Opportunity and potential upheaval ahead as Heather Weems assumes NCHC commissioner role
Advocating that college hockey proceed with "urgency and patience" new NCHC commissioner Heather Weems talked about her background, the tough decisions of the past and the opportunities of the future at her introductory press conference.
ST. PAUL – As Minnesota Wild players emptied out their locker room stalls on ice level of Xcel Energy Center to mark the end of one pro team’s hockey season, the future of college hockey’s toughest conference was smiling and answering questions at a podium on the arena’s concourse Monday afternoon.
Heather Weems was officially announced as the third commissioner for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference – the eight-team men’s hockey “super league” that was started in 2013 and has claimed five of the past six NCAA hockey titles. Her appointment comes at what some could argue are the best of times for the NCHC, and at what she acknowledged is a time when things like the transfer portal, name/image/likeness opportunities for student-athletes and the looming interest in hockey from multi-sport conferences could mean sweeping changes in college sports.
“I want to see the NCHC continue to be a leader in college hockey. Reading the tea leaves, I also recognize that change is coming,” said Weems, who takes over the conference after a decade as the athletic director at NCHC member St. Cloud State. “I think in my experience over 20 years, I have become adept at leading through change. I value collaboration and voices. My best work is done when I surround myself with and engage people who know much more than me, and I think that fits with the league model.”
Originally from Iowa, Weems admitted that hockey was unfamiliar territory to her when she was hired by the University of Denver in 1999. While there, she got a crash course in the sport and a front-row seat for a pair of NCAA titles won by the Pioneers under former head coach George Gwozdecky. After a stint back in her home state at Drake, Weems came to SCSU and oversaw good times and bad. There were five national wrestling titles, two Frozen Four trips by the Huskies men’s hockey team and their first-ever appearance in the NCAA hockey title game in 2021. There were also on-going budget deficits that prompted the dissolution of the Huskies football program in 2020 after more than a century.
“No one in my field goes into athletics to take away opportunity. Absolutely not,” Weems said on Monday of the decision to drop football. “Obviously we have to work within the parameters we have. We had a Title IX complaint, we had some financial challenges. It was in no way indicative of my love for those students, those coaches or the sport as a whole.”
By contrast, she goes to a college hockey conference that has been hugely successful financially, holding their post-season tournament at Xcel with healthy ticket sales and surviving the pandemic with a rapid return to profitability. Weems admitted that expansion has been a topic of consideration since the earliest meetings that formed the league a decade ago, but did not offer any details about potential future members. And while former commissioner Josh Fenton lived in Colorado Springs, which is the site of the current league office, Weems will remain in central Minnesota, which is more centrally located among the league’s eight teams, and said there may be changes to the office set-up as well.
“We’re still discussing the logistics, but my plan is to stay in St. Cloud,” she said, noting that with the tournament in St. Paul and corporate sponsors in Minnesota, it makes sense. “We had been talking over the last few years about potentially moving in this direction. From a geographic perspective, this is the center of the conference.”
In December 2021, Fenton announced that he would be leaving the NCHC at the conclusion of the hockey season for the multi-sport Summit League, based in Sioux Falls. With four Summit League members –- Denver, Omaha, North Dakota and St. Thomas — already fielding Division I hockey programs, there has been talk of a multi-sport conference taking over the NCHC at some point. Weems said that the NCHC needs to be open-minded about the future, which will be determined by how and when the NCAA evolves.
“As everything changes, we need to act with urgency, but we also have to have philosophical grounding and we have to be centered in what we’re doing, because what we’re doing is working,” she said. “Now, the world is changing and I understand the financial pieces and expectations are changing, but the parity we have in college hockey right now is great for the fans and is great for the students. It’s just a good place to be.”
Weems added that providing a positive experience for the student-athletes is the underlying goal of everything she has done in her previous career stops, and everything she plans to do in a commissioner role.
“Sometimes we get caught up in the bells and the whistles,” Weems said. “This is where I’m a traditionalist: At the end of the day, when you talk to alumni 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, almost never do they talk about the championships. They talk about the relationships.”