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Q&A: CCHA Commissioner Fred Pletsch discusses future of college hockey, end of 42-year-old league

March 28, 2013 - Matt Wellens

DETROIT — After 42 seasons, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association put on one final bash in Detroit over the weekend with its annual awards show on Friday at downtown’s historic Fox Theatre and championship tournament on Saturday and Sunday at Joe Louis Arena.

Starting in the fall, the league’s final configuration of 11 teams will split into four different conference with 2013 Mason Cup Champion Notre Dame going to Hockey East, regular season champion Miami and Western Michigan heading to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the league’s marquee schools — Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — joining the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Bowling Green State and Alaska will head to a new-look WCHA.

Mining Journal Sports Editor Matt Wellens was in Detroit for the end of the CCHA. On Saturday following the league semifinal victories by Notre Dame and Michigan, he sat down with commissioner Fred Pletsch in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena to talk about the challenges college hockey will face in the future and what is to become of the 42-year-old CCHA.

MW: How would you rate the CCHA’s final year and what kind of experience has it been for you as the commissioner?

FP: I think it’s been challenging, because our 11 members are invested in the CCHA, but naturally they are always looking ahead already to their next venture, the next conference alignment they are going to be in. That’s certainly presented some challenges.

I’m awfully proud of our staff that really could have mailed it in. I think there is a lot of professionalism and pride and dedication shown from the CCHA Awards Show at Fox Theatre to the effort that went into this championship weekend.

I guess my experience tells me, and Tom Anastos was always fond of saying as well, from a conference office perspective, as a league, you are judged on two things. You’re judged on the number of fans at your championship and you’re judged on how many teams your league places in the national tournament. The final, final chapter remains to be written with our Sunday championship, but I think we did a good job with celebrating what the league has been and anybody who was at the awards and watched the DVD that we put together saw that.

We interviewed three dozen people, pioneers and trailblazers of the CCHA. We organized a lot of really good archival footage. We also had, for this weekend, some 50 former coaches, staff members, CCHA players of the year and championship MVPs show up. I know they’ve appreciated coming back to The Joe one more time.

MW: So you sensed throughout the regular season that teams might be looking ahead to their future alignments instead of focusing entirely on the CCHA. Was that a problem or concern for the league going into the year?

FP: I would characterize it as a reality. With the new WCHA, before Alabama-Huntsville joined, it was four WCHA members, five CCHA members. The Big Ten was forming. Instead of having conference calls and administrators on calls devoted to CCHA issues, they were — and I can’t blame them — they were devoting their time to the organization of their league for next season.

From a CCHA administrative standpoint, we were kind of left to our own designs at sometimes, but that’s OK. It’s mostly financial and a lot of on-ice situations that we dealt with. I think we continue to deal with them from a progressional standpoint.

MW: As teams dealt with their future leagues, including two leagues that don’t technically exist yet, did you sense any reluctance or second-guessing by teams?

FP: Not from the teams themselves. They have to be comfortable in their own decisions. Yeah, there were some coaches, once they got into the reality of scheduling in their new leagues. The administrators weighed their options, made the best decisions they could make after they considered the circumstances that they faced, and they have to move ahead.

I do say I heard from a lot of quarters that people are saying, “I really wonder if this is the end of the restructuring?’ Ron Mason ... if you watch our history of the CCHA DVD, Ron Mason talks about the prelude to 1982 when Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Notre Dame left the WCHA and came to the CCHA. He said it was really driven by two athletic directors — Don Canham at Michigan and Doug Weaver at Michigan State — who looked at what was happening and said, ‘What are we doing flying to Colorado College and Denver and Minnesota every weekend? Travel was expensive. Why don’t we form a bus league and form some close geographic regional rivals?’

You look at these new leagues and it’s gotten completely away from that. Travel isn’t coming down in cost. So you’ve got leagues now that are busing and flying past existing leagues to get to the new leagues. Can that be sustained? Maybe it can. Maybe in a couple years, people will say, maybe we have to look at something else for the long term viability of our program.

MW: How do see college hockey shaking out in 5-6 years?

FP: I can guess. I don’t know. I think the Big Ten, with their national brand and television network, they can do some really good things to raise the profile of the sport nationally, as can the NCHC. I think some of the WCHA, they certainly have their travel challenges. If there would be some second thought and reconsideration, it perhaps would come from those types of programs first. It remains to be seen.

The big question is, can Big Ten hockey help grown the sport, create more programs? Can Nebraska or Illinois start Big Ten hockey? If they can, great. If the current landscape forces current programs to become defunct, obviously that is not a good thing.

MW: Talking about the travel, do you think the NCHC and new WCHA with how spread out they are, can these programs economically sustain what they are doing now having to devote so many dollars to travel?

FP: Those are decisions they have to make. I hear various figures bandied about, about what are the actual real cost increases given the extra travel. It’s six figures, almost unanimously across the board. If you’re an athletic department, how can you generate revenue to cover those increased costs?

I don’t think I see any television revenue there. Playoff revenue, I’m not really sure because the WCHA Final Five, I mean, that championship revenue is going to dip. The CCHA always had a six-figure guarantee from its championship. I don’t see that anywhere. So, school administrators are going to have to come up with more money to fund hockey. Could that be a tough sell on some campuses? It might be.

