Flaming Hot Takes – A conversation with Ron Robison

All throughout July on my program, The Pipeline Show, I have been speaking with various commissioners and presidents from a variety of different leagues. I’ve spoken with David Branch from the OHL, Gilles Courteau of the QMJHL, the CJHL’s commissioner Kevin Abrams who also oversees the CCHL, and both Bill Chow and Kim Davis from the SJHL and MJHL respectively.

One of the first that I spoke with was Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison. We covered a lot of topics as he answered a myriad of questions, several submitted directly by listeners.

I thought it would be timely reading to share a transcript of what was said. I’ve edited out a few of the more basic talking points that, at the time, were meant more for non-WHL fans who would be less familiar with the league than a DUBNetwork reader.

We started by looking back at the season that was…

Guy Flaming: From your perspective, what were two or three of the highlights for the WHL over the last twelve months?

Ron Robison: Well, there’s no question when you look at our championship series and Prince Albert Raiders winning their first WHL championship since the mid-1980s; what a highlight for not only the Raider organization but the entire community. I think from our standpoint, back to back seasons with small market teams – last year the Swift Current Broncos and this year with the Prince Albert Raiders. What a good news story that is and it really helped solidify that franchise moving forward, because as you’re well aware, in the smaller markets, there’s challenges and certainly in Prince Albert we need a new facility and the timing couldn’t have been better for their run in the WHL playoffs and winning the championship.

Anything specific about small markets that, you know, because as you mentioned, P.A. and Swift Current, the last two champions so it hasn’t been the major markets. Is it just a cyclical thing and it just happens to be back to back years? That might happen twice in 10 years but at this time, it just happens to be back to back?

Well, I think it speaks to a couple of things. One, our model is really designed to make sure that teams in small markets can compete with teams in large markets. And we’ve, I think, developed a very successful model that we’re very disciplined around and making sure all teams have equal access to the talent pool. But you have to give the Raiders organization and the Broncos organization, for that matter, last year a lot of credit because they built a very competitive hockey program and that takes time and patience. And they stuck with it and got it done. But it does speak to the fact that I think it gives every team and fans across the league the hope that regardless of the size of the market, you can be competitive in this league.

I’ve noticed over the last year a kind of a different feel on online, especially social media-wise for the Western Hockey League. That’s a credit to some of the staff that you have that you’ve brought in over the last couple of years. Growing that social media environment or the audience social media-wise, is it important for the league moving forward?

Well, it’s extremely important not only social media, but all media outlets and making sure that whether it’s our radio broadcast group or whether it’s our local beat writers who follow our teams throughout the course of the season and of course the media industry, as you’re well aware, has changed dramatically. We put an awful lot of emphasis on social media and our communications group here does an outstanding job. We’re just continuing to find ways to deliver information and make sure that our content is out there, whether it’s on our website, social media or other platforms.

[During the full interview, I asked Ron to describe the role he plays as the league’s commissioner. Again, that was meant for a less familiar audience. I’ve skipped that section here and we’ll pick it up again a minute or so later…]

Within the WHL, Do you have ultimate authority to make rule changes, sweeping changes, like if you wanted to change a rule? Is it done by committee? How does that process work? 

Well, ultimately, the authority of governance within the league, whether it’s rule changes or regulation changes, is the decision made by the board of Governors, general managers and committees within the general managers and the Board of Governors work on various matters, policy matters and they are brought forward to the Board of Governors. My responsibility is at the operating level and to ensure that the regulations are enforced and to make sure that the clubs are complying with our standards and rules and regulations throughout the course of the season.

All right. So, for example, last year, the league went from 72 games to 68 games. Is that something that is decided that you have veto power over or anything like that? Or is it all voted on by the league governors and you go from there?

Well, the commissioner has some far-reaching authority of which, you know, if required I would act on but no, in this particular case, formally, what we do is we try to build consensus through… in the case of the schedule and looking at the what our plans were moving forward and moved from the 72 games to 68 games, which, by the way, we think has been really very advantageous for the players and their development overall. And that’s what it was really directed to do. It was a committee of nine governors within the league. And that was a special committee that we put together because it was a rather significant discussion and one on one that we wanted to make sure was brought forward with a strong recommendation from a committee. But we have standing committees, executive committee, finance committee, business development committee, for instance, on the business side and we’ve hockey operations side that would normally look after a lot of those recommendations coming forward. But in that particular case, with a significant decision on behalf of the league, we established a special committee to deal with that.

