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So you want to start a college club?

March 17, 2011 General No Comments

By Joe Bernardy
College club hockey programs are growing tremendously in the US, as are programs for all age groups. And while college club hockey can be just as exciting and competitive for fans as NCAA hockey is, there are several key elements that must be in place in order to get a league up and running—and to achieve success over the long term.

You begin with one simple fact: you want to start a league. But now what?

Initially, a philosophy needs to be established as to what the league will try to accomplish. In other words, a statement of purpose. Is it just for recreation—a place for college students who happen to play hockey to knock the puck around? Or is the league meant to be as competitive as possible, with player recruitment, sponsors, and gate receipts set as goals for the future? That’s the first decision point.

Next—and this is true in either of the above scenarios—quality people need to be involved at the schools which have been determined to be viable league members. These individuals can be students, faculty, staff or even parties from outside the university, but they should be responsible, and as interested in the start-up as you are. Most schools will require someone affiliated with the university to set up the club. Club sport programs typically will be registered through a club sports department, campus recreation, or extramural sports department.

Follow school rules

Registering properly, through the school’s channels and according to their procedures, and then following the department’s operating requirements is critical. Why? Because, as a new sport on campus, the team needs to build credibility both within the university and within the community. Many clubs register with the university just to be able to use the school name, but the school’s policies and procedures are not actually followed. If it’s a kick-around league, that may work out. But if you have long-term goals for your league to become a serious part of the school’s athletic department, attention to school rules is vital.

After the schools are officially registered and have their officers, constitution and internal organization in place, an extra step which will be helpful in numerous ways is to obtain a supportive and enthusiastic faculty advisor. Having such an individual on your “team” can be beneficial as campus political situations arise—and they inevitably do.

Once the teams are established and the schools have agreed to join together to form and participate in a league, a league commissioner or president needs to be chosen or elected. This can be a political challenge as well. In the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Hockey Association, of which my team is a part, the commissioner is the individual who helped set up each school’s program, and then later simply assumed the position of commissioner. If possible, it is best to select or elect an individual who has no ties to any of the universities in the league. This can help ensure impartiality and objectivity.

After the commissioner is in place, subsequent volunteers can be recruited to handle league finances, publicity, statistics and so forth, or it may be decided that the commissioner can handle it all. The RMCHA was very fortunate in that the booster club of the former IHL Salt Lake Golden Eagles agreed to get involved. This has helped tremendously, due to the booster club members being knowledgeable hockey fans and knowing many of the league administrative and technical ropes. It must be understood that the commissioner is the manager of the league, although he or she will wear many hats. A board of representatives, with delegates from each team, then needs to be formed for discussion and voting purposes.

Policies & procedures

Next, the framework by which the league will operate—its policies and procedures—needs to be set up. In the RMCHA the decision was made to model itself after a highly successful NCAA Division I league, the WCHA. Basically, we borrowed the WCHA’s policies and procedures and then adapted them to the RMCHA’s club level programs. There is rarely a need to reinvent the wheel, and there are many highly successful college leagues and programs after which the league can be modeled.

A league policy and procedures manual can then be drafted, keeping in mind that flexibility needs to be built in. Guidelines must be set up and established as voted upon by the board. Like any “business,” principles must guide the process of operation. Programs need to know their limits and procedures in order to operate effectively and efficiently.

Once the league’s brain trust has agreed upon the policies and procedures—which includes a whole host of topics such as number of games, discipline guidelines, credit-hour requirements, length of periods and penalties, grade point requirements and so forth—then the emphasis can shift toward the promotion of each team.

Again, we must begin with quality individuals being in the critical positions such as club president and coach. In these positions, individuals must want to be involved and accept the responsibility and requirements that go with the territory. These are the front-line people—the ones the school administration and the public will consistently see and pass judgment on. They also need a long-term vision as to what can be accomplished by setting up a quality college club level hockey program for student-athletes.

Especially at the club level, it must be emphasized and accepted that the players are in school first and foremost to get a college education, and then perhaps to play hockey. Even at a recreational level, players play because of a desire to compete. But the end goal in club hockey, it must be remembered, is not getting drafted to play pro.

