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The inaugural Big Ten men’s hockey tournament held last week in St. Paul provided many inaugural moments, surprises and disappointments, not unlike other post-season events.

All but one of the five tournament games were decided by a goal, including last Saturday’s inaugural championship game, won 5-4 by Wisconsin. The first two contests went to overtime as well as the title game. Only

Andrea Williams Photo by Charles Hallman

Andrea Williams
Photo by Charles Hallman

Minnesota’s 3-1 loss to eventual tourney runners-up Ohio State had a wider winning margin.

“I think it’s been great hockey,” observed Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer Heppel, the tournament director. “You spend years planning for that [first] puck drop on [last] Thursday.”

The MSR, throughout the entire three-day, five-game, single-elimination tournament, spotted only a handful of Blacks watching the games. We talked to one of them:

“I don’t pay too much attention to it,” admitted Tim Runke, Maple Grove, when asked about the few fans of color. “My grandmother brings me to a bunch of [Minnesota] Wild games. We both like hockey.”

 Jennifer Heppel Photo by Onika Nicole Craven

Jennifer Heppel
Photo by Onika Nicole Craven

“To be part of history, it’s extremely humbling for all of us,” added Big Ten Associate Commissioner/Football and Basketball Operations Andrea Williams, the only Black female among the seven league associate commissioners — she manages the two post-season basketball tournaments and the league’s football championship game. “As the inaugural tournament, you just want our participants, our fans, our media, the volunteers, the city, everybody walking away saying, ‘We are so glad we took part in that event.’”

After she graduated from Texas A&M in 1997, Williams began her career in the Southern Conference communications department before joining the Big Ten office in 1998. “I started in communications, then sports information, and then I was able to transition into other areas,” she noted.

Williams then was the NCAA women’s basketball championship director from 2004-2007 before returning to the Big Ten as an associate commissioner in September 2007.

“It takes a complete team effort…putting on any event, whether it’s an ice hockey tournament or our basketball tournaments or [a] football championship game,” she explained. “Whether it’s from St. Paul, Chicago, Indianapolis, whatever, we get good support from the community. Then it comes down to working with the different folk and the things we know we have to do to be successful. Once everybody has their marching orders and understands what the expectations are, it makes things go so much smoother.”

“You have to build an event,” continued Heppel. “The WCHA built an amazing event here [at the Wild arena]. We will strive to create that same type of event. But events aren’t created in one year. You have to put a lot of time, effort and commitment into it.”

The ultimate goal is “to deliver [the tournament] at a high level,” stated Williams, adding that tournament planning is a year-round process.

“The question I get [from people] when I travel is, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I say I run basketball tournaments in March. [Then they ask], ‘What do you do the rest of the year?’ That’s when my mouth opens and my jaw drops.

“The [tourney] planning…to make sure everything you put on in the event, all the nuts and bolts before you get into the dirty details…takes years in advance,” she stresses.

Being among the few Blacks in charge of college championship events, Williams is proud of her role at the Big Ten. “You always want to see people of color doing great things,” she concluded.

 

See more on last week’s first-ever Big Ten hockey tournament and the league’s first season on “Sports Odds and Ends” on this week’s MSR website.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses at [email protected].
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