Well, and just specifically about the number of games, as you mentioned, you feel the league feels that it was a successful decision? I know it’s only four games. So I think part of the reasoning behind it was to alleviate some of the travel time and all of those things, maybe increase practice time for teams, but it’s only four games so. In the long run, was there a significant difference in your opinion?

Oh, real improvement I believe overall to the player experience that we want for the players. We will look at it in a number of different ways. We look at our schedule, which is very divisional based. I think we have the best rivalries arguably of any league in the game today. That really helps us in a lot of ways because we’re able to have competitive games within our divisions and a lot of our scheduling philosophy is based on divisional play. So when you look at that, combined with the reduced schedule, it really helps players combine their education and hockey. While playing, many of our players, 35% are high school age players and consequently, there is importance to make sure that they’re not missing school and they’re available to have their studies and maintain their studies at a high standard. And then, of course, as far as training and development is concerned, there’s more time for practices, more time for off ice training. So when you look at that, there was a little less midweek games and more of the weekend games, it’s more compacted schedule in that respect. But we felt that the offset of that would be less travel demands and more time for recovery during the course of the week.

Was it a tough sell for some teams? It also meant two fewer home dates.

You know, when you take away two home games with revenue attached to those games, it was a very difficult decision. I think people in hockey, as you’re well aware Guy, they look at it and they say, ‘well, this is what we’ve always done’. That’s kind of the response you get. ‘Our schedules have always been 72 games while change. Why change? Because that’s going to affect everything we do from historical stats to records, etc., etc..’ But I think when you look at it today, we have to challenge ourselves to make it the best. Our commitment to the players and to their families is to make the experience developmentally the best we possibly can and so consequently, I think we landed in a very good spot.

I put the feelers out to my audience that you were coming on the show and opened it up to questions from the audience. You won’t be surprised, for the vast majority there were two things: 1) A lot of them wanted to know if there was a new TV deal in the works. This time last year when we chatted, you were hopeful that there would be something. It turned out what there was a regional package available in Saskatchewan that was about it. Where are things standing right now?

Well, yeah, when you referred in our television broadcast partners, we do have a national partner in Rogers SportsNet. And we were fortunate to have extensive coverage of CHL special events and some games during the course of the regular season and playoffs. I think our expectation was to continue our regional cable coverage, which we, unfortunately, lost a year or two years ago, and consequently we have not been able to fill that void. That’s a function of really the industry changes in the platforms of delivery of content in the hockey world. And so we’re working hard to build our WHL Live streaming network and the numbers have increased significantly in those areas. We are looking at new ways to deliver from a broadcast standpoint up against a very challenging industry, as you’re well aware. And so we’re looking at that. We need to find ways to make sure our championship series are broadcast. As I mentioned before, we had great, great games during the course of the season, rivalry games, which we feel should be broadcast, special events and so forth. So we are looking at that. But the challenge today is that the cable industry in western Canada has changed dramatically and we have to adapt to that, too, as well. So whether that’s going to be a new look streaming product that we’re building or whether it’s going to be a combination of cable and streaming. That’s something we’re working right now in the offseason.

Well, you hit on the other big topic for fans who are sending in questions was the WHL Live package and not just to make it cheaper, but to make it maybe more accessible, maybe more available. Peter Loubardias, who is a good friend of the show, threw this out there a couple of years ago about having perhaps a game with a week, a game where it was, you know, on it, not on a busy night, but on a Thursday where it was the only game in the WHL and making it free and available right on the WHL website. Maybe to introduce the audience to the game and expose the WHL to a wider audience that way. Has that been thought of?

