Hockey: How the top programs get better

So about time to peeve off a few non-fans again and pump the tires for UNB Hockey !

A short time ago we had the big news that McGill had landed a million buck birthday gift from some members of the Molson family - Montreal beer drinking paying dividends! The bequest will fund a full-time assistant coach position with the hockey team, plus fund recruiting and scholarships. All good, and brings the national ranked Redmen in alignment with many teams in the AUS who already have full-time assistant or associate coaches (though not all are paid ...): Acadia, Dalhousie, Moncton, StFX, Saint Mary's and UNB. I'm not as familiar with the situation outside the AUS, but pretty certain Alberta has a full-time assistant coach.

So how do the AUS teams do it? Well it helps that many of the teams get decent paid crowds; 7 of the 8 AUS teams are in the Top 10 for attendance in the CIS. For the non-football schools, hockey is the "big" sport on campus, and thanks to Tom Coolen at Acadia raising the bar in the recruiting wars in the 1990's, there is intense pressure to find the financial resources to keep up with the Joneses. The conference is big time in the smaller AUS markets and gets lots of media coverage. Most CIS Blog regulars are familiar with all of this.

Now UNB is raising the bar again. They've just announced that they've hired Dylan Taylor as their new Director of Player Personnel. You remember Dylan don't you, the former UPEI Panthers captain and then head coach who was victim of a player revolt last season? Well I'm glad to see him back in hockey - I always admired his grit and frankness as a player and then coach and I'm glad he's been able to move past that mess in Charlottetown. It doesn't hurt that V-Reds head coach Gardiner MacDougall is also an Islander, and I think we can all agree by now that MacDougall is a pretty good judge of hockey talent. And before people ask, Taylor has a full-time teaching job and this new gig is a part-time position.

But it is not just about the product on the ice that draws fans, you have to make your program important to the community - just like Major Junior does it. As an example, next week UNB has their 20th annual Mark Jeffrey Memorial Game, normally a fundraiser for, you guessed it, the Mark Jeffrey awards (hockey scholarships). Well, this time the hockey program is going to be involved with the Think Pink movement for breast cancer research, and they'll be having their first "Pink in the Rink" game, with half the funds going to that cause, pink jerseys for the V-Reds, the whole bit. High school groups are helping sell tickets. It will probably be a near sell-out. A whole feel-good event.

So what's my point? It is not just about recruiting the best hockey players you can find. And I don't believe it is all about the money. I think varsity teams have to act less like old school university teams and more like Junior or semi-pro teams and become community teams. It works for Laval in football and it works for UNB in hockey, and it works for just about every NCAA power.

But enough about UNB, what are you aware of that other schools are doing to make their varsity sports more relevant in their local communities?
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  1. Alberta has a full-time assistant coach, and has for quite some time. This just sums up why CIS hockey isn't more mainstream. When we're talking about a school making a break through by having a paid assistant in the year 2011, it shows that CIS hockey (outside a handful of programs) is still in the stone ages in too many respects.

    Athletics is an after thought for the vast majority of university administrators in this country, even at 'powerhouse' athletic schools...

  2. I don't think I'm buying the community effect. I was talking to someone the other day who played CIS hockey with Waterloo. On top of 6 day per week on ice and off ice training, school work, and a social life, the varsity mens team was constantly involved in community events, pancake breakfasts for charities etc. That is not atypical. Your "Pink in the Rink" was done by Nipissing last year as well. I know Laurier always has autograph days with minor hockey "timbit hockey" style games at intermission, teddy bear tosses at Christmas for women's shelters etc. Last time I checked our roster wasn't stocked with 70-80 point guys from the OHL or the WHL.

    Players go to UNB because they can play for a program that is constantly in the top ranks in Canada, and plays in the toughest conference, agains the best competition. As well, several UNB players have used their CIS career to help boost their chances at playing pro. I find it hard to believe that recent top AUS players like Tremblay, Thornton, Rancourt, chose schools like UNB or SMU because their community service opportunities exceeded those of say University of Ontario or Queen's. The top recruits have played their entire careers playing the highest level of hockey they can. If they have the choice, most will continue to do so. That is why schools like UNB and Alberta continue to be forces.

  3. I didn't mean to imply that involvement in the community is singularly important for recruiting players; rather, I feel community involvement is important for building a following for the team, which helps attendance ($$$), sponsorship ($$$) and scholarships ($$$). Just like universities need to sometimes work to be less insular to avoid the us vs. townies perceptions, I believe the varsity teams have to do the same thing to grow their market.

    Programs with strong support then have the resources to have the good coaches, support staff, scholarships, etc. which in turn help attract the top players you see at Alberta, Saint Mary's or UNB. Winning helps of course. But it took a concerted, and bumpy, effort to slowly build up the UNB hockey "program" from the 80's to their first national championship in '98.

    I like what I've seen in comparitvely new teams in Lakehead and Nipissing, as they certainly have become "community" teams in markets, that like Fredericton don't have to compete with Major Junior.