Checking in with WHL Commissioner Ron Robison
By Andy Eide
Western Hockey League Commissioner Ron Robison attended Thursday night’s Thunderbirds game against the Portland Winterhawks. He spoke with the assembled media and talked on a variety of league related topics.
Perhaps the most important topic was the status of the labor situation being discussed in the Washington State Legislature. The four Washington Sate teams have asked the state to pass a bill that would classify WHL players as amateurs and not paid employees who would be required to receive minimum wages under current child labor laws.
The WHL provides its players with an educational package that will provide a year of secondary education for every year spent in the league, along with room and board and a monthly stipend while playing in the league. The WHL’s players are required to register with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada — two amateur hockey organizations.
The State Senate approved the bill on March 3rd by a 47-0 vote and earlier this week the House Labor Committee moved the bill to the full House by a 5-2 vote. Robison is encouraged by the progress being made.
“I think it’s going exactly the way we would like to see it go,” he said. “We’re just looking for the clarification required to continue to operate in this state and the state of Oregon. We’ve been operating for 37 years and we’ve been doing it on the basis that we have amateur hockey players in our system and we want to continue to do that.”
Robison reiterated that if the league has to treat the players as employees it would significantly bring into question their ability to operate in the state of Washington. The WHL has been looking for this clarification in Oregon and its Canadian provinces as well.
“We’re making progress everywhere,” Robison said. “Saskatchewan passed that legislation some time ago and we’re looking for the clarification that we need in all the provinces and states that we operate.”
Robison says that the league continues to review the education package offered to its players to ensure they are benefiting the players.
“We have what’s arguably the best scholarship program in North America in terms of the flexibility it offers the player,’ he said. ‘But are there certain areas of the scholarship program that we’d be willing to revisit? Absolutely, that’s something we do on a continuous basis.”
Here are other topics the Commissioner touched on:
The new playoff format
The WHL adopted a playoff format this season along the same lines as the current NHL format. It features divisional match ups in the first two rounds, which amps up rivalries and is easier on travel.
“We’re very pleased with it,” Robison said. “We wanted to accomplish a couple of things really. Reduce travel throughout the course of the playoffs and really bring out our rivalries that we think are probably second to none in the game in North America today. We’ve got great divisional rivalries, that’s what we base our regular season on and we think that carrying that over into playoffs makes a lot of sense.”
The stability of the Kootenay Ice franchise
Kootenay has suffered some pretty low attendance figures in their small home town of Cranbrook, British Columbia. The low attendance comes despite icing competitive teams and high-end players year in and year out. Robison has stated over the past couple of weeks that the current attendance levels aren’t good enough.
“We continue to be very concerned about the attendance levels and we monitor very closely with the ownership group,” he said. “We’re concerned about the viability of that franchise on a long term basis if the attendance continues at the level it is now and we need to see significant improvement next season.”
Are Wenatchee and Boise possible homes for the WHL
Whether it’s through relocation or expansion, there have been whispers that both Wenatchee and Boise would be interested in bringing the WHL to their cities. Robison says that the leagueâ€™s top priority right now is to operate in the cities theyâ€™re currently in but he is aware of the two U.S. cities.
“Both these communities have great facilities and are on our radar screen without question,” he said. “But we have other priorities, strategically, that we would like to accomplish.”
Bringing WHL events to U.S. cities
Year in and year out the U.S. Division teams draw some of the league’s top crowds. But when it comes to events like the CHL Top Prospect game, the Subway Super Series or the Mastercard Memorial Cup, the U.S. is left out. Will that change?
“It’s one of our items we continue to look at,”Robison said. “It’s challenging when you consider we’re a Canadian based league with Canadian sponsorship and so forth driving most of the special events. However, it continues to be a priority. We have a large presence here and we need to find a way to deliver events into the U.S. market.”
Will there be changes to the overtime format?
The NHL is considering adopting an overtime format similar to that of the AHL which allows for three-on-three hockey during the overtime period. The hope is to lower the amount of shootouts in the game. Will the WHL follow suit?
“We have a close working relationship with the NHL and we continue to look at the improvements they make to the game,” Robison said. “So we’ll continue to look at what they’re doing and have our own discussions about what we feel is appropriate for our level of hockey. Anything that’s good for player development, good for the excitement of the game, opening up more offense, we consider to be very positive and we’ll look at those for sure.”
Follow Andy Eide on Twitter @andyeide.