For as long as the Steelheads have been members of the ECHL, fans have known only one commissioner. Brian McKenna has led the league since 2002, a 16-year term that has seen the league expand across the United States. Yet when the Steelheads hit the ice for the 2018-19 season, there will be a new man holding the reins to guide the league into its 31st season.
Ryan Crelin was named the ECHL’s next commissioner on May 29th, a new position for a man who certainly isn’t new to the league. Crelin sits behind the Big Desk after serving as the league’s Chief Operating Officer for the 2017-18 season. His overall tenure dates back to 2005 in a variety of roles.
After years working with team and league officials, Crelin will now take the lead.
“I’m very excited, and I’m still working through that transition,” said Crelin. “It’s not that Brian [McKenna] has up and disappeared. In fact, I’ve asked him to stick around for a couple months because I have to hire a few positions and do some training to help fill some of the roles that I was filling.”
McKenna will hand the reins over to Crelin full-time prior to puck-drop in October. In the meantime, Crelin knows it’s important that the transition is done right, not only for his own sake in taking on new responsibilities but also in finding the right people to fill his past role.
The ECHL Front Office is made up of just ten people, eight of whom work out of the main offices in Princeton, New Jersey. With such a small staff servicing 27 ECHL teams, it’s one of Crelin’s first tasks as Commissioner to ensure that the new people he brings in are the right people.
“I’m very pleased with our group. We want to be diligent, and ultimately our goal is to provide resources and assistance to our member teams,” said Crelin, who also served as the league’s Senior VP of Business Operations before being named COO. “We’re a small, tight-knit group and, with Brian moving on, we will have to do some replacing. Our goal is to maximize our day and provide as many resources to the teams as we can.”
“It’s certainly long hours, but the teams work long hours as well. We try to put our best foot forward.”
Across professional sports, there is a wide variety of backgrounds that lead executives to the commissioner’s role. Some commissioners are former players and team executives, some have backgrounds in the legal field. For Crelin, it is his business background directly associated with hockey that prepares him for the job.
“I think I know our business just about as well as anybody, both from a league standpoint and a team standpoint. I’ve been around a long time and I think that is crucial to the job because of what our product is and where we are trying to go with it from a hockey standpoint, an entertainment standpoint, and a community outreach standpoint,” said Crelin.
“I’m passionate about the game and I’ve played it since I was young. I didn’t play it particularly well, but I think by taking that accompanied with the business background I have and my longevity with the league, I understand the inner workings of who we are and who our people are. When you put that all together, I think it’s a nice fit.”
When the pieces are in place, Crelin will take over governing a league that has seen its profile rise to new heights. Crelin played a significant hand in generating several nationwide partnerships that have strengthened the league’s brand, as well as media endeavors like the ECHL’s inclusion in the EA Sports NHL gaming series.
Continuing that growth, and the association of the ECHL with other professional leagues, will be a focus for Crelin.
“I think one thing, and it’s already started, is growing our relationship with the NHL and the AHL. I think we’ve done a good job positioning ourselves as the premier ‘AA’ league in North America,” said Crelin. “In fact, I’d say we’re the only ‘AA’ league in North America.”
The ECHL has risen to ‘AA’ prominence and outlasted other leagues not just because of the on-ice product, but also because of efforts that Crelin has fostered to build binding business relationships with league’s across the spectrum, including not just the NHL and AHL but also the Southern Professional Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job with affiliations, but there hadn’t been a ton of synergy in bringing the leagues together. We’ve tried to do it with our summer meetings, where we actually had six different leagues represented there,” said Crelin.
“We want to embrace bringing the leagues together to work on all fronts, whether it’s hockey-related, growth of the game, business purposes, or whatever else. I guess that’s something I really want to embrace. It’s a long-term play and there’s a lot of relationship building that needs to go into that, but it’s something I certainly look forward to tackling.”
Crelin takes over as two new teams enter the league in the Newfoundland Growlers and the Maine Mariners, two former AHL markets that join as the league loses the Quad City Mallards and the Colorado Eagles. Market fluency is the norm in minor league hockey and it’s been plenty evident in the West, where Steelheads fans have said goodbye to rivals in Colorado and Alaska over the last two seasons.
Although change is a reality, Crelin still knows the importance of the league’s presence in the West and the viability of its markets.
“We’ve had a western presence for about 15 years now with the folding of the WCHL. We have a commitment to the West and some great members in the West,” said Crelin. “Hockey has been very stable in Idaho and in our other western markets as well.”
The changing western map in the ECHL has predominantly been due to several clubs joining the AHL, including not just Colorado but also Bakersfield, Stockton, and Ontario in recent years. Their success in the ECHL and AHL confirms that western hockey markets remain strong, and it is why the ECHL will continue to explore new ones moving forward.
“As we do look to that stable expansion and growth, I think another team in the West would be ideal. That’s something we’re going to be targeting, but as you know it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Crelin. “We don’t look at a map and say ‘let’s put a hockey team there’. There needs to be the right building, market, ownership, and management. That will come together, but it just takes time.”
Despite a lot of heavy-lifting, the job will come with some fun perks as well. Often it’s the simple things in a new job that excite us the most, and Crelin is no different.
“One thing that’s pretty cool, and maybe a bit childish, is that the signature on the back of the puck is kind of a cool thing,” said Crelin, who may or may not be practicing his penmanship over the summer. “My father’s birthday is coming up, and I’ve been able to get him an ECHL puck plaque that has all 27 teams and my signature on the back of each puck. It’s a little bit childish, but also a little bit of a novelty.”
While the commissioner commonly makes the rounds to each arena in the league, Crelin doesn’t anticipate that his first year will be quite as well-traveled. Much of the new hiring and training in the league’s Front Office may keep him pinned in Trenton most weeks. Still he does hope to get to Boise in 2018-19, and Steelheads fans should hope that he does as his presence near the Treasure Valley has been a good omen in the past.
Crelin’s last visit to CenturyLink Arena came in 2007 for the ECHL All-Star Game, the last season in which Idaho won a Kelly Cup. Crelin was also supposed to visit Boise in 2010, the last season in which the Steelheads went to a Kelly Cup Final, but weather got in the way.
“I was traveling with CCM in an RV and we were somewhere in Nevada and couldn’t get up through the mountain pass because of the snow,” said Crelin. “So I never made it back to Boise.”
This year the Steelheads hope to force Crelin back to Boise in June, when the new Commissioner would be on hand to pass out the award to the Kelly Cup Playoffs’ Most Valuable Player – another perk of a new position that was 13 years in the making.