ST. PAUL, Minn. — September’s NCHC Media Day at the Xcel Energy Center may have been a chance for the conference to trot out its finest and tout its accomplishments, but it felt more like a ‘welcome back to hockey’ party.
The eight players made available, each sporting their program’s logo, sat together in the media lunchroom amid all the day’s attendees, snacking on the spread, presumably sharing campus stories and catching up. The most popular man of the day, Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin, went deep on just about every question and chuckled with reporters. And all the while, both before and after delivering a State of the Conference address broadcasted across multiple platforms, NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton played the ultimate host.
He was accessible to any media member seeking a quote or a chinwag, cordial to the point where it seemed like he’d wander the bowels of the arena between radio hits looking for the next person to rub elbows with. Fenton and I had spoken twice at length in the offseason prior our first encounter at Media Day, where I’m supposed to be the one asking him questions, but instead he began and ended our discussion by asking about me.
Fenton and the NCHC made their mark on the offseason in multiple ways, and they proudly advertised that to those in attendance and those watching at home. In April, the NCAA approved sweeping changes to the recruiting timeline, a movement Fenton spearheaded with help from across the sport. In July, Atlantic Hockey became the fourth conference to adopt three-on-three overtime, a format which Fenton and others have been outspoken about since day one.
Fenton now begins his seventh season at the helm of the NCHC. The conference is entering year three of its five-year agreement with the Xcel Energy Center to host the conference’s championship, the Frozen Faceoff, and year seven of its partnership with CBS Sports Network to televise the conference’s games nationally. Also, lest you forget, it’s home to the past four national champions.
CHN: Going into your seventh season, do you feel that the conference keeps surpassing expectations every year?
Fenton: Yes, I think we’re continually amazed and surprised, especially by the on-ice accomplishments that have come over the past four years and that it’s progressed in the manner that it has. I still think that we have a lot of room to grow and a lot of areas that we can improve upon, but I don’t know that anybody would have envisioned what has been accomplished in the past six years playing out in this manner.
CHN: One of the most impressive things about the way your conference is set up and how it translates to that success is the non-conference scheduling. Not only is it challenging, but your teams tend to play more games out of conference than many others. Has that always been something that you were a proponent of, going back to your time at Miami?
Fenton: Well, everyone across the country has the chance to play 34 total games, not including exempt competitions like games up in Alaska, the Icebreaker, et cetera. But since day one, we’ve always believed in a model of 24 conference games, which gives us 10 non-conference opportunities. That gives our institutions enough of a schedule or résumé to hopefully win more games than they lose, and it’s played out that way. We’ve been fortunate to have a non-conference winning percentage of .637 over the past six seasons, and that has allowed many of our institutions to gain access to and have success in the NCAA Tournament, so we believe in the 24-game conference schedule model because we believe it gives the right amount of non-conference. The non-conference schedule has been important.
CHN: Does the fact that you have this ideal balance in schedule come up when you’re asked about expanding the conference to ten teams?
Fenton: Yeah, I think that’s just a small component of it when you look at membership size. To me, scheduling comes down to numbers, and when you start talking about numbers, you have only so many teams in the conference. But you could have less or you could have more, and that impacts how you put a schedule together. So right now, with an eight-team conference, from a pure numbers standpoint, we feel that 24 games is the right number.
CHN: You were at the forefront of the recruiting rules change, and in your state of the conference address, you mentioned that it appears to be going over well. Can you expound upon that?
Fenton: Over the past couple years, we went through a process to analyze recruiting rules, and a large committee made up of commissioners, athletic directors, and coaches really looked into this issue and felt as though the culture had become unhealthy. Recruiting had gotten earlier — which I don’t believe is unique to hockey; I think that it’s a part of, frankly, all sports across the NCAA — but it had gotten earlier and earlier to the point where recruiting conversations were happening with prospects that have no academic record for college considerations. We’re talking about seventh, eighth, even ninth graders. So not only were conversations being had at young ages, we were having verbal commitments at young ages, and people were becoming a little concerned about commitments to these institutions well in advance of signing a national letter of intent (NLI).
The committee did some good work. We had to educate various other committees across the NCAA, particularly members of the Division I Council, which is really the legislative body that would say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on legislation that is proposed each and every year. And ultimately, we got a system and model in place that allows for an appropriate recruiting period to take place starting January 1 of the sophomore year up until August 1 prior to the junior year, which is the first date that a prospect can be verbally offered.
We feel good about the schedule that was put together. We’ve also shrunk this window of when a kid is actually verbally committed to when he signs his NLI. Now, you can’t sign an NLI until the first week of November of your senior year. We’re talking about a 14-15 month stretch there where an institution and a prospect can be committed until the NLI gets signed, whereas in years past, that may have been three, four, heck, even five years until the NLI gets signed. And it led to issues of decommitment, certainly on both sides. So we’ve just been trying to protect the prospect and the institution in creating a healthier culture, and hopefully we’ve done that.
CHN: On the subject of that shortened commitment window, do you think the commitment means more now than it did previously because of the inability to commit early and perhaps subsequently flip as a kid grows older?