Yes. That’s some of the things that we’re working on in the off season. We’re very well aware of that. We are attempting to deliver the games to our fans in the most economical and reasonable fashion as we possibly can. And we did that last year with our tiebreaker game in Kamloops. The Kelowna/Kamloops game, which had a huge audience. So we see some real positives to that. It’s just that we have a series of partners that we’ve got to work with on that too to come to a landing place. We are going to make some adjustments clearly on our on our arrangements for next season. Hopefully, that’ll build us further a larger audience and make it more available to all of our fans.

And more cost-effective? I know this time last year we were chatting about that as well and there was a one year deal left with your current partner in that facility, but the American Hockey League brought out a package which was $70 or something along those lines for the season. It was much cheaper than what we were able to get with WHL Live. Is there a financial improvement for fans?

Well, we’re working on that. We’ve got partnerships with the Canadian Hockey League and with suppliers for another year still on that program. So we will have some ability to make some adjustments. So we’re gonna do whatever we can. The American Hockey League is an entirely different model and we’re working towards something similar in the future to that. We understand what the concerns are and we’re certainly trying to address them.

I wonder if we’d ever see a day where listen, I want to watch the Prince Albert Raiders play, but I also want to see the Soo Greyhounds or the Quebec Remparts. Could there be one CHL package instead of me having to buy one for each of the three leagues?

That’s a possibility. No question. Those are some of the things we’re looking at. I think we’re going to look at trying to open up the games rather than individual purchase for an individual game to make it open on a day by day basis. And so those kinds of things. So you’re not just restricted to one game. So we are looking at ways in which we can open that up and make it more available and less cost-prohibitive for our fanbase.

Ron, let’s turn our attention to the scholarship package for a second. And again, I’m pretty well versed, we’ve talked about it a lot with you on this show. But for some in the audience who might be listening to us talk for the first time about the WHL scholarship package; you get a year scholarship, tuition and books are paid for every year that you play in the league. That’s a real general sense, there’s probably more to it than that, correct?

Yeah. And whether it’s the Western Hockey League or the Canadian Hockey League. We’ve been well known for many, many years, in fact, we originated over 50 years ago as a leading supplier to the National Hockey League and that’s what most people know less about. But now the majority of our players, especially in the Western Hockey League, are accessing their scholarship. Upon graduation (from the WHL) they have the opportunity to access a scholarship based on the number of years played – a year for each year which would be translated into a full scholarship at a post-secondary institution of their choice. So upon graduation, if they played four seasons in the league, they’ll have four years of scholarship benefits to allocate to a scholarship in any school. And many of those players, of course, go on to play Canadian university hockey, which is exceptional. But we’re very proud of the fact that this year we had over 400 players, it was our 25th year, we’ve had over 6000 players through this program. I think what people need to understand is in Canada, there is not only a scholarship program but a program equivalent to any scholarship in North America. It’s an outstanding program for young players. And that’s, quite frankly, one of the reasons that the combination of the hockey development experience that we offer for young players, combined with our scholarship program that’s so well established today, is the reason that young prospects are coming to our league.

Is the WHL scholarship different in many ways from the OHL and what the Q offers?

Essentially they’re all the same as for the years played, the player gets a benefit from a scholarship package upon graduation, but there are some slight variances to them. In the Ontario League and Quebec league versus our league. And our league is simply designed to make sure that every player gets the same benefit regardless of the location or whatever. Your funds are based on the institution in the province from which you come from. And so you can use that value of scholarship for post-secondary purposes upon graduation from the league.

And does it matter if you’re a first-round pick by the Edmonton Oil Kings or a 10th round pick of the Victoria Royals, you get the same scholarship package or if you’re a listed player by the Medicine Hat Tigers – does it matter?

Exactly the same benefit. All players receive the same benefit and flexibility of the scholarship program is also something that’s really extremely attractive to families and to young players and that they can decide what institution they wish to attend. Any career-enhancing post-secondary, whether it’s college, university, trade school is available. But of course, as I mentioned, the majority or are certainly looking at the opportunities to continue their hockey and play at a high level in the Canadian university system.

