Operating junior hockey teams and leagues optimally requires fitting within the developmental needs of players, while working with the colleges and coaches that they hope will recruit them.
The Eastern Hockey League turned to a man with understanding of each of those areas when it landed Joe Bertagna, who this summer began serving in the position of executive advisor to the EHL.
The former Harvard University goaltender, who played briefly professionally, is coming off 38 years as a college conference commissioner, the last 15 of which was spent with Hockey East. Bertagna, a USA Hockey Distinguished Service Award winner in recognition of his service across many different committees and councils, served as Team USA’s goalie coach for the 1991 Canada Cup and 1994 Olympic Winter Games.
“We really thought Joe was the perfect fit,” said Mike Sorabella, chairman of the EHL Board of Governors executive committee. “He has an array of knowledge, in terms of experience, as player, coach, administrator that made him qualified right out of the gate.
“What was really most appealing is that he has spent the last 30-plus years administering over some of the premier hockey at the collegiate level and our league mission statement is to really prepare players for and advance them on to college hockey.”
Bertagna, the first executive director of the American Hockey Coaches Association, remains in that position, which he has held continuously since 1991.
“It’s really hard to believe, but it’s been 50 years since I entered Harvard as a hockey player,” Bertagna said. “I’ve had all those years, except for a couple where I was playing professionally, almost the entire 50 that I’ve been connected to college hockey.”
In his first six weeks with the EHL, Bertagna has been learning the nuances of approaching his continued connection to college hockey from a different perspective.
“This is a new challenge to me,” Bertagna said. “In some ways, certain things are universal, so I can talk about administration, about having clearly defined rules and enforcing them fairly, about having on-ice discipline and all the things that are part of all hockey at the upper levels of junior hockey, high school and college. I’m still learning some of the things that are junior-specific because it’s the one slice of my hockey resume where I haven’t had a lot of experience.”
Bertagna said he has learned the league is fulfilling many of its goals.
“One of the things that attracted me to the EHL is the mission, they really see themselves placing kids in [NCAA] Division II and III hockey,” Bertagna said. “They don’t preclude the kids that can get on to Division I rosters either directly or they can go on from the EHL to another league and then get to Division I, but I think they have found a niche where they have been very successful in placing 150 to 160 kids a year in Division II and III programs.
“I was impressed that they were honest about their mission and that they were good at it. As I finish my fast learning curve, I hope a lot of the experience I have outside of juniors will be relevant.”
Sorabella is confident in that.
“We just thought there were a ton of opportunities to draw from Joe’s experience,” he said. “Ultimately, it will benefit the league and the players.”
The specific areas in which Bertagna will be able to help the most remain to be seen.
“It’s pretty fluid, but it includes playing a significant role in the vision of the future of the league, working with the college community to help represent us as a brand ambassador of our league and then to play a role in improving our product, working with our coaches, working with Director of Hockey Operations Ken Hodge Jr.,” said Sorabella, who owns the Boston Junior Rangers. “Really concentrate on the quality of the product and making sure that everyone is focused, not only on running their own program, but also on the betterment of the league as a whole. I think he’s in a unique position to have that influence over our room.”
Along with Hodge, the EHL office includes Neil Ravin, who is entering his sixth season as director of communications. Ravin got started in hockey while at Quinnipiac University where he covered the school’s team and served as video intern for Hockey East while it was under Bertagna’s leadership.
In his EHL role, Bertagna is learning about roster differences with trades and protected lists that differ from eligibility issues and the limited roster movement that takes place on the college level.
“A lot of college hockey is marketing to crowds,” Bertagna said. “We spend a lot of time in college hockey trying to get our games on television and national streaming contracts and regional television contracts. The junior teams, their audience, the crowd they want is a rink full of coaches to help showcase their kids to.”
That means considering issues like different starting times, including weekday afternoons when more college coaches may have a chance to observe.
Bertagna said one idea he intends to discuss is the tolerance of fighting in juniors compared to how it is punished on the college level.
“Why would you allow this if you’re trying to prepare kids for a level where it’s not tolerated,” said Bertagna, whose experience includes college rules committees.
The way Bertagna looks at that issue is that it is just another part of the junior hockey role in developing players for the “demands, rigors, culture and maturity required to play at the college level.”
As he blends into his new position, Bertagna, who resides in Massachusetts, is aware that, for at least this season, issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic are part of planning.
“Our 18 teams come from nine different states,” Bertagna said. “We’re dealing with scheduling issues, not knowing what the conditions are going to be as each of those states goes through its various stages.”
As the EHL faces the potential of difficult decisions needing to be made quickly on the fly, it will do so with an experienced hockey administrator playing a vital role.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.