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President Les Wong was a strong supporter of Northern Michigan athletics

May 15, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

A reader walked into The Mining Journal one day last summer during college hockey's conference realignment saga to discuss Northern Michigan University athletics with me.

Cornering me at my desk is not the way I prefer to converse with those of you who read my work - hint: emails get the most replies - but I was happy to talk Wildcat athletics with the visitor.

Then the person made the following statement:

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"Les Wong doesn't care about NMU sports."

I had no response initially, because it was flat out false. Anyone who has ever been to a Wildcat sporting event in the last eight years, or even met Wong, knows that statement couldn't be farther from the truth.

So I asked for some clarification, thinking the person was having a brain fart. Maybe this reader really meant to say Judith Bailey.

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You know, the president who governed Northern from 1997-2003 before doing the same at Western Michigan until 2006, when she was politely asked to leave and never return.

Nope, this reader meant Dr. Leslie E. Wong, Northern's 13th president, and this person had even more outrageous things to say.

"Les Wong hates athletics because he didn't get NMU into the Big Ten hockey conference."


I kindly explained the only way the Wildcats could get into the Big Ten hockey conference with Michigan and Michigan State was to move from NCAA Division II to Division I and get admitted as a full member of the Big Ten.

That didn't seem to faze the reader, even after I explained that Northern would have to build a 50,000-plus seat football stadium to start with, among other things, and even that wouldn't get NMU into the league.

Realizing I was in a losing battle, I excused myself and thanked the person for coming in to chat. Those who overheard the conversation in the office couldn't help but laugh at the prospect of NMU ever becoming a Big Ten school.

I, on the other hand, was more floored by the reader's initial statement:

"Les Wong doesn't care about NMU sports."

That's crazy talk, because if anything, Wong may care about the university's athletics a little too much, if that's possible.

Wong is not the late Al Davis, but he does have a little Jerry Jones in him, minus the southern drawl.

I was a sophomore at NMU and the assistant sports editor at The North Wind when Wong took over as president in July of 2004. Since that time, I think I've seen him in his Wildcat Nordic ski team jacket more times than I've seen him in a suit and tie.

Despite knowing little about hockey when he arrived in 2004, Wong has since become a bonafide puckhead - an intense one, in fact.

Wong may be an approachable person, but when the puck is in play at the Berry Events Center, he's not to be disturbed in the front row of his suite.

Wong is just as passionate about soccer, so much so that he tends to hide incognito next to the Wildcat bench or the small crowd of media by the scorer's booth.

His passion for the Wildcats and soccer once even got the best of him. According to a person who was on the sidelines during the incident, Wong was responsible for a bench yellow card after letting the officials know what he thought of their work.

In the last year, Wong has became not just a fan, but an active team president when it came time for key decisions and action, working hand-in-hand with interim athletic director Steve Reed while former AD Ken Godfrey battled acute myeloid leukemia.

Wong has stood up for the United States Olympic Education Center following the loss of the B.J. Stupak Olympic Scholarships and thanks to his support, the USOEC is on track to survive.

Wong guided the Wildcats through college hockey's crazy summer of conference realignment. While other schools sat back and sulked, Wong got aggressive.

Within 24 hours of the National College Hockey Conference's official announcement, Wong had the NMU Board of Trustees approving a move from the CCHA to the WCHA.

Wong's last act as commander and chief of the Wildcats appears to be the recommendation of an athletic director - someone who can finish the rebuilding effort he put in motion in 2004.

I understand the need to have the new leadership moving forward make the final decision now with Wong moving on to San Francisco State. But it would be unwise for NMU Interim President David Haynes and the board of trustees to go against Wong's selection.

Considering the time, effort, passion and support Wong has given the athletic department over the past eight years, I know he didn't make the decision on who to hire lightly, even if he had another job offer on the horizon.

Wong means it when he says "Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat."

You'd know that if you ever attended an NMU event, let alone met the man.

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.



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