By Doyle Potenteau
Kelowna Daily Courier
“No discussion. We don’t envision expansion in the foreseeable future.”
And just like that, Ron Robison put an end to any speculation that Nanaimo and Winnipeg will be getting WHL franchises in the near future. Of course, things could change, possibly tomorrow, but, for now, Vancouver Island and Manitoba have only one franchise each.
Too bad, because both cities would be excellent markets, especially Nanaimo, with its close proximity to Victoria.
On Thursday night, the WHL commissioner got up close with the paying public in what he called a test case: Fielding questions from a group of Kelowna Rockets season-ticket holders. It was a first for Robison and the league, and only time will tell if Robison will meet with fans in other cities.
Prior to Robison fielding questions from those fans, yours truly peppered Robison with a series of questions.
Q: As the WHL commissioner, you must identify or relate to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Maybe not the booing that he receives, but . . .
A: (Laughing) There you go . . . but I think those in the commissioners’ club have a lot in common. We have many of the same challenges. Obviously the scope of Mr. Bettman’s responsibilities is very significant, but there are many similar changes when you’re running leagues.
Q: Attendance levels are down in Kelowna. Is this a specific issue or is it league-wide?
A: We’re off to a slower start than we like. We had a marketing conference recently, and we addressed that with our marketing directors, but we’re down seven per cent. We have 15 of our 22 teams down in attendance, so it’s a slower start than we anticipated, but last season we recovered nicely and we exceeded the previous season by two per cent. So we’re not really into the hockey-season type of time yet, and I think it’ll pick up as the season progresses. But we are certainly doing everything we can to boost those numbers in the meantime.
(As a sidebar, Robison noted that the U.S. Division is doing better than expected, and that it’s ahead of projections at this stage, but that the larger markets are down.)
Q: Travel costs. Like the price of gas, they must be going up, which affects bottom lines.
A: Two areas that have primarily increased are travel and the costs of hockey operations. Our priority is to make sure the players are taken care of in a first-class manner, both from a travel and a hockey perspective.
So (increases) are not surprising; there are costs related to inflation, primarily on travel, and then there’s additional costs in which we want to make sure that are in place to support the player experience.
We always have to be very conscious of managing our operating costs, especially in a league where we have such a wide diversity of markets. But I think, overall, our first priority will always be the treatment of the players and making sure that their experience is not only what they expect, but what our teams can reasonably provide.
Q: Fighting. Fans are generally either for it or against it. How does the league view it?
A: We feel we are doing a very good job of managing that particular area. Fighting was down just over 18 per cent last season, and our levels have really levelled off. We don’t believe it’s a major cause for concern at this stage. Having said that, player safety is always a priority for us, and we continue to monitor these matters. But right now, we don’t see it as a front-burner issue.
Q: What sparked this idea of meeting fans face-to-face?
A: Fans are a very important part of the WHL. We rely on their support and we value their opinion. Quite frankly, I look forward to the exchange; we always learn from sessions of this type, and I think the league always has to be not only relying on our clubs to be close to the fans and their views and opinions on the game, but also the league office needs to be in touch. This is an opportunity to go 1-on-1 with fans in Kelowna who have been extremely loyal and supportive of this franchise for many years.
I asked other questions, but Regan Bartel, the radio voice of the Rockets who moderated the exchange, and the approximately 30 fans in attendance (overall, there were 50 people, including media) also had many questions.
Here’s a sampling from what was asked:
Q: Officiating will always be an issue, will it not?
A: Well, it is. It’s always the most controversial part of the game, and it always will be, quite frankly. It’s judgement and its a fast-moving sport, and, consequently, we expect a lot from our officials. I think the pressure is more on the officials today than ever before because, of course, we’ve moved to a four-man system on the ice, and the expectations, rightfully so, is that we’re going to have better coverage. And a lot of times, it doesn’t translate into that on some nights.
To really understand . . . I got a call probably 3-to-4 years into the job, and one of our general managers called and said: ‘We spend all this time with our players developing them; what do we do with the officials to support them?"
And, really, up to that point, and not to be critical, we just really gave them a jersey and a whistle and said good luck and hope that everything works out. There was a little bit of work being done, but not a lot. And since that time, we’ve established a very extensive development program for officials. We have a whole staff of supervisors who are really coaches, and so we really look at our officials in the same way that (Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton) looks at his players. We hold them accountable for their performance. They are expected to develop, and if they are performing well, they get rewarded by more games.
A lot of time, I think that perspective is lost by aggravation of a missed call or a situation that might occur. But on the whole, our officiating program is in really good shape.
(Robison added that approximately one-third of the league’s overall budget is dedicated to officiating, and that the league employs around 135 linesmen and referees.)
Q: Does the WHL have to follow the NHL’s lead in terms of shootout/loser points? Could the WHL look at changing the points system?
A: I’m a big proponent of that; incentivize the first 60 minutes because that’s what hockey should be about. Why not provide an additional point? I think we are too much inclined to follow the traditions of the game and not want to step out of the box.
I think we kind have been guilty of following traditions instead as opposed to stepping out and making that incentive for teams.
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