Now, the recruitment of players… You’re competing against the other teams in the WHL from a team perspective but also against the U.S. system, the college system in the States. So to entice a player who might be committed to a college to come to play for WHL team, is a team allowed to offer in excess of that scholarship package? Or could they say ‘we’ll give you a guaranteed four years, even though you might only play 2?’ Is a team allowed to do some something like that?

No. No, they’re not. We have very clear regulations around the ability to offer a player, and I think one of the most attractive parts of our league is the fact that every player is treated the same, whether you’re again, as you mentioned, drafted in the first round or the or the sixth or seventh round, it makes no difference. A player is going to receive essentially the same package. The general manager is really restricted in what they can do. It really comes down to the quality of the program you’re offering. And I think when you look at our teams and the exceptional job they do from the environment that they offer the players, the coaching, the facilities, the quality of competition combined with our scholarship program, which is fully guaranteed, it gives the parents a peace of mind that they’re going to a very, very attractive program.

Now, if that is a no-no… If somebody was to do that, what would the penalty be?

Well, the penalties are significant. If that was to occur, and we’re fortunate that hasn’t occurred, you know, there would be significant penalties attached. Our teams are very, very respectful. I look at the large market teams or teams that are, I guess, in a more advantageous situation. They’ve never taken advantage whatsoever of the situation that they might have an economic benefit over or advantage over another team. So it’s great respect to the regulations and to the making sure that all teams have equal access to the talent pool.

Can we say that about the CHL import draft as well? It seems like, at least the criticism has been there, that it’s a deal more with whoever you can pay the most money to get and commit to your program. How do you maintain or make sure that everything is above board when it comes to the CHL import draft?

Well, we monitor that very closely. All teams are required to sign statutory declarations, affidavits that there’s significant consequences if they violate the import draft rules. There is monitoring that takes place. The clubs themselves can file complaints at any time if they feel that there’s a club that has not complied with the regulations. So we watch that very closely. Certainly, within the Western Hockey League, I can’t comment on the Ontario or Quebec league but we certainly do in the West and make sure that our teams are complying with whether it’s the import draft or any other regulation as applies to the player access. That’s something that we place a great deal of attention on and our clubs are well aware of that.

But what if it’s a WHL team that wants to get player X out of Sweden and that team approaches him to check to see if he’d be interested in coming over and that and that player’s agent says, ‘sure, he’d come over, but this is what it’s going to cost you.’ And the WHL team says, ‘no, we can’t do that’. But then the player ends up going to the OHL or the Q. does that not raise some eyebrows?

Well, if that does occur… I think there’s been rumors to that effect, but there’s never been anything that could justify that occurring. Our teams have not filed any complaints. This year’s import draft has just occurred and there has never been a complaint filed yet. So we’re not in a position really to…If that did occur, if that situation you’re just describing did occur, then obviously we would report that to the CHL and there would be an investigation conducted on the nature of the recruitment of that player.

That would be a tough position to be the team that missed out on that guy because they need to be, for a lack of a better word, tattling on an agent and that guy is then never going to give you a player down the road. So it might be detrimental in the long run to actually report it.

Well, no, we don’t believe that. We think that it would be important to and we encourage our clubs to report it. There has been from time to time reports, but nothing could be substantiated. So it’s yeah, it’s just part of that process. We advise our clubs and we advise everyone within the system that these are the rules and regulations and if something of that nature would occur we would certainly be in a position to investigate it.

Big news this year for the Western Hockey League with the relocation of the Kootenay Ice to another major Canadian market in Winnipeg. And boy, they have got off the ball pretty hot. They’re making lots of news here in the last couple of months. No bigger news than the commitment of Matthew Savoie, who had applied for exceptional status and I guess had been turned down for it by Hockey Canada? That’s again, for those listening, It’s not a WHL decision, right?

That’s a Hockey Canada decision. We really believe Matthew is a very exciting and outstanding young man and an outstanding hockey player. He’s going to really benefit by entering our league and we’re very pleased he’s chosen the Western Hockey League to continue his development as a young player.

