By Jess Myers
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Western Collegiate Hockey Association men’s commissioner Bill Robertson chooses his words carefully when asked what the future may bring.
While many in the college hockey world are thinking two and three seasons down the road, when more of the game’s tectonic plate shifting that has been common for the past decade may happen, Robertson is focused on the immediate future and the season that is less than two months away.
“It’s business going forward for the coming year. We can’t stop what we’re doing,” Roberston said, in an interview at the league’s Twin Cities office this week. He specifically mentioned core league office responsibilities like sponsorships, branding, media relations and budgeting. “We need to get ready for the start of this year, because we have a minimum of two more years under the current situation in the WCHA.”
When asked if it is business as usual, he offered an important clarification.
“I wouldn’t say it’s called business as usual, but it’s business moving forward,” Roberston said, with a disarming smile.
Indeed, nothing is “as usual” these days in the WCHA, a conference that is nearly 70 years old and has produced 38 of the 72 NCAA champion teams. Yes, they will compete with 10 teams in the 2019-20 season, just as they have since college hockey’s last great realignment in 2013.
That fact was confirmed recently when the game’s two farthest-flung programs, Alaska (in Fairbanks) and Alaska Anchorage, confirmed they would field teams for the coming season. The status of those programs for the 2020-21 season is uncertain, and the status of the WCHA as a whole beyond that season is a mystery.
Working with Alaska schools
The uncertainty stems from a June 28 surprise announcement by seven of the league’s 10 members — Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State Mankato and Northern Michigan — that they plan to leave the conference in two years. On that Friday afternoon, all seven schools had letters delivered to Robertson stating their intention to explore forming a new conference. Among the reasons cited by former St. Cloud State athletic director Morris Kurtz, who worked as a consultant to the seven schools, was “a focus on improving regional alignment and the overall student-athlete experience.”
That move by 70 percent of the current WCHA would leave the two Alaska schools and Alabama Huntsville effectively homeless, and is a clear threat to the viability of all three programs, and the conference as a whole.
Roberston is known by countless friends in the sports world as “BillyRob” and came to the WCHA in 2014 after a career that included time in the NBA, MLB, with USA Hockey and nearly two decades in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild. He is working with the Alaska schools as they try to get the funding from the Alaska State Legislature that’s necessary for their extensive and expensive travel to and from campus for road games and for recruiting.
“I can’t say long term what’s going to happen with the Alaska schools,” he admitted. “I’ve been in close contact with their administration, their athletic departments and their coaches all summer long on this topic and they both believe they’re going to compete for many years to come, so we’re going to work with them to continue to have them part of the western piece of the WCHA.”
So for now, while appealing to legislators in Juneau, and encouraging the talk of a new arena at Alabama Huntsville that would boost their program, Robertson practices “business going forward.” He mentions the number of non-hockey schools that contact him and others about potentially adding the sport, and is a strong advocate of growth in the game, especially in the western United States.
He works with Arizona State to provide on-ice referees for the Sun Devils’ home games, as the WCHA did last season as well. He speaks with some pride about the success and fantastic, intense hockey that has come from moving the league playoffs back to on-campus sites. And for now Robertson insists that each league member is on the same footing, regardless of where they may be 24 months in the future.
“Moving forward, we are in business with all 10 schools. We have 10 members,” he said. “We’re not dissecting it as seven here and three there. You can’t do that. As commissioner my integrity, my transparency and my honesty are all about doing what’s best for all of the WCHA.”
Surprised by announcement
One idea that has been floated in Alaska is to have the two schools, arch-rivals for decades, field one shared hockey program, in an effort to reduce costs and travel. Robertson admitted he doesn’t know how exactly that would work, but is in a wait-and-see mode while elected officials there determine their budget and where cuts may need to be made.
“I think they have a good chance of both of them continuing to play, but that remains to be seen,” he said. “I hate to use the cliche, but it is one year at a time. And we should know more by the end of this calendar year what the status is for both schools. That’s why we’re staying close and are joined at the hip to make sure we understand what’s going to happen in Alaska.”
Robertson will not speak directly to the timing or circumstances of the June 28 announcement, but he indicated that he was taken by surprise, as were many in the college hockey world. There was no formal discussion of any teams leaving the WCHA at the league’s official meetings in April, held in Florida.
Still, there was no anger or resentment obvious with Robertson, despite all that has happened. He made his mark in media relations, honored five times by the NHL as the best in the business. He was the first media relations manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves when they opened for business in 1989, and for the Ducks when they began plan four years later. So he has experience with starting from scratch and seems prepared to do so again if need be. Still, Robertson admitted that the past six weeks have been a trial.
“There’s not a book for this, at all. I told my staff that it’s been a unique summer and one I’ll never forget,” he said, with another smile. “When I go on the public speaking tour when I’m retired, I hope to talk about all of this, how you have to be prepared for anything and everything that could possibly happen. I’ve been in Olympic sports with USA Hockey, I’ve been in the NBA, I’ve been in Major League Baseball and in the NHL and college hockey, and I’ve never had a more challenging summer than this one.”
But come fall, when the first pucks hit the ice in Bemidji and Mankato and Huntsville and elsewhere, he expects it to be all business. Just not business as usual.