Chris Hebb began his journey as the new BCHL commissioner with a long drive around the province.
Hebb made a stop in Trail on Wednesday to introduce himself to Trail Smoke Eaters head of hockey operations Craig Clare, the Smoke Eaters staff, and the Trail Times as part of a tour of BCHL cities.
“I’m travelling to every franchise, and I’m doing it in my own car because I want to see the geography that these kids are dealing with,” said Hebb. “I mean going to Prince George to Wenatchee for a playoff series is not lost on me the toll it takes on the kids.”
No one was likely more over-qualified for the commissioner’s job than the former Victoria Vikings basketball star. Hebb was President of Starting Five Media Consulting Ltd., a company advising sports organizations on business strategy and development.
The Prince Rupert native was also a senior executive for Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Vancouver Canucks, for 11 years, before joining Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) where he worked as Senior Vice president of Content and Communications from 2006-13.
So why the BCHL?
“When I left MLSE, I had a consulting business and I was helping a lot of amateur sports organizations with their business development, broadcast deals, that sort of thing, because none of them can afford to have somebody do that full time,” said Hebb. “What I found is that I love amateur sport and amateur sport actually was responsible for everything I had … so I always had this heart for amateur sport and I really didn’t know how that was going to manifest itself, but when the (BCHL) opportunity came up, it just seemed like the perfect fit.”
Hebb took over the reins for longtime commissioner John Grisdale in June, and is impressed with the evolution of the league under the 15-year tenure of Grisdale, but recognizes that there is room for improvement.
“I think the BCHL that John Grisdale built is a fabulous construct,” said Hebb. “To bring all these communities together and have them play at the high level they do, at the arenas they do and almost every team is the Vancouver Canucks of their community, but I think that we can market it better.”
Many BCHL teams prosper, but others, like Trail, have suffered through years of low attendance and financial hardship. Hebb’s mandate is to ensure all teams enjoy success through vigorous marketing and communications programs, with league expansion a possibility further down the road.
“We’d certainly like to make sure that the franchises we have in place are solvent, and doing well,” said Hebb. “I think that’s the first job. The second job is to see if there is a way to expand the league where we can generate more revenue that the league can share with the teams.”
Revenue sharing is common in major league sports, and Hebb believes that if the BCHL is marketed successfully, and different streams of revenue activated through corporate sponsorships, digital and TV contracts, the extra profits could be distributed among the teams.
“That’s my job first and foremost is to make sure we market the league properly and see if we can aggregate the assets of all of these teams and the deals with corporate sponsors will then get shared.
“I don’t think our answer should always be going to look for a cheque for expansion. Those cheques get divided by 17 and they don’t last very long. It’s really about building the value of the league itself and then that will force franchise values up, so when you do get a franchise cheque it’s sizeable.”
Hebb points to the success of Smoke Eaters owner Rich Murphy and the turnaround of the former community-owned team under private ownership.
“Our community-owned teams, some are doing great, some of them aren’t. I don’t think there is a formula you can apply to each community, because they are so different.
“We do know that what Rich (Murphy) was able to do coming to Trail, was a real partnership with the community that the community recognized as genuine … I’m using Trail as the poster child for the way a community based team can operate in conjunction with private interests so everybody wins.”
But Hebb’s main priority is keeping the players safe in their travels and secure in their futures. The BCHL is a potential avenue to the NHL, and while the majority of players won’t realize that dream, many will have the opportunity to play hockey in the NCAA or USport, and play professionally in North America or Europe after their college careers. At the very least, most will earn a degree and make lasting relationships.
And despite competition from other leagues, Hebb is confident that the BCHL will always be a viable avenue for elite players.
“It just seems to me that with 32 per cent of the NHL actually being players who came through college, that’s the trend and the BCHL is right at the head of that trend.”
This past year, the BCHL committed (at last count) 154 players to post-secondary institutions, the most in its history, and had seven players drafted into the NHL, including Smoke Eaters defenceman Seth Barton. Last season there were 36 BCHL grads playing in the NHL.
“At the end of the day we want a safe league, we want our kids to be safe. Secondly, we want a financially solvent league, and the third thing we want is a league that’s growing in a way that is to the advantage of the audience, whether that audience is in the arena, online, or maybe some day on television. I think when you grow the audience the league becomes more successful. We’ve seen that with Major Junior, we’ve seen that with the NHL, but Jr. A, to a degree, has been spinning its wheels a bit.
“There’s no lack of appetite for hockey in Canada, and that’s one of the advantages we have.”