Dan MacKenzie joined the Canadian Hockey League tasked with expanding the league brand, growing the game, and further enhancing the player and fan experience. The longtime sports executive and first full-time president of the CHL chatted with Junior Hockey Magazine about his first few months on the job:
Junior Hockey Magazine: You’ve been more than 20 years working with the NBA, including the last eight years as the Managing Director of NBA Canada. What would make you want to make the shift from the NBA to the CHL, given the tremendous responsibility that comes with leading an organization like this that is so storied in this country?
Dan MacKenzie: For me, I had a great run at the NBA. I thought that as I was sort of looking at the back end of my career, what was the next challenge? As I got into the process and was looking into this opportunity, the more I dug into it, the more interesting it became. As a kid growing up, hockey was my first love. I grew up down the road in Guelph, Ont., in a CHL town. I grew up playing the game and loving the game, and going to see the Guelph Platers. I’ve always had a passion and a love for hockey, and when you get these kinds of opportunities and they’re put in front of you, you have to take advantage of it. I really do think that when you look at the CHL brand and the opportunities going forward, it’s such a great opportunity. The fact that we’re in 60 communities across North America – 52 in Canada – and our athletes are some of the best athletes in their age group in any sport across Canada, and when you tie in the fact that their CHL teams commit to paying for their scholarship program as they go forward, it’s the best league to move into the NHL from. The opportunities were immense, so those were the reasons why I decided to come.
JHM: You got hired back at the end of June and you officially started your role in September. Have there been any things you’ve looked at and said, ‘Wow, I did not realize that was going on’, ‘I really appreciate this more than I did’, or, ‘This is an area of concern for me.’ Anything that’s rung your bell right out of the gate?
DM: The scholarship program was the first one. People have asked me that question in the last few weeks and I was completely blown away by the support that the CHL provides to its athletes. In this school year, there are going to be almost 1,000 CHL grads using their scholarships, so with investments from the teams and league it’s north of $10 million a year. Coming into this, I had no idea that that was the case, so I really do think that given the age of these players that it is a really important piece of the puzzle. Everyone wants to talk about the number of guys who make it to the NHL, but that’s not what the story is here. There are so many athletes that are being helped in terms of their future career aspirations that don’t include hockey. I think it’s an amazing story and one that we need to continue to tell.
JHM: You’re going to be working with David Branch from the OHL, Gilles Courteau from the QMJHL, and Ron Robison from the WHL in trying to bring together three separate leagues that all have their own wants, desires, and priorities, and trying to keep everyone happy under one hat. Tell me your expectations for that role.
DM: For someone like myself coming in who doesn’t come from the hockey world, it really is a blessing to be able to work with Gilles, Ron, and Dave, who combined I think have over 100 years of experience in junior hockey. I’m getting the opportunity to, No. 1, learn from them in terms of running these leagues, and No. 2, I do bring a bit of a different perspective, which I think can be helpful in certain cases. I think the most important thing about this is that everyone is committed to growing the CHL and growing the CHL brand. When I think about my priorities going forward, in the short term, much of it is going to be how do we grow the CHL brand and build on the fan and player experience across the CHL so it isn’t so much about three leagues but that it’s about one league.
JHM: It all ends with the 102nd edition of the Memorial Cup this May in Kelowna. How important is it to take national events to the smaller communities across this country?
DM: It’s very important. I think it was in my second week on the job when I was out in Kelowna for meetings and I ended up getting the opportunity to meet with the host organizing committee, see the preparations, the arena … that city is just a beautiful part of the world, and it’s going to be just a spectacular showcase for the best and the brightest in the CHL coming forward in trying to compete for the Memorial Cup. I couldn’t be more excited to be going to Kelowna. The Memorial Cup is a first-class Canadian event. It’s going to be excellent to see that being awarded this year in a first-class city like Kelowna.