The United States junior hockey community can take justifiable pride in navigating the conditions of 2020-21 to complete league seasons under trying conditions.
Now that 2021-22 is up and running, challenges remain, including completing the current season as normally as possible and making the most of all that was learned in the past 18 months.
With enthusiasm filling rinks, the USA Hockey-sanctioned leagues got their seasons underway, this time with fans cheering loudly for their hometown teams, with an approach that combined ambition with caution learned from operating under the constant need to be ready for adjustments.
North American Hockey League commissioner Mark Frankenfeld sensed a different vibe as he moved around the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, during the NAHL Showcase Sept. 15-18 for the mammoth early-season event that he refers to as “The Greatest Show on Ice.”
Like many large-scale events, the NAHL had to scratch the showcase in 2020 when leagues were happy to simply be able to stage single games in low-key settings with schedules that limited the mixing of teams from different divisions and different regions of the country.
“It was just really nice to get caught up with people,” Frankenfeld said. “There’s a lot of great people in this community and it was great to be able to spend a little bit of time getting caught up on things, just respecting the time together in the buildings.”
Frankenfeld said others seemed to have the same feeling about being back.
“Everybody’s mood was even more gracious, happier to be back on the ice, happy to be back in the rinks,” he said.
Frankenfeld characterized the biggest focus of the season as “getting back to normal.”
That does not mean, however, that growth opportunities will be ignored.
Commissioners of the leagues discussed their hopes for improvements and new initiatives as well as areas that need to be addressed during interviews with USAHockey.com as the new seasons began.
Bill Robertson took over as United States Hockey League commissioner July 12 after being named in January.
While Robertson completed his duties with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, he said outgoing commissioner Tom Garrity “let me know what to expect.”
“Two months into the position, I’m still learning a lot,” Robertson said in a September interview. “I told membership and the board that I want to be a good listener. I want to evaluate and determine what can make us stronger.”
Robertson believes that a focus on communications, broadcasting and social media is critical to advancing the league as a whole.
“I’m studying those right now,” said Robertson, whose background includes being director of communications for The Walt Disney Company (1993-98), leading communications for both the National Hockey League’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Major League Baseball’s Anaheim Angels; serving as media relations liaison for the men’s women’s U.S. Olympic hockey teams in 2002 and 2006 and serving as vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota Sports & Entertainment (1998-2011).
Video was often the only way for fans, families, recruiters and scouts to follow junior hockey last season.
“One of the things that we’re working on just in general is continuing to upgrade, continuing to push technology,” the NAHL’s Frankenfeld said. “We did a lot of video last year.
“There’s technology out there that we’re trying to have stronger relationships with and build stronger offerings.”
Like Robertson, Eastern Hockey League commissioner Joe Bertagna is relatively new to his position, but not to the sport or many of the responsibilities of the job.
Bertagna stepped in as executive advisor last summer and officially took over as commissioner in June.
“It morphed into a commissioner’s job at the end of the first year and became official in June,” Bertagna said.
Bertagna, a USA Hockey Distinguished Service Award recipient, became the first executive director of the American Hockey Coaches Association in 1991. He served as a commissioner on the NCAA Division I level for 38 years — 15 with the ECAC and 23 with Hockey East.
After a year of communicating with coaches and others around the league via Zoom, Bertagna was looking forward to building relationships face-to-face this season through the league’s monthly showcases, the first of which wrapped up in Worcester, Massachusetts, Oct. 3.
“I’m looking forward to these events,” Bertagna said in an interview right before heading to the first showcase. “I already have good relationships with a lot of the NCAA Division III coaches from my work with the American Hockey Coaches Association and I’m hoping I can serve as a little bit of an ambassador to link these groups of coaches together.”
It is an important time for those relationships with recruiting potentially complicated by extended eligibility of players already on campuses.
“We had a lot of players advance this year,” Frankenfeld said. “We thought we would have more players in a holding pattern than we did. We’re pretty pleased with the number of players that did get a chance to move on this year with what that reclass could have done.
“Right now, it’s not as damaging as it could have been and we’re going to keep an eye on it and try to use all options as best we can for our players and their advancement opportunities.”
While the USHL and NAHL help fill NCAA Division I rosters, the EHL primarily develops NCAA Division III talent.
Bertagna is hopeful that the return of the monthly Showcase Series will keep that advancement moving.
“One of the things we’re proud of is in spite the absence of those events and in light of the NCAA giving athletes a fifth year, we still had about 180 commitments last year in the NCAA Division III, so I think that was a feather in the cap for these coaches that are doing a good job preparing these guys for the next level,” he said.
With many programs shut down and games canceled on the college level last year, officials for junior games were plentiful.
That availability and the general state of officiating numbers are issues that Bertagna will be watching.
“Across all sports, we’re in a little bit of a precarious situation because of the numbers of officials just not returning,” Bertagna said of an official impacting many sports. “It was first brought to my attention at the USA Hockey Congress a couple years ago. I wasn’t aware of the normal ebb and flow. First of all, a lot of the officials are really young and this dynamic of people behaving badly, whether its parents yelling over the glass or coaches yelling, a lot of them just say, ‘We don’t need this abuse.’
“We do have a bit of a crisis in the country, probably less so at the upper end, at the colleges and for us, but we are all interconnected, one way or another and I’ve heard anecdotally the last few weekends of youth hockey programs having one ref on ice or no refs showing up.”
Bertagna hopes the leagues can help create a better environment for officials.
“We try to tell our coaches that just as you’re developing young players, we’re trying to develop officials,” he said.
With all of the commissioners taking aim at new objectives for this season, the similarities are uncanny. All will look to use the previous season as an opportunity from the new solutions learned, while returning back onto the ice to provide of the best junior hockey offerings in the world.
All leagues share a common bond throughout the advancement of players, an important ladder effect for that advancement, and the commissioners and leagues alike will look forward to another bright season as an opportunity to celebrate what is most important: the players.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.