Now, as a 15-year-old, the basic rule of thumb is you get to play a max five games until your club team is done for the season. And throughout the year, you can play two or three while the team is short players that are off to the U17 or the World Junior or something like that. It’s been reported in this case that he could see upwards of 35, 45, maybe even 50 games this year because the Winnipeg Ice are going to carry a short roster. Is that your understanding? And if that is the case and they just call him up on “emergency recall” basically all season, is that OK?

Well, there’s certain provisions within a variety of agreements. Hockey Canada or Western Branch Agreement and so forth in which we have the ability to play 15-year-old players. You’ve referred to some of them. I’m not sure where those numbers came from, but they’re way beyond what normally a player of that age would play. But certainly, there’ll be some opportunity and we hope Matthew can play as many games as possible, that’ll be determined over the course of the season. And it’ll also be determined somewhat by where he plays this year. We’re working through all that. We’ve had other players, Kirby Dach being one of them, picked third overall for the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s NHL draft, a Fort Saskatchewan product, and he played up to 20 games or so when he was in Saskatoon. So there’s opportunity for these players to play. And we hope to give Matthew as many games as we possibly can thru the course of the season based on the regulations.

Yeah. Kirby played 17, I believe, but there wasn’t an academy right in Saskatoon’s backyard where he could play and be available on short notice. Dylan Guenther played 8 games for the Oil Kings last year and he was playing in Edmonton so that helped. But in this case, do you have any concerns moving forward basically of WHL teams starting to purchase academies nearby and loading them up with their star players and maybe circumventing this a little bit? Not that it’s illegal or anything. It just seems to be like [the Ice] are doing a good job of exploiting a loophole. Put it that way.

Well, there’s a number of our teams that have working relationships with academies and, you know, we partner with the CSSHL itself. Yes, in Winnipeg, there are unique circumstances there because the ownership group is also involved with The Rink Academy so it is a very convenient and it is part of our discussion certainly moving forward as to how that’s all going to be positioned. The academies generally have really evolved over the last little while but that’s not to say that other teams haven’t got access to other programs that are there too as well. So it’s it just helps to be somewhat unique in that, if [Savoie] does play in Winnipeg at The Rink Academy, his ability to access more games in Winnipeg with the Ice will certainly be an opportunity that presents itself on a more regular basis. Let’s put it that way.

Just a few more questions for you, Ron, I appreciate your time today. One of the questions that came in from a listener was about the updated roster pages on the WHL website. It’s something I’ve mentioned over the last couple of years as well. Right now, if I go to the QMJHL website, I can pull up a roster for a respective team, Halifax, whatever, and see every player that that team holds the rights to. If I go to the WHL website and I look at the Calgary Hitmen, Jett Woo isn’t even listed on their roster and in fact, the roster page is blank for the 2019 pre-season. Why is that and how can we fix that moving forward because, I think you’d agree, that it would be advantageous for the fans at least to generate interest by seeing all the players that a team holds the rights to?   

Well, I think that that is a very good question and I’m glad you brought it to my attention. I’ll certainly look into that. I think it’s important that we keep current rosters. Not quite sure why that would be the case but I will certainly look into it and would suggest to you that as long as there’s the ability to do that, that we would certainly have that information posted.

You’ve gone on record saying 22 teams might be too many for the WHL and 20 was a more comfortable number. I’d counter-argue and say there’s enough players they just happen to be south of the border and you’ve got a woo them to come north. How do you do that?

Well, we work hard on that. We’ve had a camp over night now for the last eleven or twelve years in Anaheim, our U.S. Prospects Camp. We’ve got some new plans coming up for next season, which we’ll be announcing shortly. We have a combine program which goes into the US with a camp in Dallas last year. We’re looking to expand that as well. So we have a number of ways in which we are delivering, I guess, some experiences at camps in the US and also giving our scouts an opportunity to identify players. Yeah, we agree that we think that there is an opportunity to get more high caliber U.S. players in our league and with our five U.S. based teams, we think that’s a real advantage in that respect. We certainly value the U.S. player. but our Canadian players are always going to be the mainstream that represents 90 percent of what we do. But we have room with 22 teams to complement that with some top U.S. players, just like we do with import players. We’re looking to grow that number and we have some plans to do that in the upcoming seasons.

