from Boston to the Cape in lieu of giving him more assistance.

Bertagna said no.

Fanter, it seems, has no problem with all the work.

“That’s what this league needs, someone who will work seven days a week, who’s going to work until ten o’clock at night and get it done. That’s exactly what this position needed, and it’s been lacking it over the last few years.

“We’re making a real difference, and that’s why I got this job.”

A long-time concern of the ECAC’s following has been whether the home office realizes hockey’s importance as the only sport over which the ECAC has pure jurisdiction. In a recent article, Bertagna himself wondered aloud about that same thing.

“The people at the offices of the ECAC — Clayton Chapman in particular — they know how important ice hockey is,” Fanter asserted. “And he’s the only one that matters when it comes to who knows how important ice hockey is. He knows how important it is to the ECAC’s national identity.

“The people at the ECAC know what ice hockey is all about, and they are very supportive of what I am trying to do. They have their own niche in ice hockey. It’s a different group, and they wouldn’t have put a commissioner in charge of that if they didn’t know that. It’s not [as if the commissioner’s job is] just a title and they’ve downsized the position. They’ve added an intern, which they have never had before.”

Publicly, the coaches have been supportive of Fanter, at least so far.

“I like Jeff,” said St. Lawrence head coach Joe Marsh. “I think Jeff is eager, and brings a lot of good things to the table like media, public relations and television. With his experiences, that’s what we need. He’ll do a great job. He’s excited, and I feel strongly that he’ll do a great job.”

Agreed Cornell coach Mike Schafer, “Jeff will do a good job organizing and pursuing the kind of sponsors that we need for our league.”

Yale mentor Tim Taylor remains concerned over many things, but also is trying to be supportive of the new commissioner.

“I thought it was terrible the way the ECAC lost Joe Bertagna, and the circumstances were terrible,” he said. “But Jeff’s got youthful enthusiasm. He has creative ideas, and the things that he’s done already are great. He’s got some big shoes to fill.”

Fanter certainly does have big shoes to fill — a lot of people thought, and still think, that Joe Bertagna was ECAC hockey, and, as an extension, was and is college hockey.

Fanter, however, is up to the challenge.

“I think this league is going far in the next five years, and people are going to understand the selection that they made. People are going to see results.

“People said I was a dark horse, and the six people in that room heard what I had to say, and now the rest of the country will hear what I have to say as well.”

And the age factor that he constantly battles is something Fanter hopes everyone will soon forget.

“I was 26 years old when I got hired for this job, and it doesn’t mean a thing right now,” he said. “I’ve been on this job for five months and I go to work and I do the same thing that Joe Bertagna does, the same thing that [CCHA commissioner] Bill Beagan does, and the same thing that [WCHA commissioner] Bruce McLeod does. I’m 26 and I do it. They may be 45 or 50, and I do more than they do because I have another 80 teams out there. Age doesn’t mean anything.

“Maybe because I’m younger, it’s more of a benefit because I’m out there beating the streets. Maybe that’s what making a difference in this whole thing.

“Age is so overrated. You could ask me about my age when I first got the job; but now, I do the same thing that Joe, Bill and Bruce do. We’re talking to the same equipment people and television people, and not one of them has asked me about my age. In fact, they’ve said that I’ve breathed a new life into this league that it really needs.

“This is what the league needed. This is what the league needed a long time ago.”