55,031 people crammed into Camp Randall Stadium in February. 29 percent of all players drafted by the NHL in 2009. Harvard versus Yale at The Whale. Jack Parker's 800 wins with the Terriers of Boston University. Nine Maize and Blue banners hanging from the rafters at Yost Ice Arena. The Beanpot finals at Fenway Park. The excitement of the Frozen Four.
These and many, many more are the traditions and virtues of NCAA Hockey that Paul Kelly, Executive Director of the newly-created College Hockey, Inc., has been tasked with espousing to anyone that is willing to listen. Kelly, the former Director of the NHLPA and lifelong college hockey fan, took on the role in order to expand college hockey's reach, from both a geographic and market perspective in North America. Kelly's early statements have touched on stability of the existing fifty-nine Division I programs, expansion into underserved markets, delivering NCAA Hockey's message to players considering the Major Junior path, and expanding the marketing and coverage of the game.
His efforts have been met with scorn by CHL executives, as the commissioners of all three leagues have hit the media trail in response to Kelly's initial media blitz. College Hockey Inc.'s Fact Sheet has been attacked as painting an inaccurate and unfair picture of the inner-workings of both NCAA Hockey and CHL Hockey.
I had the chance to speak with Kelly recently and can say unequivocally that he has a passion for the game and the mission he's been given. Kelly grew up in Boston, graduated from Boston College and came back to the area after law school. He's been a practicing attorney in the area ever since. He's spent time coaching youth hockey and still plays in a men's league once a week. Kelly spent much of the season traveling through the country to deliver his message and at the same time understand from the programs, the players, the fans and the schools what was necessary to improve the on-ice product, the player experience, and the game's reach. Kelly was an easy interview - there is genuine excitement in his voice when he talks about the game and his vision for the future.
From The Rink: Readers here at From The Rink and at SB Nation in general may not know what College Hockey Inc., is all about and what you're trying to accomplish. Can you lay out the goals and objectives that you're seeking to meet for the NCAA?
Paul Kelly: We are a non-profit organization put in place to assist Division I colleges and universities in a number of different areas, primarily to take steps to raise the profile of the college game. Those steps include creating new special events, taking existing events and improving them by making them bigger and better. It means we're trying to broaden the exposure of the sport, through improved television opportunities, better website access, and more print media attention. It means being the primary spokesperson for Division I college hockey in our dealings with other organizations such as the National Hockey League, the NCAA, the Canadian Hockey League and USA Hockey. It means working with those colleges and universities that might want to make a transition from playing club hockey to the Division I level, which we, of course, would favor and believe it would be a very positive sign for the sport. There are a number of colleges and universities that have expressed interest. Our most important mission is to be an education and information resource to elite young players and their families on the many benefits of playing college hockey and why, if they're good enough and faced with the option to play for one of the junior teams in Canada or an NCAA Division I program, the option to play NCAA hockey is in most instances, the smarter and better course of action.
FTR: You mentioned being an information resource -- I noticed the new website. You've got a number of different sections there -- recruiting, about the NCAA, academics, strength and conditioning -- is it your hope that the www.playcollegehockey.com website will be the go to source for all things NCAA Division I hockey?
Kelly: We've actually talked about creating a website that would be a central site, not unlike NHL.com, where fans and other interested parties would go to get not just the information we provide on the current site, but information about all of the conferences and all of the games and all of the teams. We'd like to provide things like real-time scoring and stats and video features. We're trying to work in that direction, to bring a fully operational site about the game. Doing that with college sports is a bit of a challenge because not only do you have multiple conferences that have existing regional agreements in place, but many times, and this isn't just a hockey problem, but certain schools and conferences have existing websites that are using certain platforms and they may all be distinct. So it will be a challenge for us to bring all of our colleges and conferences together on one site. But, all of us in the game agree it's a step which is needed and a step which will help us become more visible and easier to access.
FTR: I'm actually a season ticket holder with Robert Morris University and one of my biggest sources of frustration in following college hockey is finding information easily and quickly and finding real-time scores is a real pain.
