Q&A with new WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson

MARQUETTE – Bill Robertson is set to become commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association when current commissioner Bruce McLeod retires on June 30 after 20 years as head of the league.

Robertson, 53, will begin working for the league in mid-May after spending nearly two decades in the NHL as director of communications for the Anaheim Ducks and vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Minnesota Wild.

The Mining Journal recently spoke to Robertson by phone, less than 24 hours after he was introduced as the next WCHA commissioner during a press conference on Tuesday at the Xcel Energy Center, in his hometown of St. Paul, Minn.

MJ: For you in this first year, what do you see as your biggest challenge as commissioner?

BR: Well, I think there’s a few things. No. 1 is securing where the offices are going to be. That will be a big piece of what I’m trying to accomplish in the first year. I’m going to explore lots of different options for the offices and am looking particularly at the Twin Cities for a target for that, but haven’t made any determinations yet on where that will be. It will be one of the challenges.

The other is certainly finding some new revenue streams for the conference with sponsorship opportunities. We’re going to dig deeper in those categories to try to strengthen the league from a financial perspective.

I would say first and foremost, the league has a great foundation in place and the schools are all passionate about college hockey. I feel that’s in good order. But to play off that, what we’re really interested in is making sure the conference tournament coming in 2015 to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul will be a showcase event for the league and it’s branded as a WCHA event and it has a look and feel of a big-time college hockey tournament. That’s exactly what I’m going to focus on with the staff.

MJ: Right now in the WCHA, commissioner Bruce McLeod is in Denver, Associate Commissioner for Public Relations Doug Spencer is down in Madison, Wis., and Supervisor of Officials Greg Shepherd is in the Twin Cities. Are you looking to centralize things like the CCHA was in Farmington Hills, Mich.?

BR: I think that’s the model I would like to look at, but I’m open to other suggestions on that from the staff. I’m not coming in to make household changes right away, but I want to explore that opportunity where we could get everybody together in one centralized location.

MJ: What are the benefits to having the one centralized location?

BR: You can do things today digitally and by phone and email and those type of things, but I like the fact that everybody is together and we can meet as a group on a regular basis that way. In a centralized location, I think it adds a lot of impact to what people can do every day. Then people get a chance to interact with each other too and get new ideas. That’s kind of what I want to build.

MJ: When I talked to coaches and Northern Michigan University athletic director Forrest Karr, the league championship weekend was their biggest concern. What are going to be the keys to making that successful? It doesn’t look like it’s a WCHA issue, but one for all three western college hockey leagues.

BR: We’ll be competing with a tournament going on in Minneapolis at the same time. What we have to do is make events actually surrounding the games fun, whether we have open skating for fans to come prior to the event or a fan fest idea. Those will be the kinds of things we’re looking at exploring with the Xcel Energy Center to make this a better event.

MJ: Can those types of events help offset what happened to the NCHC this year in Minneapolis where its championship featured Denver and Miami, two teams nowhere near Minneapolis? Could those events offset a Bowling Green vs. Ferris State final in St. Paul?

BR: Those are the types of events that make the tournament a destination point for fans. It doesn’t concern as much who is playing, but you rather come down to see great college hockey.

On top of that, it’s the promotion of the event. Are we in the right places to advertise and get the word out the event is coming and where are we promoting that – on radio, television, newspapers and digital places? That’s what I want to do.

MJ: Do you feel the league tournament, whether the WCHA is in Grand Rapids or St. Paul, can overcome what might not be considered the right mix of teams in the finals?

BR: That’s always going to be a challenge if you don’t have the teams that would have any type of local flavor. It’s always going to be more of a challenge. That’s something you can’t predict. You may have a pretty good idea going in what you could expect as you get closer to the start of the tournament, but I’m looking to promote great college hockey as a piece of this. Then also getting the word out in the right avenues is going to be the big key to continuing to draw attendance. You’re hopeful that you have some local flavor in the tournament to help you sell tickets.

MJ: How do you plan to increase the exposure of the WCHA?

BR: One of the things I’ll be looking at is the potential to do television and then I’m also looking to enhance the streaming video and content on the website and helping sell some of that as well. I’m hopeful those are the kinds of opportunities that can help drive more exposure to this conference. I will be looking right away at that, not just for the conference tournament, but potentially a game of the week type package as well.

MJ: Did you have a chance to view the league’s online streaming coverage this year? It was really popular with fans and according to Bruce, it brought in a decent amount of revenue for the league as well.

BR: Yeah, I talked to Bruce about it and I have seen it. It did really well. I think it’s just a start for the league, though. It could become much bigger than it currently is and I want to look at that piece a little further before making recommendations and suggestions. I think it’s a great foundation in place and I know it’s gotten great accolades to date from the fans and family members watching these games. I think there’s a lot more we can do with that.

MJ: How do you keep an ear to the ground on what could be more changes in college hockey with conference realignment? It sounds like it may not be done according to the rumor mill.

BR: I’ll be tuned in to those types of rumors as well, but I will be talking with College Hockey Inc., I’ll be talking to the other college hockey commissioners, I’ll be talking to schools and coaches to try and keep a pulse on all of what’s going on as far as additional alignment in college hockey. I don’t think we’re done yet with that, but I don’t know what that means yet until I get deeper into the job. I want to stay real close to that and see what we can do to help keep the WCHA moving forward and potential for more teams to ever want to join this conference.

MJ: Do you feel there is room and potential for the league to expand?

BR: I do. I can’t say today that I have the answers for that, but I have some ideas that I will probably share in time and try to get a feel, though. I want to be a good listener first and foremost in the world of college hockey. I’m going to try and do my best to listen to a lot of people and get their ideas and see where they think things are going. That’s how I’m going to start formulating a lot of my thoughts and process on how to move forward with the thought of more realignment with college hockey.

MJ: There’s a lot of issues, from travel to scheduling, that I’m sure a lot of people are going to come to you with in this first year. How do you prioritize and how do you handle the issues that face the league? How do you not get too overburdened in this first year as commissioner?

BR: Well that’s part of leaning on the staff that’s in place too, that have been there and have done this before. I’m going to ask for their advice as well and certainly I don’t have all the answers yet. I want to listen and certainly travel. Those type of things, scheduling, are going to be issues that face all the schools in the conference and we’re going to try and do our best to put the best possible schedule together.