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USOEC faces monumental challenge

May 29, 2011
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

In a hypothetical world, if you had to choose between becoming commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association or director of the United States Olympic Education Center tomorrow, which would you chose?

The question depends mostly on the person.

If you are like me - single, no kids, little debt and a long, long way from retirement - maybe you take a shot at saving the USOEC.

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If you have a spouse, kids, mortgage and a glimmer of hope that you will someday get to taste retirement, however, heading the CCHA might be a better route if a gun was pointed to your head.

The truth is, neither is very appealing right now.

Like the CCHA, the future of the USOEC is in jeopardy and money is at the heart of the issue for both organizations.

The CCHA is losing its largest revenue-producing programs to a new super-power hockey conference known as the Big Ten.

The USOEC, on the other hand, is having its funding cut from the federal budget in order to preserve tax breaks for millionaires and billion-dollar corporations.

The big difference between the two, however, is not money, but time. The CCHA has it and the USOEC does not.

The NCAA Division I hockey conference of Northern Michigan University has just under two years to figure out how and if it can survive without the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.

The CCHA also had a strong succession plan in place with then-associate commissioner Fred Pletsch ready to step in and take over when then-commissioner Tom Anastos decided to become head coach of the future Big Ten Spartans.

The USOEC does not have time on its side - or an apparent succession plan - with the B.J. Stupak Olympic Scholarship fund set to expire on June 30.

NMU and the United States Olympic Committee have agreed to keep Marquette's unique Olympic training center open through June of 2012 for the summer games in London. But the chances of a USOEC existing come 2014 for the winter game in Sochi, Russia, seem bleak at this point.

Come June 30, the Stupak scholarship isn't all that will be lost. The USOEC will be without its longtime director, Jeff Kleinschmidt, as well.

No interim director has been named.

Only vague deadlines for appointments have been set and the retirement of Kleinschmidt is not what the USOEC needs in these desperate times.

I don't blame Kleinschmidt for walking away after 25 years, not after everything he has done for the USOEC and everything he has gone through with the constant threats by NMU and the USOC of closing the center's doors.

I do question the university, however, for letting its director walk away now. That's why I asked Kleinschmidt on Wednesday whether NMU President Les Wong attempted to talk him out of retirement.

I then asked Wong why he didn't attempt to talk Kleinschmidt into staying for another year on Friday morning.

According to both sides, there were no discussions or debates. It was just time for a change.

In my experience, "it was just time" is typically code for two sides no longer seeing eye-to-eye.

Whether that was the case, or Wong just sensed Kleinschmidt was burned out from the fight, I don't know. Only Wong, Kleinschmidt, Joe Blow at the local bar and anonymous online forum posters know for sure.

Either way, Kleinschmidt should have remained as head of the USOEC, at least until the future of the organization became more clear.

Unless assistant USOEC director Mike Fields is as primed as Pletsch was to take over the CCHA, finding a quality director with this level of uncertainty surrounding the center will be next to impossible.

There was a better chance of Dean Blais becoming the next head coach of Michigan Tech hockey.

Wong disagrees publicly with me, of course, comparing the opening at the USOEC to that of a head coaching position.

"People in the Olympic community monitor it," Wong said. "I suspect there will be high interest in running a center."

I sure hope Wong is right and that some superhero will come along to save the USOEC.

A new skill set by the next director is probably needed as the center attempts to live on via corporate sponsorships instead of through fair weather, bandwagon politicians.

Yes, a change at the USOEC was needed, but both sides could not have picked a worse time.

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is



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