One of the things people will notice immediately when they go to the WHL website is a giant green banner at the top called Class Action Lawsuit Information. What was the motivation of to put that on the website? [Note: the banner was displayed for about 2 months but is now no longer there]

We’re at an interesting time in the class action proceedings. And this, of course, relates to our players who are members of the class who need to be informed on the lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League and Western Hockey League in this respect. It was just information that is important right now to make sure that all of our players are aware of because we’re at an opt-out period whereby there’s notifications being sent to the players and we want to make sure they’re fully informed on the nature of the lawsuit. So that’s why we have posted prominently on our website.

Is there any update on the whole legal proceedings at this point?

No. The case has been certified for the Canadian teams, the U.S. teams are excluded, and we’re just at that next stage of determining when the trial date will be set for the matter. In the meantime, we’ve had great success across the country gaining exemptions and acknowledgment of the fact that our players are amateur athletes. Governments across the country have indicated that our players are amateur athletes and we certainly think that gives us a very strong case moving forward.

Does it all come down to paying players minimum wage or are there concessions, other things that can be changed? Could you increase the time a player can access the scholarship package to match, say, an entry-level contract so that when that’s done, then they would have until then to decide rather than what is it now, 18 months something? Are there other things or does it all come down to minimum wage?

Well, first of all, I think when you look at our package, right now, the value of our package far exceeds minimum wage. With all of the equipment, travel, various support that we provide the players and [the scholarship] itself, it’s a very significant package. In addition, of course, we have the scholarship program and so forth. We think the scholarship program is working extremely well. 65% of our players that are graduating [from the WHL] are accessing the scholarship. Our numbers continue to increase every year. So we think it’s working extremely well. It was designed to really encourage players to get on with their education and that’s exactly what it seems to be doing. But we’re always open to adjustments we need to make because we want to make sure that the player experience is going to be as good as we possibly can make it. I think when you look at the investment that our clubs have made, not only in the education but the quality of the hockey experience, it is arguably the world’s finest development league. We’re very proud of the fact that we have a great relationship with the players and the parents and their families. So we can continue to make improvements, that’s why we’re here to do for sure.

I mentioned the hiring of a new CHL president a little earlier. Why now and what will the role of the president be in the pecking order from the three league commissioners?

Yeah. The new full-time CHL president. I think it’s important to emphasize the fact that it will be a full-time position. This is extremely important from our standpoint because really all three of us have a full-time job in running each of our respective leagues, whether it’s Dave Branch and running the Ontario Hockey League and Gilles in Quebec and myself in the West. So the new full-time president will report to the executive committee, which is Dave, Gilles and myself, the three commissioners and the board overall, which is comprised of three representatives from each of the three leagues. So, yeah, we’re looking forward hopefully soon to welcoming a new person to help run the day to day operations of the CHL.

Where are you at in the hiring process. Like, are you doing the interviews, Ron?

Yeah, we’re well underway in that. We started at the Memorial Cup and we’re working our way through it. And we have a search firm involved and we’re hoping to get someone will be in place sometime before the start of the season.

(The CHL announced today that they have hired former NBA Canada executive Dan McKenzie as the CHL President)

Lastly, the Memorial Cup this year back in the WHL with the Kelowna Rockets hosting this year. What sort of things can we expect over the course of the season leading up to that as the WHL will be back in the spotlight?

Well, we’re very excited, of course, for the city of Kelowna and the Kelowna Rockets hosting this year’s 2021 Memorial Cup. Of course, those of us that can remember back in 2004, it was a really memorable experience. And Kelowna is a world-class destination as far as tourists are concerned. This year, I think it’ll be another very highly competitive season. The Rockets have got a lot of work to do to get their roster to where they want to do, but they made some real improvements, they had four players drafted in this year’s NHL draft so I think there’s lots of excitement there. And I think it’s going to be another very, very competitive season. We’re looking at the teams that made some great runs in the playoffs last year that were just maybe a year away from being that championship-caliber team. I think you’re going to see some not only great races during the course of the regular season, but I think our championship playoffs are going to be outstanding as well.

If you want to hear the original interview…

 

 

 

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