Kelly: I'm so familiar with that feeling. I watch a lot of college hockey games and when I'm sitting in one rink on a Friday night watching a game, I'll try to find the scores of other games around and I can't do it!
FTR: Exactly! You almost have to go to each individual school's website to see if they've got updated scores or if they're doing a live chat to find a score.
Kelly: It is very challenging and that's one of the things that we're trying to correct.
FTR: It sounds like you have a large number of tools at your disposal to make this happen. You might not have unlimited resources, but maybe unlimited approaches you can take to make this happen.
Kelly: We have incredible support from the colleges, the coaches, the conferences, the NCAA. We've been put in place for a specific purpose and while we don't have an unlimited budget, we do have the full attention and support of pretty much everybody in the college sporting world. That is necessary for us to accomplish a very ambitious agenda that we've set for ourselves.
FTR: You mentioned the choices between junior hockey and the NCAA. Following your initial debut and the first few interviews you've done, there's been a negative response from the CHL. They've used the words "unfairly targeting" to describe the things that College Hockey Inc. has said about the CHL.
Kelly: I don't think we're unfairly targeting anybody. We need to provide information to people so that they can make informed decisions. Many times we need to draw distinctions between the experience of playing NCAA hockey as opposed to playing junior hockey in Canada. In order to do that, you need to point out the pros and cons for both of us. If that's viewed as a negative by them, I would say that whatever statements we've made are backed up by solid evidence and facts. If we make a claim that some of the statements that they make and some of the information that they put forth on their website regarding their education packages are somewhat suspect, then players need to read the fine print. We've found many instances of players that have had difficulties of players obtaining their educational benefits. In fact, a vast majority of players that have played in the CHL have never tapped into those benefits - the rate of kids that never get an education, that never get a diploma is very high in the CHL. I think that it's important for players, whether they are from the United States or Canada to know these facts. I'm not saying that NCAA hockey doesn't have it's own bumps and bruises and issues, because it does, but I think it's fair for us to point out some of these things to players and their families. We're not doing it to be purposefully negative, that's not our intention at all. I've always said that the CHL may be the right course for some kids and I think that means that NCAA hockey and the juniors programs in Canada need to co-exist.
FTR: One piece of the Canadian program that does co-exist with the NCAA is the BCHL. So many kids come out of the BCHL and play NCAA hockey. As an Edmonton writer, one that sticks out for me is Riley Nash from Cornell. Are you going to work with the BCHL at all?
Kelly: There are a number of programs up there, the BCHL is one of them, the Albert Junior Hockey League is another, the Prince Edward Island League is another. I actually traveled out to British Columbia and spoke at the BCHL All Star banquet, attended the Owners and Board of Governors Meeting for the league and spoke very candidly with them about our support of what they're doing. The answer to your question is yes, the BCHL is doing a terrific job, they're producing some great players, they've put a great number of very talented kids into NCAA programs. We have every desire to see that continue.
FTR: What about the relationship with the USHL? The typical path for a U.S.-born player is to go to the USHL, then into the NCAA. How do you view the USHL right now?
Kelly: The USHL is a huge partner of ours. I think one of the real positives of our creation is that we've built a very strong bond between three of the principle hockey entities in the United States: USA Hockey, which covers youth hockey across the country; the USHL and College Hockey, represented by College Hockey, Inc. So, in the developmental pyramid, the top of that pyramid, short of the NHL is NCAA Division I hockey. Below that, is the USHL, which is the next rung down from playing Division I hockey. Within that same rung is the National Team and below those two are the USA Hockey Select Camps and other developmental camps. We work very closely with the USA Hockey guys in Colorado Springs as well as the USHL. Many of the presentations we've made throughout the country to groups of elite players and their parents have been done jointly with Skip Prince [Commissioner of the USHL] and Tony Gill [USHL Manager Of Operations]. We are in contact with them on a daily basis and support their efforts. They're adding two new teams next year in Muskegon, Michigan and Dubuque, Iowa and I know they have plans for additional teams going forward. They'd like to get that league up from fourteen teams to twenty-four teams and perhaps begin to move more to the east and I think that's great for hockey development. There is no better place for someone that wants to play Men's Division I ice hockey than the USHL. There are 250 kids playing in the USHL that already have college commitments, many of those scholarship commitments. It is, without a doubt, the number one feeder system into the college ranks.
