Tom Renney joked that on his first day as Hockey Canada president and CEO, his first challenge was finding his new office.
Renney, hired earlier this week to lead Hockey Canada, is working out of the same office as his predecessor, Bob Nicholson, but he'll be tasked with doing a much different job.
"When Bob Nicholson took over (in 1998), Hockey Canada needed Bob to turn it into a business, and he did, and he made it a great business," Mike Babcock said. "So now the grassroots program can be more of a focus because Bob looked after the business. They've got to maintain the business, they've got to grow grassroots."
Renney's on-the-job challenges include trying to make hockey more affordable for children to begin playing and for adults to continue. He'll also be counted on to handle the 2018 Winter Olympics, which may or may not include NHL players.
The 59-year-old, who spent the bulk of his professional career as an NHL coach, considers it his "mandate" not to just oversee gold medals but to make hockey enjoyable and protect it as other sports are fighting for athletes' time and interest. He called that "point one" of his regime and specifically emphasized wanting to introduce hockey to Canadian immigrants.
"We have to make the rink a destination," Renney said. "We want to make sure that leadership in every community across the country is sound and value-driven to make sure that the experience is something that will last a lifetime so that we continue to grow the game."
Babcock had Renney on his coaching staff with the Detroit Red Wings the past two seasons and considers him the right man to lead that charge.
"The Canadian game for me is a huge deal," Babcock said in a phone interview. "The more I've been involved the more Canadian you feel and the more you want the game to be Canadian, and in order to do that the grassroots hockey has to be a huge priority. ... Tom can't get enough. In the summer, I go to the lake, I go water-skiing, I go hunting, I do things. I'm sure Tom's working on drills this morning. That's just Tom, he loves it."
In order to get the position, Hockey Canada board of directors chairman Jim Hornell said Renney had to make presentations as part of the interview process. Through that, Hornell said Renney's "passion came through."
Passion is a good start, but Renney also got the gig because of his experience working for Hockey Canada at the branch and national levels.
Spending two decades in professional coaching could also give Renney a leg up as Hockey Canada looks ahead almost four years to the next Olympics and the chance to win gold for a third straight time. There's no agreement yet about whether the NHL will send its players to Pyeongchang, South Korea, and because of that uncertainty Renney—who coached the 1994 Olympic team without pros—said he'd be prepared for either possibility.
"I've had some experience with that at the very least and I feel comfortable with it," he told reporters this week. "I would feel more comfortable if we were to continue to play best-on-best."
After general manager Steve Yzerman said he wouldn't return in 2018, it'll be up to Renney to find someone to construct the roster. The Cranbook, B.C., native has the hockey acumen to do it himself, if need be.
Renney will also have to appoint a coach. Babcock has gold medals from Vancouver and Sochi.
"The other day when he was telling me he was taking the job, I said, 'Tom, don't call,'" Babcock said. "He started laughing and said 'I'll be calling for sure.' I have no idea. ... I really believe you earn the opportunity to coach the Canadian Olympic team, and you earn the opportunity by continuing to be a top coach in the National Hockey League that wins. So three years from now they can decide."
Over the next few years, Renney hopes the "high performance" program continues to churn out gold medals in men's, women's and sledge hockey. But his immediate concerns are more about maintaining participation numbers at all ages and levels.
Babcock pointed out that, on the heels of the World Cup and its immense popularity, it's much easier for kids to put on a pair of spikes and play soccer than it is for his or her family to pay for hockey equipment. That's a challenge Renney is partially responsible for tackling, even as he believes Hockey Canada is doing a pretty good job with programs benefiting the underprivileged.
Renney wants to make hockey valuable enough that it's worth investing in.
"If people have value for their dollar, that's the greatest responsibility of all," he said. "I think people will find the ways and means with which to participate in hockey if they believe in its leadership. And because of good leadership you'll have good programming, because of good programming you'll have participation, because of participation it perpetuates itself. ...
"At the end of the day we'll do everything we possibly can to make sure that those that have trouble accessing the game for funds get an opportunity to access it in some way through a network of finances."
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