Trusting the process is a new catch phrase describing the course of athlete and team development that includes setbacks, obstacles and failure. Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers are the latest poster boys. A year ago, Bennett and his entire program felt the embarrassment and failure of being the first overall number one seed to ever lose to a sixteen seed.
They trusted the process and one year later delivered a national championship.
A week ago Tom Shafranski and the Hockey Advisory Committee enjoyed a working lunch to continue the process of charting the direction of WIAA hockey. The WHCA (Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association) has piloted many very successful ideas that are now a part of the WIAA fabric. Their insight has most often been spot on and helped improve hockey and many other sports. That of course is the goal of an advisory group of heavily invested coaches on the front line of the game. Hudson head coach Brooks Lockwood, president of the WHCA, who has withstood some improper bullying, has been the guardian of that arduous process and done a fantastic job of leading the WHCA.
Having served on the Hockey Advisory Committee for many years I know all too well the painstaking patience it requires to watch the process of the WIAA bureaucracy work. At times their logic is shrouded in secrecy and ideas presented to them are dismissed without even the most trifling discussion. Too often I can remember leaving that meeting and feeling as if our voice was not heard. Valid ideas that could positively impact the growth and popularity of hockey; like a consolation bracket at the state tournament or moving it to a new city, that has been successful in other sports, are swiftly dismissed. The love affair with the Alliant Energy Center is a loyalty that nobody understands, but it isn’t the building that deters attendance, it is the tournament format and the city of Madison that simply has too many other distractions that keep fans away.
It has been well documented that in spite of the Hockey Advisory Committee recommendation for an eight team big school and four team small school state tournaments the WIAA gave us four and four. While the 8/4 continues to be “off the table” there is WIAA support for a 6/4 or 4/4/4 format. Trying to find the logic is difficult, so I won’t make much of an attempt at it. Math has never been my strong subject, but I know ten teams are better than eight, and that twelve is the number both parties seem to agree on. Part of the rationale always comes back to the WIAA’s desire for symmetry among sports, which quite frankly doesn’t and shouldn’t exist. Each sport has many unique qualities and trying to put them all in the same box is absurd.
The major fault in the WIAA process exists in the chain of decision making committees. The Hockey Advisory Committee meeting is the first step of a long process. It is unfortunately, also the group that has the best working knowledge of the game of hockey. Proposals must then endure the Sports Advisory Committee (14 members), the Advisory Council (18 members), the Board of Control (11 members) and a membership vote. It might be easier to pass a piece of federal legislation. All of these committee members are certainly competent people, but their working knowledge of all twenty-four WIAA sanctioned sports is likely to include some voids. It is incumbent upon the WHCA and the Hockey Advisory Committee to present their case to each of these decision making board members. It is a top-down decision making model that minimizes the most valuable input. The recommendations of the Advisory Committee, that should carry the most weight, are often dismissed or “modified” by those with an inferior working knowledge of the sport’s intricacies. I personally know the time and research that goes in to the proposals that are presented. They are not hastily prepared. Tom Shafranski should put more trust in that grass roots process and advocate instead of maintaining roadblocks.
The WIAA foundation is rooted in the sports of football, basketball and wrestling. And like it is across the border in Minnesota where hockey is king, change in those sports comes more quickly. Our jealousy toward the Gopher state burns hot, but comparisons are unfair and futile. Hockey is the jewel of Minnesota sports and every effort is made to promote and protect it. Unfortunately hockey in Wisconsin was labeled by an incident now forty years in the past and has endured a scrutiny no other sport has had to endure. All of the great work that has been done to improve hockey in Wisconsin has not been able to move that needle of shame. The balance the WIAA is so fond of doesn’t exist when it comes to team disqualification rules and the Advisory Board selection process. Hockey gets a slap on the wrist that other sports have evaded despite similar or more egregious incidents.
Look no further than the current transfer rule proposal, tabbed the “Nicolet Rule” to find the prejudice toward one of the big three sports, basketball. The informal creation of “all-star” teams through transfers and open enrollment has been affecting hockey for years, but only until it struck a nerve in basketball did it become a WIAA priority. Want more proof, check out the Team Sportsmanship Awards. Hockey fans have had the opportunity to receive forty-seven awards and had been denied eleven times. Of the other fourteen sports eligible for the award, it has been awarded 358 times and denied a total of four times. Are there even enough fans at the state hockey tournament to misbehave? In a current culture hell bent on fairness, these statistics seem grossly skewed and unfair. Granted the WIAA fan fun meter is negligible, but the question has to be asked if hockey is again being held to a different standard.
I firmly believe the WIAA has a very difficult job. Courts reversing decisions made by game officials, players transferring in packs to create an unfair advantage, co-ops being created to build championship caliber teams and in-season contact abuse are a just a few of the current malady’s crippling the prep landscape. All are driven by the win at all cost mentality and are methodically eroding away the character building foundation of the high school athletic experience. Managing, protecting and returning common sense to high school athletics is a task that the WIAA cannot achieve alone. And no matter how many boards and committees they create the best advice will always come from those with the most invested in the sport.
And I don’t mean the parents.
The part of the process for change that should carry the most influence should be that first step at the Coaches Advisory Committee. Let those with the most knowledge, experience and the ones who will be impacted to the greatest degree have the most input. It is a common sense solution fueled by trust. As a hockey coach for the past five decades I would not presume to have the knowledge to make decisions for another sport and if put in that position I would certainly be inclined to trust the advice of the coaches.
Until the WIAA actually trusts the heart of the process they created, the individual Advisory Committees, meaningful and productive change in most sports will continue to be as slow as the arrival of a Wisconsin spring.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org