FTR: There are so many kids coming out of California now that have to travel a long way if they want to play Division I hockey, and many of them choose to go to the WHL instead. Is California expansion of NCAA Division I hockey a priority?
Kelly: Frankly, the first college or university that decides to add Division I hockey in California will have just an absolute bounty in front of it. They will have their pick of some of the most talented kids in the country and they've got some great young kids coming up. If we could ever convince USC or UCLA or Stanford or California to add a program, they would have such an immediate impact. It's impossible in football or basketball to start a college program and think that you could have a team that could compete for the national championship any time soon. That's not the case in hockey. You could start a hockey program, get the right coach and bring in the right recruits and within a matter of three or four years, you could be challenging for the national title. I think that many of these big schools need to take a look at that and realize that many of the teams in Division I do so very successfully from an economic perspective. Most of the teams in the WCHA do very well. They fill their buildings, there is a lot of excitement, it attracts students, not just athletes, to the school. It's another activity that they can offer to the student body that brings excitement and enthusiasm. We've got three NHL teams in California and there is a hockey following out there, so I think it's a natural fit for one of those schools.
FTR: In previous media appearances and interviews you talked about pushing into new markets. We talked about California, but you've also mentioned Illinois and the Northern Virginia / Washington D.C. area specifically. Is the goal to grow the game as a whole in those areas, or are you going to attempt to establish Division I programs in those locations?
Kelly: Illinois is a place that we'd like to go. I've love to see programs at either Illinois or Illinois State, maybe Northwestern and even in the surrounding areas. We've talked to the University of Indiana, and Iowa State has expressed some interest. Moving farther east, we've talked to Penn State and Syracuse, which are in that Mid-Atlantic hockey belt, and we feel the Naval Academy in Annapolis is a natural fit. They have a very good club team.
FTR: Penn State has been kicking that arena idea around for awhile now, and they also have a very good club program. Could they be next?
Kelly: They have been talking about the arena project and if you could ever get one other school from the Big Ten, you could create a Big Ten Hockey Conference. We'd have to shuffle the deck a bit, and reconfigure the WCHA and CCHA a bit. But again, this is a great sport that can be done effectively at some of these schools. The programs can make an immediate impact in those areas and they'd have an immediate fan following. We are a clearing house for colleges and universities that have an interest and want to talk to someone about what the process would involved, what the budget model would look like, who at the NCAA would be the right person to talk to, how do they get themselves aligned with a conference...we can be a good intermediary and have an impact. We have already begun those discussions with a number of colleges.
FTR: You mentioned that the USHL sees themselves expanding to twenty-four teams. What is your five-year outlook for the NCAA? Right now, you've got 59 programs. What about five years from now?
Kelly: I'd like to see it in the mid-sixties. The two geographical areas that we really need some help are in the southeast and in the west as we just talked about. What I'd really like to see is the creation of almost a Pacific Conference, if we could get Washington and a couple of the California schools, include Arizona State which has a tremendous club program and a great facility. If you could combine some of those western schools together, that would be terrific. I think that it the southeast, I think that we really need to talk to schools like Georgia Tech and Texas Tech and into Florida. Hockey has begun to spread it's roots in Atlanta and Tampa and even into Miami and it's certainly strong in Carolina. If a team like Alabama-Huntsville is going to ultimately align with a conference, it would be great if we could get three or four other schools in the southeast that would be willing to give hockey a shot. Again, a school needs to have a facility, or a rink either on-campus or nearby. But the NHL teams in most of these areas have expressed a strong willingness to be helpful. They want to support these initiatives. College hockey would grow the game, it would grow the NHL fanbase, it would strengthen the pro hockey game, so they're willing to invest the time and money to help startup programs. So if there is an ambitious athletic director out there that wants to take a shot, there are enough people here willing to listen and willing to help.
FTR: You mentioned Alabama-Huntsville. College hockey fans are well aware of their predicament. What do you think will become of the program? Are they going to gain enough support to find a conference willing to align with them?
