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Volume 21 No. 43
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Thinking Back, Looking Ahead: Brian McKenna

ECHL’s leader stepping away from the ice this summer

Brian McKenna has spent the better part of four decades helping to grow the sport of hockey in North America. With stops in the NHL, AHL and ECHL on both the player management and business operations side, as well as coaching at the college, junior and youth levels, McKenna has long had the sport in his blood, dating back to his days growing up on Prince Edward Island, Canada. For the last 16 years, he’s served as the commissioner of the ECHL, the 27-team league that sits just below the NHL and AHL in North America’s professional hockey pyramid. While McKenna was set to deliver the Kelly Cup to the league’s championship team this past weekend, it will be his last — he announced that he would be stepping down from his position after the season. He spoke with staff writer Ian Thomas about his career in hockey and what’s next for him.

Photo: echl

Hockey has always been a part of my life. I started playing as a very young kid but then I got into coaching while I was in college. I had the good fortune of being in Ottawa when the Senators returned to the NHL back in 1991, and as a result of my background in hockey and the sales and marketing career, I was hired as a manager of marketing in 1991.

I had the opportunity to be involved in the NHL, the AHL and then at the ECHL, then the job came open with the ECHL as commissioner. It sounded interesting. It sounded like a new challenge. [I] was fortunate enough to get the job and thought it would be a five- or six-year stint, and here we are 16 years later.

The hockey side of [being commissioner] was the easy side, and it’s probably at the end of the day what you spend 25 percent of our time on. The main focus has been, and I guess always will be, the business itself. 

During my time here we’ve had more than 450 players who got their start in our league that have gone on to play in the NHL, numerous coaches and front office folks as well and about a third of the NHL officials or linesman who are on the ice now, so we’re very proud of that. 

McKenna (at right) joined by Pat Kelly and Barret Ehgoetz of the Cincinnati Cyclones, at the 2010 Kelly Cup Finals. Cincinnati defeated the Idaho Steelheads in five games.
Photo: echl

On the business side, interestingly we have roughly the same number of teams now [as] when I took over 16 years ago, but in the interim, there has been a vast consolidation of leagues. We’re now the only league left at the double-A level in the country and it’s a much stronger foundation and structure.

Our teams are much more entrenched in the community now and much more involved in youth hockey and promotion of the game at the grassroots level than we were 15 or 20 years ago, and I think that is a good thing. 

We’re very pleased to see the growth of the sport, particularly in the South and nontraditional markets. And there’s a number of markets that were former ECHL markets that now have AHL teams. 

In terms of things I will miss — the people, particularly the folks working here in our office. Also, going to see games and interacting with our front office people across the league, interacting with our fans as well. Going to see the games and the product on the ice is really the fun part. 

Handing the 2009 Kelly Cup Playoffs MVP trophy to goaltender James Reimer, then of the South Carolina Stingrays, currently of the Florida Panthers.
Photo: echl

What I won’t miss is supplementary discipline, and all the conflicts associated with the suspension of players or fines that are brought down on an ongoing basis over the course of the season. That’s a little more of the adversarial side of the job, and I certainly won’t miss that and will be happy to give that to someone else.

Our board of governors is still focused on trying to build the league to at least 30 teams and continue to strengthen the ties to the NHL and the AHL.

First thing will be to take a little time off, so no immediate plans to jump into something else. But certainly, [I] want to continue to be involved in the business.

I want to spend more time with family. I have a daughter who is in Seattle who recently took a job there, so I want to go spend some time with her. My wife and I have a son who is still going to a university that is very close to where we are now so I’m looking forward to being able to spend more time with them and figure out what I’m going to do next.

With the Blue Man Group prior to the Las Vegas Wranglers home opener in 2003.
Photo: echl

If I had to do it all over again I would spend a little more time and effort in terms of communication, whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly, yearly with all of our stakeholders and try to have a little more time and effort spent on that. For anyone getting into the business now … I would tell them to embrace technology. 

There’s still very much a role for minor league sports and minor league hockey in particular. I think we’re still a well-kept secret. There are probably about 12 million fans a year that attend minor league hockey games across the country, and those numbers stack up very well against any league.

It’s fun entertainment. That’s why we encourage our teams to be part of the fabric of the community and be involved in the community and the teams that do embrace it are still seeing growth. I think we’ll continue to see that across the country. 

It’s still a great way to get away from the day-to-day work and grind to go see a minor league hockey or baseball game, and I think that’ll be there for many more years to come.