Otto Breitenbach, the former WCHA commissioner whose impact on college hockey transcended his conference, died Tuesday at a local hospital. He was 82.
Breitenbach, a longtime athletics administrator at Wisconsin, served as the WCHA commissioner from 1983 to 1994, during which time the league added four teams and overhauled its playoff tournament.
His tenure also included a groundbreaking collaboration with the then-fledgling Hockey East Association that included an interlocking schedule where games between WCHA and Hockey East teams counted in the standings.
“There have probably been three people that have been influential in my life, and certainly, Otto is one of them,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “He’s a wonderful mentor and to me, personally, I’m going to miss him dearly.”
Former Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer issued a statement from Sweden, where he is part of the USA Hockey announcing team at the World Junior Championship.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Otto,” Sauer said. “There are very few people that had the ability to build consensus and move organizations forward like Otto. Be it at the University of Wisconsin, the WCHA, or the Badger State Games, Otto led with dignity, class and integrity second to none. On a personal note, he was like a second father to me. He and Pat became close friends to my family and I appreciate the close relationship we enjoyed over the years. Our thoughts and prayers our with Pat, Sarah, Jane, and Bill as well as Otto’s entire family. He will surely be missed.”
Breitenbach, a Madison native, was a successful prep football coach and athletic director before joining the UW as an assistant athletic director in 1973.
His WCHA tenure began in 1983, when the league had only six teams following the departure of four teams to the newly-formed CCHA. In 1984, the league added Northern Michigan and brought Michigan Tech back from the CCHA. St. Cloud State joined in 1990, and Alaska-Anchorage came aboard in 1993.
“There was a lot that happened during his tenure that he guided us through, and we’ll always be grateful for that,” McLeod said.
Breitenbach’s tenure also included the establishment of the three-day playoff championship format that continues today.
The interlocking schedule with Hockey East helped establish both leagues in a time when both needed support. It ran from 1984 to 1989 and gave the WCHA a new sense of pride, those who participated have said.
It also played at least a bit in the role of building roots with Hockey East programs.
“There are some schools out there now that would not be in Division I college hockey if it were not for his efforts,” said Vince Sweeney, Wisconsin’s senior associate athletic director.
Breitenbach’s contributions to the league were honored when the league named its distinguished service award after him in the 2001-02 season, the league’s 50th anniversary.
He was given the Jim Fullerton Award by the American Hockey Coaches Association in 1993. The award recognizes an individual who exemplifies the former Brown coach’s love of the purity of the sport.
“As much as anything for me and I think for the league, I always think of three things: quality, class and what a gentleman,” McLeod said. “Up until this fall, if I was perplexed or had something to be concerned about, I’d still call him and talk to him about it and look for his advice. It wasn’t so much what he would tell me. It was more how to do it, to go about it.
“That’s why I always emphasize the gentleman. He always was classy. He always knew how to do things the right way. And I’m not talking about the logistical part of it. I’m talking about how to go about things. I’ve been around the hockey thing for a long time; I knew about that part of things. But he was always so great with everybody about how to do things. It’s not what you do half the time, it’s how you do it. For me, that’s what he really brought to the table for the WCHA as a whole and certainly for me, personally.”
Breitenbach is survived by his wife, Pat; a son, Bill; two daughters, Sarah and Jane; two brothers, Warren and Donald; as well as six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Memorial visitations will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. CST Thursday at the Ryan Funeral Home in Madison and from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. CST Friday at St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in Waunakee, Wis., with the ladder to be followed by a mass.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to either the Don and Marilyn Anderson HospiceCare Center, 5395 E. Cheryl Parkway, Fitchburg, WI 53711, or the East Madison Community Center, 8 Straubel Court, Madison, WI 53704.