Q&A with David Branch: On president search, taking CHL to a new age

Peter Abbandonato scored the game winner and the Rouyn-Noranada Huskies beat the Halifax Mooseheads to win their first ever Memorial Cup.

HALIFAX — David Branch says it’s time for a change.

The Canadian Hockey League announced last month they were starting the search for a new full-time president to oversee its 60 teams.

Branch told Sportsnet in an interview on Saturday that he was indeed stepping down from the role.

He has been CHL president since 1996 and will continue his position as commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, a role he’s had since 1979.

During the 101st Memorial Cup, Branch took time to discuss this year’s Canadian major junior championship and the search for a new president.

SN: How would you evaluate how this year’s Memorial Cup has gone?

Branch: “Well there’s nothing that I would point to to say ‘gee, I wish we had of done this a little bit differently or the host committee could have done this.’ Everything has been superb and kudos to the host committee, to the volunteers. Volunteerism in this country is outstanding and we see it right across the country and certainly this year is no exception.

And then the quality of the host team is always such a big part of the overall success and presentation of the tournament and the Mooseheads of course earned their way to the finals. And four teams that were extremely competitive. And you put it into the ambiance of Halifax as a city, as an area and what it has to offer by way of hospitality and just the history and tradition of Halifax. It’s been extremely rewarding to be here.”

SN: What have you made of the crowds here? They seem to be selling out almost every single night.

Branch: “First of all, you have to acknowledge the work that the Halifax Mooseheads have done over the years to build their brand in this market and to grow junior hockey. We’ve long known, Atlantic Canada, I mean great hockey fans, great passion, great pride in their team, in their community, etc. And that has shone through here. Without sun, it’s been extremely bright in every aspect that we would hope for in terms of interest, support and presentation.”

SN: A few weeks ago the CHL put out a press release saying you were looking for a new president. Are you stepping down, how is that working?

Branch: “I definitely am stepping down as president of the CHL. Will maintain my role as commissioner of the OHL. I mean the whole evolution of the CHL is such that it’s time to have a dedicated president to continue with the growth both on and off the ice. To expand the player experience, support the player experience and quite frankly, allow me more time to focus on the regional aspect of what the OHL is and means and where we wish to go with that league.”

SN: You’ve been CHL president since 1996. You mention the growth of it, how have you seen it grow over that time?

Branch: “I think first of all, the programs that we’ve been able to as three leagues put together to support the player, particularly off ice with our scholarship program, other programs through drug and alcohol education and anti-doping programs. Our scholarship program we’ve taken to a whole new level to support the student-athlete. Last year we had over $9 million committed by our owners to support CHL graduates playing U Sports and so forth.

That’s been extremely important. Working to improve the style of play and how our game is played and presented for the benefit of our players and our fans and the like, I mean that’s been the real growth. And now we must continue to expand those and quite frankly meet the ever changing landscape that we all face as the CHL has risen in terms of prominence as a major player in the game of hockey, we have to have the necessary resources to meet that and continue to grow and evolve.”

SN: What does an ideal candidate look like from your perspective?

Branch: It probably looks like Dave Branch. (laughs)

SN: Are you going to clone yourself?

Branch: I think they would make sure that couldn’t happen (laughs). The key at our level, we believe, is that you understand how to blend the game, the player, and the necessary aspects that we need in place through marketing and sponsorship and broadcast. So we need the perfect candidate who will understand all those areas and bring new and fresh ideas because we all know we’re in a changing world so that’s the ideal candidate. We’re wide open in our thoughts and minds. It’s an exciting period.”

SN: How does the hierarchy work? Does the president report to the three leagues’ heads?

Branch: Throughout the years we’ve attempted to keep our system, and much as there’s 60 teams, how can we best streamline it for effective management and implementing programs? And so the new president will report to what we call our executive council which is each of the three league commissioners. And we bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, we have over 100 years of experience amongst the three commissioners. And then from there, the decision-making body which is our CHL board of directors as we refer to it, which is made up of the three league commissioners and two governors from each of the three leagues, so it’s a nine-man board along with the president.

SN: How is the search going and do you have an idea of when you want to have someone in place by?

Branch: “We have not been surprised at the great response. We have put into place a search firm to head that process through on our behalf and he’s reported to us as to the incredible number of interested applicants. Working through a process of bringing that down to a workable number to really focus to see who we should choose to possibly enter into a relationship with as our new president. So we haven’t put any timeframe specific other than generally, ideally, we want to have the new president in place for the start of next season.”

SN: Does the new individual need to have a hockey background?

Branch: “I think the new age individual has to have a feel for hockey at all levels, starting at minor hockey, up through the ranks, junior and professional leagues. Doesn’t have to have been a player or totally immersed in the hockey program. And then must understand today’s new environment as it relates to the various multimedia platforms and social media and on and on and on. The new age, the new way. We need someone that has an idea and possibly some experience in that industry as well.”

SN: You’re staying on as OHL commissioner. What is the legacy you’re going to leave behind as president of the Canadian Hockey League?

Branch: “Well, I mean that’s for others to really define I suppose. But one of the areas that I would hope is the fact that we’ve had significant growth since 1996 in the way we conduct our affairs, on how we have influenced in a positive way the game on the ice and how we’ve supported the players with a number of programs and other support needs for them to help them grow as people. That’s what you hope, and that is all.

“The umbrella around that is it fostered a team effort among the three leagues and I know that the relationship that I have with the other two commissioners couldn’t be better. We enjoy each other, we challenge each other, we respect each other and we really value each others’ strengths.”

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