Fenton: The verbal commitment is still just that. The true commitment comes when you put the ink on the paper of the national letter of intent, and that will always be the case unless the NLI process changes in the future. But I do believe that there’s probably something more in that commitment knowing that it’s being made in a later age in life, and knowing that you have less time until the NLI gets signed. Back in the day, coaches and people within college hockey would like to talk about how we honored each other’s verbal commitments. Well, I can tell you that verbal commitments back in the day were coming from a 16-year-old, or maybe a 17-year-old. Now, we’ve gotten younger and younger in our communication, hence our commitments have gotten younger, which led to the problems that we’ve had. So we pushed that back by legislating the date, and now we have a shorter window between that and the NLI.
CHN: Changing gears now, the “student-athlete experience” isn’t just a buzz phrase for you. What’s the next area of the student-athlete experience that you think can be improved, both in your conference and nationwide?
Fenton: First off, I would say that if we’re not paying attention to the student-athlete experience, then we’re not doing our jobs. We want their experiences to be the pinnacle of their athletic life to that point. So it might be something like a consistent national overtime structure, which I think can add to the student-athlete experience and which I believe we need to get to. Within our conference, we’ve put together the Student-Athlete Well-Being Task Force that’s trying to address and help student-athletes in areas off the ice like mental health, reaffirming commitment to diversity and inclusion, and awareness in other topics that student-athletes are faced with every single day. I think there’s more going on in their lives today than there was 20 years ago. So it’s incumbent upon us to not just pay attention to what happens within the field of competition, but also to pay attention to what happens outside of it. I referenced regionalized scheduling in the state of the conference address; are we creating matchups that have a lot of meaning and creating a lot of energy inside the arena? Because that helps with the student-athlete experience. There’s a lot of other things out there, but I think if we’re not paying attention to student-athlete experience, then we’re not doing our jobs.
CHN: Speaking of overtime, something you also did in your address was give Atlantic Hockey props for making the switch to the three-on-three format. While you didn’t directly speak to the two conferences (ECAC & Hockey East) that haven’t shifted to three-on-three yet, what would be your message to them?
Fenton: I don’t think there’s a message to those that don’t embody it; they don’t because at this time, they don’t feel that it’s in the best interests of their conference. And I respect that opinion and I get it. I’ve had a lot of conversations with those people. I just believe that it goes back to the experiences we have to take care of, which are the student-athletes and the fans. Three-on-three overtime, which is a part of every elite hockey entity across the world, should be a standard in college hockey. I think we can figure out what happens in three-on-three as a part of RPI (i.e. NCAA tournament selection criteria) and credits of winners and losers; I don’t want that to be the driving force as to why three-on-three shouldn’t be a part of the game, because when I talk to our student-athletes about what their experiences are like in three-on-three, it’s off the charts and they love it. So I don’t know how we can not listen to that perspective and get too consumed by how we’re going to handle the credit for the win versus the loss. We can figure that out. I get that it has to be a part of the conversation. I just think that for the good of the sport, like every other hockey entity across the world has done, we have to find a way to get it into ours.
CHN: Where do you stand on the topic of a third paid assistant coach, and what are some of the challenges to making it a reality?
Fenton: We’ve been a proponent of it in the past, and we’ll be a continued proponent of it in the future. I think the challenge is somewhat beyond hockey; baseball and softball had a piece of legislation to essentially turn the volunteer assistant into a paid assistant, and that was defeated [in April]. I think there’s real concern — and I have respect for these concerns and opinions — but there’s a financial aspect to adding another coach, there’s a gender equity/Title IX aspect to adding another coach, and those are the types of things that we have to get figured out and deliver a message as to why we need a third assistant.
I think our game is unique; from a recruiting standpoint, especially in the west, our coaches are on the road a lot recruiting. So if you go to a practice on a given Tuesday or Wednesday, you may only have the head coach and the volunteer assistant on the ice because the paid assistants are on the road recruiting. So that can come down to student-athlete experience, student-athlete development and safety for what’s going on on the ice surface because we don’t have the full component of coaches there. I think that the sport overall would support it, and we’ve also supported it in a sense of adding a third assistant coach really just focused on coaching duties. It isn’t about adding a third assistant coach just so you can have another guy on the road recruiting. It’s about coaching duties and alleviating some of the challenges that our coaches have for practices or even games because some guys are on the road.
CHN: Lastly, do you have any update on the Frozen Four front, and what do you believe that event would be like if it were to be hosted by your conference?
Fenton: I think a Frozen Four hosted by our conference would be a great experience, just like all Frozen Fours are, and I think we would do a fine job with it. As far as opportunities for the future, we’re frankly no different than the last time you and I spoke about this. We’re still having conversations with a handful, so to speak, of opportunities, and those opportunities are still trying to figure out whether it’s in their best interests to submit a bid. And if they do decide to submit a bid, is it best for them to decide to work with us as a host? I think the benefit that we have in this current environment is that the NCAA bid portal is open until February, which is longer than normal. So nobody has to rush and put a bid in. There’s still a bit of time before some things have to get figured out, whether that’s us serving as a host or any market or venues submitting a bid.
Originally published at https://www.collegehockeynews.com/news/2019/10/09_QA-With–NCHC-Commissioner.php