Each school’s hockey program leader must work in conjunction with the league commissioner, the rink managers and each other to set up a schedule. Competition teams need to have income from gate receipts to pay expenses, which will run substantially more than they will for a recreational team. Many club level programs operate with budgets of $100,000 or more per season.

Pay to play?

In starting out, teams may want to charge their players to play in order to build up some operating capital. Some teams may get sponsorships and not have to charge their players. Keep in mind that by charging players, some authority may be lost by the team’s leadership since players who are paying their own way often feel they’re entitled to their own “freedom.”

At the beginning of the season it needs to be determined if the league and its teams will join any particular national association such as USA Hockey or the American Collegiate Hockey Association. Coaches can also decide if they want to become members of the American Hockey Coaches Association. Insurance coverage for players and administrative personnel needs to be examined at the team and league levels. Check first to see if the schools provide any coverage for its club teams.

Uniforms, of course, need to be purchased. Your budget will determine how extensive the uniforms will be. Just jerseys? Jerseys and socks? Complete uniforms? Home and away uniforms? (We should all be so lucky!) Whatever the case, jerseys seem to take forever to get, so order them early.

If you plan on using the school logo check with the school first. Some schools may not allow their club teams to use their NCAA team logo or lettering style. Some schools will make you jump through hoops to get an approved logo design, but don’t give up! Just do what is required, because then it can’t come back to haunt you—and you won’t end up with a snazzy jersey that you won’t be allowed to wear.

The local referee’s association needs to be contacted to secure a fee schedule. Tell them if you’re playing USA Hockey rules, NCAA rules or a combination of both. If NCAA rules are adopted and the team has joined USA Hockey, check with the District Registrar to ensure USA Hockey will provide insurance coverage. Any individual adaptations of the rules your league may decide on needs to be conveyed to the ref’s association, and it should definitely be done in writing.

Dress for success

Set up your minor officials team. Make sure they are comfortable running the clock. Request that the minor officials wear home team colors and dress nicely for the sake of image. A dress code can be instituted for players as well. Coat and tie is not inappropriate even for college club level programs.

As each team gets organized, the players can be a good source of talent to help with the various aspects of running the program. The team may have accounting majors who could handle the team’s finances; a communications or marketing major who could handle publicity and the media; a physical education major who could set up off-ice conditioning programs. Use the resources readily available with the players. This will benefit your league and the students, who will gain experience in their field of endeavor.

Publicity is especially important for the competition teams. The sports media has an obligation to inform their reading public about pro sports and major college sports. Club sports, however, are usually left to bulletin boards, youth hockey association newsletters and flyers. Club sports are not the mainstream. But the media does like to know what’s going on, even at the club level, and they like to consistently be informed. Calling every Sunday night with updated stats from the weekend games builds credibility, and helps the reporter who most likely is assigned to the pro game or major college game. Gradually, standings and articles might make the grade. There is only so much space and time for sports coverage, so the main thing is to make your information available, take what you can get, and be grateful.

Your league might want to establish that players be required to take a certain number of credit hours over and above what the club sports department may require. Some schools may only require the student be enrolled in one class in order to be eligible. After all, this should be a college league, not a senior league for pseudo-students. Also, in being a club league, players do tend come and go. In the RMCHA, we have cutoff dates in the fall and winter after which no players can be added and the rosters are frozen. This provides some stability and flexibility at the same time.

Stay calm, be organized

As the season approaches, many other topics need to be addressed. Does the team need to purchase any equipment? Will they have tailgate parties or promotions? Should you set up a booster club? How about fund raising events? Recruitment of players? Travel to out-of-state venues? Inviting out-of-state teams to your arena? Will there be team awards? League awards? Selling of team merchandise?

At first it all may seem overwhelming. But understand that each team, and the league, is its own small business and needs to operate as such. Make lists of things to do; write down ideas as you think of them; discuss the ideas and then follow up. Before you know it, your team and your league will be up and running.

The above ideas, procedures and suggestions are intended as an outline, and will hopefully help you bring your league to life. For those willing to tread into these waters, I offer these final words: keep a positive outlook, keep your goal in mind and remember—to paraphrase the late Bob Johnson—everyday is a great day for hockey!

Joe Bernardy is the Utah State Coaching Coordinator for USA Hockey and commissioner of the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Hockey Association.

This first appeared in the 04/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2011 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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