The Canadian Hockey League has found its replacement for David Branch, and they’ve dipped into the NBA to find him.
The CHL — made up by the three top major junior leagues in Canada — unveiled longtime NBA executive Dan MacKenzie as its first full-time president Tuesday, behind a vision to grow major junior hockey’s presence through marketing and fan-player experience.
MacKenzie, a native of Guelph, takes over his new post in September, allowing the 70-year-old David Branch to return to his duties as Ontario Hockey League commissioner, after running both the CHL and OHL since 1996.
“Dan has a unique combination of league operations, sports marketing and business experience along with being a former school teacher. His experience will help the CHL continue to grow and expand our programs and player experience,” Branch said in a statement.
MacKenzie has spent the last eight years of a 20-year NBA executive career as managing director of NBA Canada. The Canadian arm of the NBA, with the Raptors winning a historic first league championship, enjoyed unprecedented growth in television viewershipand record sales in league merchandise.
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MacKenzie will work with Branch, and fellow commissioners Gilles Courteau (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), and Ron Robison (Western Hockey League) as part of the CHL’s executive council. That group will also work with a nine-member board of directors to grow the game across Canada.
While the CHL has not released specific targets, reaching more fans through expanded TV coverage and possibly expanding the 60-team CHL remain potential plans for the future.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the commissioners on strengthening the CHL and building on the strong foundation that currently exists. Growing up and living in Guelph, Ont., I understand the unique position that CHL teams hold in their communities and look forward to working with our teams to deepen the connection with our fans,” MacKenzie said in a statement.
The CHL continues to be the leading pipeline to the NHL, with 71 of its graduates among the 217 players selected in the latest draft (32.7 per cent). Twenty-five of those 71 players came from the OHL, but the odds of having a lasting career in the NHL remain extremely low (research done in part by former Toronto Star hockey writer Ken Campbell estimated that 0.02 per cent of players drafted in Ontario go on to play at least 400 games).
Branch argued against the establishment of a CHL players’ union, citing amateur player-student status, and provincial labour laws. All three leagues in the CHL were ultimately unified in holding off the union, with governments in nine Canadian provinces, and in the states of Washington and Michigan, exempting junior hockey players from local labour laws in the past four years.
While there was backlash against the failed unionization movement, MacKenzie enters what appears to be a potential to grow junior hockey’s commitment to player and fan experience through expanded education plans, and marketing-social media endeavours.
Mark Zwolinski is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @markzwol
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