One day after announcing that he will step aside as commissioner of Hockey East following the 2019-20 season, Joe Bertagna, college hockey’s longest serving commissioner, addressed the media.
The 23-minute conference call included some laughter and memories, but most importantly featured transparency about his decision.
The most forthcoming thing revealed by Bertagna, who was the league’s first full-time commissioner when he began the position 22 years ago, is that the decision to leave is not his. Rather, it was that of the 11 athletic directors in the league.
“My contract was up at the end of the [2019-20 season] and I was looking to extend it a little bit,” said Bertagna. “At the time I started that conversation, these directors had decided that they were not going to renew the contract.”
The fact that such a long-term legend in the college hockey community can be pushed aside likely isn’t a statement about Bertagna himself or about the job he and his team at Hockey East have done. It is, however, a statement about the ever-changing position that college sports, including hockey, has in our current culture.
For so many years, college hockey has been about the competition on the ice and the personalities that surround the game. Great players like David Emma, Paul Kariya and Chris Drury, combined with great coaching personalities like Len Ceglarski, Jack Parker and Shawn Walsh, just to name a few, were plenty enough to put fannies in the seats.
But in recent years, our culture has changed. The most drastic change is the way a product is consumed. Fans aren’t willing to pay $30 on a Friday night just because they love their team. They want a certain product on the ice and a certain atmosphere off.
There are no guarantees in college hockey as was most recently on display at the Frozen Four in Buffalo. An event that for years has been an automatic (or at least very near) sellout regardless of the market had about 5,000 empty seats for each of the games.
By most standards, that’s a colossal disappointment.
Bertagna had nothing to do with that, don’t get me wrong (Hockey East hosted a packed Frozen Four at the TD Garden in 2015). But that is a statement of consumers, themselves, demanding a different (notice I didn’t say better) product if they are going to shell out money.
In Tuesday’s address to the media, Bertagna made one statement that was most telling.
“I had a director remind me recently that we’re in the entertainment business,” said Bertagna. “I thought there was a distinction that we were in the education business, but we don’t want to fool ourselves that we’re selling $30 tickets in these beautifully renovated buildings with the beautiful Jumbotrons. We do have to be entertaining.
“I’ve always felt when you cross the line of stating on the record that you’re in the education business with a need to be entertaining is a lot different that flat out claiming you’re in the entertainment business.
“That might make me a dinosaur.”
A dinosaur Bertagna is not.
In recent years, he’s made valiant attempts to grow Hockey East through new media. His deal with American Sports Network for what was supposed to be a multi-platform television package had strong merit. ASN’s bankruptcy and later termination of services, though, hurt that concept and ultimately may have been seen as a negative for the commissioner.
But the ability for Bertanga, along with ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell, to take the college game internationally with the creation of the Friendship Four in Belfast, Northern Ireland (and subsequently a women’s event this past winter) is proof of the forward-thinking accomplishments of Bertagna.
To reflect only on the recent, though, is a disservice to the 22 years Bertagna has been in the league.
When Bertagna came to the league, Hockey East was still fledgling. The league tournament had used multiple formats and was played in four different venues in the first 13 years. Though it had been at the Boston Garden and FleetCenter in the few years prior to Bertagna’s arrival, he solidified that relationship, growing the tournament to be one of the top attended in the nation.
The league had some success on the national stage prior to 1997. Maine won the national title in 1993 only to have that tarnished by a recruiting scandal and later NCAA sanctions brought upon the Black Bears. Boston University won the title in 1995, but there was still so little parity in the league.
Since the day he arrived, Bertagna pushed schools to be better. Since 1997, all of the original members of the league at that time have reached at least one NCAA tournament, with Boston College, Boston University, Providence, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and UMass Lowell all reaching the Frozen Four.
Bertagna oversaw the addition of three teams – Vermont, Notre Dame and Connecticut – the Catamounts and Fighting Irish each also adding a Frozen Four appearance.
The creation of a women’s league at the beginning of the 2002-03 season, a league that continues to grow and flourish, is probably Bertagna’s most notable accomplishment.
But when you ask Bertanga himself to talk about his biggest accomplishments, none of the obvious come up.
“If you look at [yesterday’s] release or look at my bio over the years, I’ve often said it that you need to put those [accomplishments] out there like the Fenways and the Belfasts and the TV, but I really always felt that what we do daily, the running of the league as a machine and keeping the league going, it’s not as exciting and it doesn’t jump out on a resume,” Bertagna said. “I think we, collectively, the staff have always tried do not only right by Hockey East, but by the sport.
“Sam Kennedy of the Boston Red Sox used the term ‘stewardship,’ that I should feel good about my stewardship of the league. That’s what I hang my hat on the most.
“Day to day, whether a positive issue or a negative issue, I’ve always tried to identify what is in the best interest of Hockey East as a single entity and then stand by that.”
Joe Bertagna is one of a kind. Hockey East is lucky to have him for another season. And after that, someone else will become very fortunate to work with him in the future.