MW: How different are these championship weekends going to be? You brought up the revenue. We’re going from two, yearly traditions in Detroit and St. Paul to some rotating tournaments between the states of Michigan and Minnesota, then a second tournament in Minnesota.

FP: The Big Ten and NCHC and the new WCHA, they have to basically start from scratch building their brand.

This has been 32 years at Joe Louis Arena. It’s had its ups and downs. I think what this weekend has told me is really how dependent the CCHA Championships has been on Michigan and Michigan State historically. You can’t dispute that. I think the other members recognized that all along and were appreciative of the things those bigger schools brought to the table.

Without those big schools, as I say, building their brand is really going to be one of the determining factors on the success of their league. Where is the right spot for their championship? I know the WCHA is talking about this place and that place. Will it work long term? Will the partners be satisfied?

We certainly have our challenges here. You certainly saw the attendance for the first game between Ohio State and Notre Dame and March Madness at the Palace. We’re in the college hockey entertainment business and we have to put a good product on. We also sometimes have to have the right teams in the mix to get that question answered, successfully, about ... how is the league judged by the number of fans at the championship.

MW: Did college hockey’s eyes get a little bigger than its stomach when it started forming new leagues?

FP: I don’t think so. I think there was a bit of a philosophical change from what I can tell and from what some of the founding fathers and the trailblazers of the CCHA said.

The history of the CCHA has always been inclusionary. It started as a league because the WCHA was a closed shop and wouldn’t let nascent programs such as Bowling Green and St. Louis and Ohio State into their league, so they formed their own league. It always continued to be inclusionary, adding Ferris and Western and Miami and UIC (Illinois-Chicago) and Kent State. I think the administrators always tried to do what was the best thing to grow the sport.

This latest round could be perceived as schools looking after their own interests first and that’s fine, because that was kind of the model that had been put before them in other sports, specifically football. Can you blame them for trying to get the best fit for their school? I don’t think you can.

MW: What is next for the CCHA? How does the league close up shop?

FP: The CCHA is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation licensed by the state of Michigan, so in order to receive approval from the attorney general of the State of Michigan to dissolve the corporation, we need to file a plan, follow through on that plan and have certain conditions are met. Part of those conditions are that financial records and tax records have to be kept on file with an institution so if they need to be accessed down the road.

We’re in the process of entering into an agreement with Bowling Green. Bowling Green is the only school that played all 42 seasons in the CCHA. In exchange for the rights to the name and the logo and the mark and the website and all that stuff, Bowling Green is going to take control of those records and have them on file and also be a place to keep the trophies for historical purposes.

I think Bowling Green is trying to find a way to commit to a historical display of the Mason Cup and the regular season championship trophy. If you go upstairs ... there is a 60-foot-long CCHA history wall. It’s 60-feet. It shows the entire history of the CCHA. We’re hoping Bowling Green can put it on their wall in their arena to preserve the legacy of the CCHA.

MW: What is next for you as well as the staff that has worked so hard this final season?

FP: Nobody has anything firmly lined up. Knowing that league ADs wouldn’t want to be put in a position in February of taking control of supplemental discipline, and the CCHA Awards and CCHA Championship and being responsible for that, I said, ‘I know you guys don’t want to be involved in that stuff, so give us a little comfort level. Give us a little time when the season is over to look for a job and we’ll focus on the task at hand in December, January, February, March.’

Everybody has been given some time starting now to find a new position. Nobody has anything lined up and ready to go. Truth be told, March is a blur in our office — 14 hour days just getting everything ready. You really don’t have time to look for a job or send out resumes. I’m sure we’ll all be focusing on that now.

MW: During college hockey’s realignment, did any of the other leagues reach out to you to join their staffs with your experience running a league and in marketing, communications and television?

FP: I’ve had a few discussions, but you have to understand that the Big Ten being a multi-sport conference, they don’t need a commissioner. They’ve hired Steve Piotrowski to do their officiating. They’ve got people to do PR and communications and websites and social media. They have staff in place to run championships.

It will be a different experience, especially for the Big Ten teams, going from the CCHA, a single sport conference, to what’s involved with a multi-sport conference where all the sports are treated the same. It will be interesting to see what happens there.

MW: Since I’ve gotten into town this weekend, there have been whispers that this may not be the real end of the CCHA. Do you ever see the league being reborn in the future if this realignment doesn’t work out?

FP: That’s difficult to speculate on. I would say never say never. Maybe that is one of the reasons Bowling Green is interested in keeping the name and the mark and all that stuff.

When all this came down, we really looked at trying to form a league geographically that made sense. I always thought that Ferris, BG, Western, Miami, Buffalo was interested in starting hockey, Canisius, RIT, Niagara, Robert Morris, Mercyhurst — to me that makes a lot of sense, but you kept hearing the term, “like-mindedness” bandied about so the like-minded schools, in terms of commitment to hockey, banded together.

That’s what we have now and maybe “like-mindedness” will take on a different definition in five years. Who knows?

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CCHA commissioner Fred Pletsch addresses the crowd on Sunday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit and on television on FS Detroit prior to the presentation of the Mason Cup to CCHA tournament champions Notre Dame. With the league dissolving, the regular season and tournament championship trophies will be put on display at Bowling Green State, which was the only school to be a part of the CCHA all 42 seasons. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)