The End of An Era

If you ask CCHA Commissioner Bill Beagan what he plans to do once he retires at the end of this season, you may get a straight answer.

And you may not.

“I’m going to lie down a lot,” he says.

No one who knows the CCHA’s top man of 13 years believes for a second that Beagan could lie down, even if he wanted to. The former NHL referee and ten-year commissioner of the IHL has enthusiasm and energy matched only by his wit, his passion for the game and his dedication to college hockey.

Beagan, a native of Parry Sound, Ont., is fervent in his belief that college hockey provides the ideal proving ground for young NHL prospects to mature as players and people.

“I think I’m most proud — I’ve never said this before — of maintaining the status quo of NCAA Division I college hockey vis-a-vis the NHL.

“I just think that the NHL would dearly love us to change our rules with respect to allowing Major A players to come down here to play with impunity. I think that’s wrong, and I think that we’ve proven that we’re developing more players for the National Hockey League through the college systems.

Even in the thirteen years now that I’ve been here, the number of American kids that are developing through the USA programs is just absolutely incredible.”

Beagan says that the college route offers players stability that the major juniors don’t. “Coaches don’t trade NHL-caliber players; they don’t take away their scholarships and send them to other schools. They’re patient with them, they’ll groom them, and when those players are seniors, they’ll have a much better chance of making it in the NHL than they would have had without that developmental period playing college hockey.”

Beagan points to one of the CCHA’s most recent success stories for proof. “Take Mike Johnson, who played at Bowling Green. He’s the number-one right winger playing in Toronto right now. If Mike Johnson had gone the Major A route, you’d have never heard of him.”

Character building is important to Beagan, a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and the U.S. Air Force. While the commissioner preaches the benefits of college play for pro prospects, he believes just as firmly in the advantages college offers for a young player’s personal growth.

“Playing here gives the kids a chance to grow into manhood. They’re not going to be traded, they’re not going to be loaned, they’re not going to be moved from school. And to me, this is just the ideal situation for a young man who is capable of pursuing his athletic endeavors to hone his skills in a socially acceptable environment.

“In terms of character….I don’t know if they’re better people for going to college. But they know how to assess the world with their character in a more knowledgeable way. They’ve grown socially, they’ve grown in terms of maturity, they’ve traveled, they’ve been philosophically associated with academia, and I just think it’s a wonderful growing experience for a kid.”

Beagan barely pauses to take a breath as he speaks, so caught up is he in making sure his audience understands the importance of the dual nature of college hockey. “I’ve been basically the heavy, if you like, in terms of being the guardian over maintaining the status quo of college hockey.” There is no hesitation, no hint of apology in his voice.

In addition to maintaining that status quo, Beagan has worked hard to bring recognition to the CCHA and college hockey in general. It was Beagan who first paired college hockey and cable television, in the form of the CCHA’s mid-1980s deal with PASS.

Four seasons ago, the PASS package became the Prime national game of the week, and this season, Beagan was the force behind the CCHA’s 20-game agreement with FOX Sports Net.

Between periods of a televised Ohio State-Michigan hockey game, Beagan comments on the impact television has on college hockey. “This game is televised, and we’re going into 55 million homes. This game is being seen now, as we speak, in Minnesota, it’s being seen down in the East on SportsChannel New England, and the manifestation of that exposure on television is that it has brought the CCHA into the living room of just about every kid who’s interested in hockey in North America–via satellite dishes.

“And the kids look at this, and they listen to the band and the chemistry in these buildings, and it adds up to drawing a lot of outstanding players to our league. It doesn’t surprise me that we have three teams in the top ten.

“Kids take the position that if it’s on television, it must be good. I’m going out to Los Angeles in February to hopefully get a two-year extension to this agreement [with FOX television]. I’d like to leave with a good, firm television package for the CCHA.”

Beagan has seen his conference produce five national championship teams during his tenure. He’s been behind the return of Notre Dame and Northern Michigan to the CCHA fold. His philosophy of inclusion helped Alaska-Fairbanks join the league, and he’s proud of the diversity of the conference, which includes schools from the Big Ten, the Great Lakes Athletic Conference and the Mid-American Conference.

He’s also happy with what he’s seen existing CCHA schools do during his 13 years. “Lake State has refurbished their building. Western Michigan has refurbished their building. Bowling Green has refurbished their building. Alaska has a new building…it’s all positives. Everything about the CCHA and college hockey, to me, is very, very positive.”

Leaving all the positives also means leaving some works in progress. He admits, “I’m really sad that I won’t be commissioner when Ohio State moves into their brand-new building.”

As bittersweet as the parting is, the commissioner says that his leaving is the next logical step for both himself and the CCHA.

“I planned it three years ago. I said I’d like to work until I’m 60, and they said, ‘That’s three years from now.’ So they gave me a three-year contract. As I said then, it was the right decision, and it’s the right decision now.

“There’s a time for everything. There’s a time to get off the ice, there’s a time to leave home, there’s a time to leave school, and I just think that it’s the right time for me, personally.”

So, is Beagan really going to spend the next few years lounging around? Don’t bet on it.

“My wife and I are going to go to Australia in the winter of 1999 — we’re going to go for a couple of months. I’m getting into genealogy. I want to find my Irish roots, go back and spend some time in southern Ireland and see if I can find some of the more sane Beagans.”

And this is how Bill Beagan says he’d like to be remembered: “No pun intended, I’d like to be seen as a beacon, a bright light that exposed college hockey for what it was, and that is as a great environment and climate for young men to grow, and with the opportunity now to make it to the National Hockey League.”

Some lights never fade.