Josh Fenton understands the history and traditions of college hockey. The Minnesota native grew up watching the old WCHA, and now he’ll help lead the sport into a new era.
Fenton is the commissioner of the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference. His staff and eight of the country’s premier college hockey programs — North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Colorado College, Denver, Miami (Ohio), Omaha and Western Michigan — will attempt to increase national exposure of the sport by breaking tradition.
Fenton spent 12-plus years in various hockey-focused athletic roles at Miami (Ohio), most recently as senior associate athletic director of finance and administration, before taking on this new endeavor.
Shaking up the college hockey landscape offended many fans, but Fenton believes the birth of the NCHC and Big Ten hockey only will strengthen the game. And though it looks as if the NCHC is going head-to-head with the Big Ten by scheduling coinciding media days and conference tournaments in the Twin Cities, Fenton said that appearance is deceiving and that all hockey conferences need to work together for the betterment of the sport.
The NCHC will hold its conference semifinals and finals, the Frozen Faceoff, on Friday and Saturday at Target Center. The Big Ten hockey tournament runs Thursday through Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.
Q: With these scheduling conflicts, it appears the new hockey conferences are setting up to be rivals. Was this intentional and how is this perceived by your member schools?
A: I think we all have an obligation to work together to ensure college hockey is viable and strong long into the future. Whether that is the Big Ten, which has institutions that compete at the highest level of college athletics, or whether that’s our conference that has Division II and Division III members.
I say our ‘friends across town at the Big Ten ’cause I do consider them friends. … We have to work together in different and unique ways to make sure the game is strong and viable.
You ask whether it’s competition, I don’t know if I necessarily look at it that way. … I do think we have great product. I think we’ve got great institutions. I think our history and tradition in the sport is off the charts. I think we have the opportunity to become one of the premier conferences in college hockey.
Q: How do you address the perception that the NCHC is a superconference with eight of the country’s elite teams?
A: I guess you could look at it that way. Denver has won seven national championships, North Dakota has won seven national championships, Duluth has won one. Colorado College has won a couple. So there is a lot of history and tradition there.
I don’t know if I look at us as the quote power conference. Certainly we have institutions that have a lot of competitive success in the past.
I go back to why these eight schools came together, which is so cool and unique. Miami University and Western Michigan compete at the FBS level, midmajor. You’ve got North Dakota, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha that compete at the FCS level. Then you’ve got St. Cloud State and Duluth that compete at the Division II level, and Colorado College competes at the Division III level. I think it’s so neat these schools could come together and say we’ve got some like-minded feelings about our hockey programs that this could be very successful and this could really work.
You look at the institutions within our conference … they’re institutions where hockey is a big deal. It’s certainly a big deal at the Big Ten, but football is a pretty big deal at Michigan and Ohio State. It’s unique in that regard. And then I think there was this desire for national exposure. I’m careful when I say that, because I don’t want to seem as though we’re covering the country coast to coast, though we do have teams in three time zones. I think there is a little national feel to it.
Q: Will these new so-called “power hockey conferences” hurt the little guys of Division I college hockey?
A: We have to take care of the game at the college level. We have to make sure that whether you’re a Big Ten institution that has a $120 million athletic department budget or you’re a Division III institution that has a $6 or $7 million budget, or potentially less, that we find some level of competitive equality and competitive ground for everyone to compete.
I think college hockey in general, especially over the last few years, the parity has really improved. Now we have conference realignment, conference shifts, so now we’re into somewhat of a new era, a new age … but if you go back and look at the Frozen Four last year, there was no big name. … I think that’s great for college hockey. We have to make sure there is a place for everybody.
Q: How has the idea of the NCHC been responded to by longtime hockey fans?
A: I think we get both [good and bad]. I grew up in this state. I grew up watching WCHA hockey and understand the history and tradition. And people that have been around the game a lot longer than I, and know a lot more than I do about the game, understand college hockey has existed in an environment where it was very niche and regionalized.
That was great for college hockey, so I get why people say it’s not going to work ’cause it worked for so long on that structure and now we’ve changed that structure. I do think it can work ’cause we have an opportunity to potentially add institutions to the sport. It’s a significant undertaking … But I think for the overall exposure for the game, whether you look at us and our national TV agreement with CBS Sports Network, or look at what the Big Ten is doing, college hockey has never had that amount of national exposure. I don’t know if it would have ever gotten to that point under the previous conference structure.
Q: How lucrative are the TV deals and is that really a driving force in college hockey?
A: It’s lucrative in a standpoint of exposure. Lucrative from a financial standpoint, there hasn’t been a model, yet, where it’s a significance financial driver for additional exposure on television. This thought that these things were all done to create more television money is not necessarily true.
Q: The inaugural Frozen Faceoff will feature Miami of Ohio, Denver, Western Michigan and North Dakota, three of which finished in the bottom half of the NCHC regular-season standings. How do you think this will affect attendance?
A: Our focus has been, how can we create a great event for fans to come down to Minneapolis and enjoy, wherever our conference teams are coming from this weekend. That’s why you’ll see things like Fan Fest and Fan Skate and see an NCHC postgame party. … That’s why you’ll see great entertainment value in the venue during games, and obviously great hockey games. Our focus has not been on who is going to be there. We don’t have control over it, so our focus has been on the event.
The feedback and feeling from participating teams is that fans are excited. A couple institutions not around Minneapolis have great alums in the area that already started to purchase tickets. I don’t want to give a specific number [on ticket sales], but in the last week we’ve seen it increase significantly. We’re expecting to have good crowds. … It’s our first year and we want to build something sustainable. We’re committed to Minneapolis. We have a five-year agreement with Target Center.