Post Paul Kelly – Where does College Hockey Go From Here?

The college hockey world was abuzz the past few weeks as its de facto spokesperson and CHI executive director, Paul Kelly ‘resigned’ from his duties…wink, wink. Kelly, who was the figurehead of the sport, created CHI from scratch in 2009 and was strident in his efforts to promote the game of college hockey. The incident certainly shed some light

What will Paul kelly do next?

on the ever increasing rift between the HCA (Hockey Commisioners Association) and the head coaches; this seemingly puts CHI directly in the middle of this mess. Kelly defended his much maligned dismissal via the United States of Hockey website and voiced his angst over some misconstrued information that was reported on by College Hockey News’ Adam Wodon.

I must admit I have been surprised at the superfluous reaction of the college hockey media to Kelly’s dismissal, which in my opinion, has been largely of the belief that CHI can seamlessly transition to the interim director, Nate Ewell. Ewell spoke with College Hockey Prospective’s Bob Miller this week about some of the upcoming challenges he will be designated to tackle as a result of Kelly’s exodus. There is no question Ewell is a bright man – Princeton Grad with a plethora of NHL media relations experience, but Kelly was and always will be the patriarch of CHI. Although Ewell will undoubtedly put his media relations background to good use, CHI will surely miss the negotiating acumen of Paul Kelly who made his claim to fame as a lawyer in the Alan Eagleson case years ago. His legal background was beneficial to the cause of college hockey coaches throughout NCAA hockey who relied on Kelly as a communication medium to communicate their vision for the future of the game.

In the aftermath of the fallout with Paul Kelly, my sentiment is aligned on the other side of the ledger as I firmly believe college hockey and CHI will suffer tremendously with the loss of such a strong personality who was a stalwart for the cause of college hockey. There is already enough of a battle with the CHL for recruits and overall credibility as far as NHL player development is concerned; the shake up at CHI will only make matters that much more difficult. Kelly had an excellent relationship with CHL Commissioner, David Branch and Ewell will have to further cultivate this relationship…keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The void between all three parties (coaches, HCA and CHI) has been exposed and as Abe Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”….not sure even the revered Abe Lincoln would be able to curb the evil ways of the CHL.

Kelly sat down with Sirius NHL radio on Monday and even after his dismissal, still opined his passionate views on how to improve college hockey. Kelly felt it would behoove college hockey to emulate the NHL game as much as possible for the sake of player development and even articulated his thoughts on fighting and cages in the NCAA game. Most NCAA players take the Junior route prior to their arrival on campus and in leagues such as the USHL and OJHL, fighting and half shields are both accepted and encouraged.

If the college game wants to truly become a professional player development league, why not allow half shields and potentially fighting (I know the NCAA will NEVER accept fighting in the game which is certainly understandable). I myself am an ardent supporter of introducing the half shield to the NCAA game because it will allow college hockey to both compete with the CHL while at the same time, closely emulate the NHL game as a means of player development. I can somewhat compare this situation to that of arguably the best amateur baseball league in the country, The Cape Cod League (in my opinion there is NO argument- Cape League is THE BEST), which has blossomed into an MLB scouting teams dream because of the permissibility of the wood bat.

So where does the game go from here? That is certainly the million dollar question isn’t it? The CHL is growing stronger year after year, luring the most talented of American kids like Patrick Kane and Jarred Tinordi away from the most well rounded and long lasting experience of their lives – college; to the player development factory that is the CHL. The more success these US defects have in the NHL, the more credence it lends to the idea of Major Junior Hockey in Canada. Generation X and the Millenial Generation are no doubt fueled by instant gratification and if they feel the CHL is the fastest route to the promise land, then the NCAA will be in for a formidable tilt with this growing evil empire.

First and foremost, CHI must add a formidable voice in addition to Nate Ewell who can fill the void left by Paul Kelly. If Ewell is bogged down with some of Kelly’s old duties, he will not be able to keep up with his media relations strong suit. Many of the manufacturing plants I visit as part of my ‘day job’ are downsizing and are left to attain the same budgetary production numbers with a skeleton crew. This does two things, creates a disgruntled workforce and limits the plants ability to achieve the goals it could achieve with a full staff. CHI is no different and Kelly’s duties will have to be accounted for somehow… someway.

College Hockey is in desperate need of a commissioner who can act as a stalwart for the future of the game while concurrently acting as a mediator between the coaches and HCA. The CHL has a commissioner and it is evident how successful that organization has been with one true leader. Gary Williams, longtime (former) basketball coach at Maryland, has long lobbied for a commissioner in college basketball for many of the same reasons. William’s had this to say about his advocacy of an NCAA Basketball commissioner:

“We need a commissioner of basketball,” said the ex-Maryland coach, who hung it up this past season.
Williams said that’s one of the problems with the manner the NCAA is set up, that there’s no one who hails from the college hoops landscape intimately involved with the organization.

I would argue that NCAA hockey’s need for a lone commissioner is far more critical than any other major sport because of its unique make up which is unlike any other college sport in the U.S. If Gary Williams believes that basketball lacks a resounding presence amongst the NCAA executives, what would he have to say about the virtual non-existence of hockey personnel at the NCAA roundtable?

Another element to the world that is college hockey that differentiates itself from the other major NCAA sports is the fact that college hockey has to compete with another North American entity that is equal to it in terms of size and credibility. NCAA football and basketball for example are the main feeding grounds for the professional ranks in each sector. What complicates things in the NCAA Hockey arena is the proliferating competition with the Canadian Hockey League that most would argue is the preferable development league to the NHL. The CHL currently has 59 teams, equal to the NCAA field, and has several recruiting advantages that make for an uneven playing field. Can you imagine college basketball having to compete with another league within close proximity that was equal to it in terms of size and scope?

To further complicate matters, NCAA hockey is comprised of a mere 59 D1 Hockey programs that feverishly competes for recruits with the CHL. Thirdly, hockey remains a provincial sports in which recruits are highly concentrated in a few markets. Because of the limited number of prospects and the added competition with the Canadian Major Junior leagues, college hockey is indeed unique and in need of one clear voice more than any other NCAA sport out there.

College Hockey Inc. (CHI) has been left rudderless following the exodus of Paul Kelly and will need to act quickly in order to regain the momentum it had gained in the past 2 years. I always preach the importance of evolving and adapting any organization or program in order to keep pace with the rapidly changing times. College hockey must continue to adapt its game, add teams and consider some sweeping changes that will allow the great league to outpace its Canadian counterpart. They must walk a thin line of course as the universities must remain true to their esteemed academic backgrounds and promote the college experience as a competitive advantage versus the unforgiving hockey factory that IS the Canadian Major Juniors.

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