Kelly: I think that it's going to take more than a couple of a years to get programs in place in the southeast. What's more likely to happen is that they'll survive as an independent for the next three to five years.
FTR: They're hosting the Frozen Four soon, aren't they?
Kelly: They are in Tampa in two years. What's going to be difficult for them is the scheduling piece. There are a couple of ways to go here. There could be a shuffle with one of the other conferences, particularly if the Big Ten decides to rustle a bit and pull a conference together, and that would open up opportunities for Alabama-Huntsville. The other thing that we think makes immediate sense is to treat Alabama-Huntsville, not unlike the way we treat the Alaska schools. Because of the distance of travel, we allow those games to be played as exempt games, so if a team is willing to trek Alaska to play a game, that game won't count against their maximum games total. If you did that with Alabama-Huntsville, you would suddenly have a great number of schools that would express a desire to go down to Huntsville to play there. That's going to be a dialogue that will be happening shortly with the NCAA. It would require a rules adjustment and those are always delicate because they cut across a lot of other sports, but again, I'm a firm believer that we have to look after the programs that we already have. We don't want to lose Alabama-Huntsville or Bowling Green, we want those programs to be strong and survive. Once they are stabilized, we want to add other programs. We aren't going to abandon them, that's for sure.
[Note: You can find my article on the Chargers and their troubles, here]
FTR: If you are successful in meeting your goals, in bringing hockey to the places we've discussed, in widening College Hockey's reach, what impact do you think College Hockey Inc., can have on the game as a whole?
Kelly: It means more young people will go into the sport. Our sport is one where until you've experienced it in person, you really haven't seen hockey. The sounds of the skates on the ice, the speed...I took a guy to a game a few months ago, he had never seen a live hockey game in his entire life. The guy was in his mid-60s and he was startled by how different it was live versus on television, how much more enjoyable the experience was. The long answer to your question is that it will bring more youth into our sport, it will develop more available players for the collegiate and professional levels. It will strength the sport and widen the appeal for radio and television broadcasters to show more games or put more games on the radio.
FTR: I'm starving for college hockey on television. I wish that the Big Ten Network had rights to the games from the teams in the WCHA and the CCHA.
Kelly: We're trying to do something about that as well. We're in discussions with a number of major networks about the prospect of doing a college game of the week. We're up against football at the beginning of the season and we end it against baseball and we're always competing against the pro game, so it's a crowded field. But I will tell you that a number of broadcasters have expressed a strong interest in broadcasting college games and doing it in Hi-Def. Unfortunately, the NHL Network grabs an arena feed and it's not usually in Hi-Def and may not even be the best camera angles. What we really need is to put the games in Hi-Def and use college broadcasters. I think it would be great to use young college broadcasters, perhaps from different colleges and from different parts of the country. Bit I think the quality of the production, the camera work, the quality of a Hi-Def broadcast are necessary. Not all buildings look that great on television, not all buildings have the best lighting, but most of them are impressive venues. And of course, it's great hockey. It's clean, it's hard, it's typically very competitive. The NCAA semi-finals and finals were an anomaly in that they were so one-sided, but most of the games that I've seen this year were decided by one or two goals. I think if broadcasters gave it a shot, they'd see a surprisingly strong response.
FTR: To move away from the serious stuff for a bit...how many college games did you take in live this year?
Kelly: Between twenty and twenty-five.
FTR: What's your favorite college hockey venue?
Kelly: I haven't made to North Dakota yet and I'm told it's an impressive place to see a game. I'm kind of a traditionalist, so I enjoyed Yost Arena in Ann Arbor, I thought that it was a terrific venue. I'm a Boston guy as well so I love seeing games in the local rinks, whether it's Matthews Arena at Northeastern, or the Bright Center at Harvard. Some of those old buildings have a lot of character to them. It's been fun.
FTR: Paul, thank you very much for all of your time. I wish you all of the best in your efforts, especially as a college hockey fan that would love to see the game grow.
Kelly: Thank you. We love hearing from college hockey fans. We love people that are willing to take the time to listen to the message and to write about college hockey -- that helps to strengthen the sport.