When the Big Ten decided it would begin to support hockey, it led to the dissolution of the CCHA and a power vacuum in college hockey that left many teams looking for a conference. Eight of these teams would band together to form the National Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHC). The teams would appoint Josh Fenton, a former associate athletic director for finance and administration at the University of Miami, as commissioner of the new conference.
The conference has seen some early signs of strength under Fenton, having at least one representative in the Frozen Four each of the three years the conference has been in existence. including both North Dakota and Denver this season. And with their semifinal faceoff on Thursday, one of those will be the NCHC’s first-ever representative in a national title game.
Fenton was good enough to talk to Along the Boards via phone this week as he takes in the Frozen Four from Tampa Bay.
With Denver and North Dakota set to face off in one of the Frozen Four semifinals, the NCHC is guaranteed its first-ever representation in a national championship game. How big a milestone is that?
Fenton: “It really is a testament to the teams in the conference, and I believe it shows the strength of the conference. We had North Dakota reach the Frozen Four in our first year and then two teams reach the Frozen Four last year and now this year with two more teams making it here. We are excited about it and see it as a testament to our teams.”
Minus the lack of an NCAA champion so far, are you pleased with the impression this new league has left on the nation in its first two plus years?
Fenton: “We are very pleased with how well our conference is performing. Obviously, we haven’t had the national champion yet, but the NCAA tournament is very difficult. Whether it’s in hockey or basketball, the one-and-done format makes it very hard to reach the title game. We are going to continue being in this position regularly. we feel, and we are excited to keep sending our teams to the Frozen Four.”
The previous UND-Denver matchup was in the conference tournament’s consolation game. Many feel like that game had an air of apathy to it, since those teams were already looking ahead to the NCAA tournament. Do you plan to keep the Frozen Faceoff status quo with two games each day?
Fenton: “This is something that we have talked about and will revisit with our board of directors, but we want the Frozen Faceoff to be a great entertainment showcase for some great hockey. Keeping the consolation game allows us to have four games that weekend and show even more hockey to our fans. There is some discussion to be had with our member schools and their athletic directors and coaches about the games but we feel like the weekend helps build our brand. We will certainly continue to have discussions about it among our board of directors and our member institutions.”
You introduced 3-on-3 overtime this season. Did its implementation get the reception you were hoping for?
Fenton: “It got a tremendous reception. The fans, the media and the student- athletes all enjoyed the change. I love the engagement it creates in the arena between the play on the ice and the fans in the stands. I will say that we do not have a lot of data on 3-on-3 overtime, being that we only have eight member institutions playing 24 conference games, and we want to give it more time. I also think we owe it to ourselves as a sport to have discussions nationally on overtime and what we do with it beyond an extra five minutes. Maybe 3-on-3 isn’t the solution, but I think discussions should be had.”
The Big Ten just added Notre Dame as a hockey member and Arizona State does not have a league yet. How keen are you on expanding the NCHC’s membership down the road?
Fenton: “Let me start by saying our eight member institutions are the fabric and heart of this conference. We have talks about expansion but only on the national scale and what would be best to help grow the game across the country. All of our talks on expansion are based on two things: What adds value to the conference and our commitment to helping the game grow.”
Do you think Notre Dame’s move will be the first of many dominoes to fall in teams moving conferences?
Fenton: “I don’t think I am smart enough to speculate on that, but I will say it is important to pay attention to conference alignment in order to grow the game the best we can as a sport.”
How do you feel about the recent proposal by the Big Ten limiting the age of players entering college sports?
Fenton: “Well, we will have our answer on it soon, they will be voting on it in the next couple of days. But I will say that our conference is unanimously against it because we feel it is not good for the sport of hockey. This is also part of the larger issue of recruiting practices which includes early, verbal commits and the delayed enrollment. I think the discussion needs to be discussed with other hockey entities like the NHL and major junior organizations because we need to do what is best for the players and their growth.
What about the fact that they are the only conference in college hockey who can bring a proposed rule directly to the NCAA as an all sports conference?
Fenton: “Honestly, I think it is a good thing to have the Big Ten involved in college hockey now. Before all of the hockey conferences were single-sport conferences and could not directly bring proposals before the NCAA. The problem is we need to have discussions about what is best for the sport overall and bring that to the NCAA’s attention. The issue of delayed enrollment is obviously something the Big Ten feels that needs to be addressed, but it was something internal they discussed, then brought to the NCAA with no larger national debate.”