New WCHA commissioner Robertson asked by league members to tackle Final Five event in first year
MARQUETTE – New Western College Hockey Association Commissioner Bill Robertson isn’t your prototypical “hockey guy” by many people’s standards.
While Robertson grew up in the hockey-crazed city of St. Paul, Minn., he played soccer and baseball in high school and he began his communications career working for an NBA expansion team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, in Minneapolis.
But after serving as a director and a vice president of communications for two expansion teams – the Anaheim Mighty Duck and Minnesota Wild – for nearly two decades, a former colleague of Robertson’s in Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle was quick to shoot down the notion that the next head of college hockey’s oldest conference was not a, “hockey guy.”
“He is a hockey guy,” said Kyle, who was an assistant with the Ducks from 1996-1998. “People may say (he’s not a hockey guy) because he’s not a former coach or a player, but this guy has worked in hockey for I can’t tell you how many years. He was there with the Ducks when they were an expansion team. Then he went to the Wild for a number of years through their expansion. You’re a hockey guy when you spent over 20 years working in the National Hockey League.
“I know Billy, and we’ll be able to talk to him and he will understand things from a hockey perspective.”
Robertson, 53, was introduced Tuesday in his hometown of St. Paul as the next commissioner of the WCHA, set to begin working for the league in mid-May and take over the reigns when current commissioner Bruce McLeod retires on June 30 after 20 seasons.
McLeod oversaw a major change in the makeup of the league over his final three seasons as commissioner with eight of the 12 teams leaving after the 2012-13 season for new conferences while welcoming six new members, including NMU.
Now it’s up to Robertson to complete the transition, keep the league together and make it thrive.
“The business of college hockey is changing with conference realignment, promotion of the game, the television, the digital content that goes on and all the new revenue streams that are possibilities for the future,” Robertson said at his introductory press conference at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, where he used to work. “I will do my best as commissioner of the WCHA to stay on top of these trends in college hockey and use my vast relationships to help continue to build this conference over the years.”
Robertson was one of the Wild’s first employees when he was hired in 1998, starting with the organization before it even played an NHL game. With the Wild and the franchise’s parent company, Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, Robertson was responsible for media and community relations, publications and broadcasting. He left the organization in the summer of 2011 and joined a public relations firm in Minneapolis.
Prior to joining the Wild, Robertson was the director of communications for the Ducks from 1993-1998 and later added the California Angels to his duties when Walt Disney purchased the MLB team in 1996.
Robertson was with the Timberwolves from 1989-1993.
“We need to shed more light on our conference nationally and I think he’ll be the person to do that,” Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels said via phone from Big Rapids.
“Now is more appropriate for a marketing and promotions person. I thought Bruce, his staff, as well as the athletic directors, did a great job of setting the course and doing the brick laying, if you will, but now it is time maybe to shout the message a little bit from the mountain tops.”
Both Daniels and Michigan Tech head coach Mel Pearson said the WCHA postseason tournament should be Robertson’s top priority in his first year as commissioner.
Robertson has experience working with the WCHA on its championship weekend, having helped the league with the Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center from 2000-2011. The league semifinals and finals returns to Xcel in 2015 and 2017 after taking place in Grand Rapids this year and again in 2016.
Both Daniels and Pearson are concerned about attendance, maximizing revenue and creating a good experience at both sites, but Pearson went a step further, questioning the current format.
Pearson said Robertson must evaluate whether an eight-team tournament featuring best-of-three first-round series on campus, followed by single elimination semis and finals at a neutral site is best for the league.
“Do we want only eight teams in, do we want 10 teams, do we want five going like to the old final five?” Pearson said from the Frozen Four in Philadelphia. “Some suggested having two separate venues in our league and have five in the East and five in the West and then have a best-of-three or best-of-five for the league championship.
“One thing (Robertson) is going to have to do, is when you have 10 teams and 10 coaches and 10 schools, there’s 10 different ideas. He’s got to be able to mediate and understand the landscape and do the right thing, or the best thing, I should say, for the WCHA for all the schools, not just one or two.”
For Northern Michigan University athletic director Forrest Karr, he’d like to see Robertson address scheduling and travel in his first year, in addition to attendance at the conference tournament.
Karr said he’d like to see Robertson create scheduling partnerships with other conferences and set parameters that ensure WCHA teams play an average of 50-percent of their nonconference games at home.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that travel and expense associated with travel are one of the greatest challenges in the new conference,” Karr said.
“I think that we’ve been pretty creative so far and been able to find solutions that make it work and help deal with those expenses. That’s going to continue to be a challenge and we’ll have to continue to work on.”