Commissioner Brian McKenna discussed the state of the ECHL and answered questions about discipline in the league.
As any fan of the Komets will tell you, disciplinary standards and processes of determining punishments differ from league to league.
Q. Now that it has added Fort Wayne and Evansville from the CHL, plus expansion teams in San Francisco and Orlando, the ECHL is up to 23 teams this season. What is your excitement level?
A. I think we’re relatively happy where we are right now. We’ve had some good additions this year. Fort Wayne, obviously with the tradition and hockey history there, and Evansville are nice additions to our Midwest area. It fills in some geography and renews some old rivalries with Toledo, Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, and that’s always a good thing.
Q. After winning four titles in the past five years in the IHL and CHL, what should Fort Wayne fans expect from ECHL play?
A. I do think they are going to see a higher intensity on a night-to-night basis. Over the last two or three years, we’ve continued to focus on making sure we attract good young players and at this point, most teams have a great amount of depth. If you look back at a decade ago, most teams had a first or second line that was very competitive, and then it would tail off. Now, certainly, the teams that are successful on an ongoing basis there is a lot of depth.
Q. Sixteen teams will make the playoffs, but only one team from the Western Conference will miss out. Was deciding the format logistically difficult?
A. Yes. Playoff formats seem to be a discussion point every year. I think we’re relatively happy with where we are in the East. But in the West, we need to add (teams). Our goal right now, over the long term, is to add three teams (to the league) and get the West up to 12 teams. Then we will have more balance in the league – 12 in the West and 14 in the East. The only thing that is really missing now is everyone would like to find a way to, in that first round or two, play in your own division and play a rival, cut down on travel costs and allow fans to travel and see the road games. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do that right now with the divisions and the huge geographical reach that we have.
Q. Is the NHL lockout good or bad news for you?
A. Well, in the big picture, it’s bad news. Whenever the major league of your sport is not playing and entertaining their fans in their markets and also on national TV, it’s not a good thing. We would like to see them back on the ice and playing. In the last (lockout), we saw a marginal increase in attendance and a little bit more media exposure. But the only teams that saw a measurable (increase) in attendance were the ones near NHL markets. In the short term, we’ll have some more talent forced from the American League to our level, which is good. You will see very competitive teams on the ice. You will see teams struggling to get all the players on their rosters and into their lineups early in the year. But at some point, when the lockout ends, there will be a lot of guys going the other direction and that’s a frustration.
Q. Commissioners always tell us we’ll see them often in Fort Wayne, and we rarely do. Will we see you?
A. I try to get around and see all of our cities at least once throughout the season. That’s about all I can promise, given that we have 23 teams this year. But I do try to get around and I want to meet people and see how things are going from a business perspective with all of our management groups. My plan is to be in Fort Wayne and Evansville on opening weekend.
Q. What is the ECHL’s process for reviewing plays for potential discipline?
A. Certain things – match penalties, high-sticking majors, hits from behind, things like that – we typically review automatically. Or, if it isn’t something automatically reviewed, then the team can request a review by noon the next day. All these things go through Joe Ernst, our vice president of hockey operations. And if it’s something that’s a major issue, of course, I’ll be involved also.
Q. Is there any sort of appeals process or committee that can overturn Ernst’s decisions?
A. Nope, there is not. Once the decision is handed down, it’s final. That’s part of the responsibility the governors have bestowed upon me as commissioner. Before we hand down any decision, though, we want to make sure we are consistent and in line with past precedents and we want to make sure we get as many looks at (the situation) as we possibly can and speak to the player or players involved, as well as the coaches, and people from both teams. And in some instances, we will hand down an indefinite suspension while we complete a review.
Q. Have you thought about going to the two-referee system in the ECHL?
A. Yes. It’s up to the Board of Governors, though, and if they decide in the future to go that route, it’s fine with us. It’s totally up to the Board of Governors and at this point they want to go with one (referee). I don’t think there’s any question you could get a better view on the ice with two referees, but it’s also about finding enough good qualified officials and getting them in and trained. The American League is moving in that direction and so a lot of guys have left our level and moved up and we are working to identify new, qualified officials.