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Adidas executive Dan Near to become next WHL commissioner

Outgoing WHL Commissioner Ron Robison, left, hands over a WHL hockey jersey to Dan Near after he was announced as the new WHL Commissioner in Calgary on Thursday, November 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol Outgoing WHL Commissioner Ron Robison, left, hands over a WHL hockey jersey to Dan Near after he was announced as the new WHL Commissioner in Calgary on Thursday, November 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

Dan Near wasn't looking for a new job.

The 43-year-old had a good one as a rising hockey executive with Adidas, where his list of accomplishments included leading the NHL's successful “Reverse Retro” jersey program.

The funky threads offered a nod to the past and a potential glimpse of the future.

The program could also be a metaphor for how Near wants to see the sport evolve - and the overall world view he plans to bring to his new gig.

Near was introduced as the Western Hockey League's next commissioner at a Calgary press conference Thursday in a move that takes the Markham, Ont., product from one side of the boardroom table to the other.

“Asking people to trust us around thinking a little differently,” Near said of his highlights at Adidas in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “Historically in hockey, we've had a little bit of an Achilles heel around catering to the old-school fan, to the season-ticket holder.

“Not necessarily thinking about what it's going to take to bring new fans and new customers into our game.”

Near is set to begin his WHL work Jan. 1 and will replace Ron Robison, who previously announced 2023-24 would be his final season in charge, on Feb. 15.

“When someone sits down in a hockey arena for the first time, they usually can't get enough,” Near said. “Can't always say that about the televised game. But when they get into the arena, they'll usually say that.

“Reverse Retro was a nod to this concept of using old and new. But it maintained the roots and the integrity of the sport.”

Near was chosen following a search led by Vancouver Giants owner Ron Toigo.

“It was challenging, it was fair,” said Near, who was first contacted in July. “Showed the seriousness WHL governors were taking on getting their next leader right. (Robison's) been here for 24 years and has done some incredible things.

“Easy thing would have been just to appoint somebody.”

The WHL instead chose a forward-thinker with NHL ties through more than a decade of experience at the league office before he shifted to Adidas and relocated to Portland, Ore.

“Wasn't the plan,” Near said of migrating to the commissioner's chair. “But I did have - and do have - ambitions to leave my mark on the sport.”

The now-former head of the Adidas global hockey wing said it was clear the WHL was looking for specific credentials.

“Somebody who had been close to the game,” he said. “But also someone who could be perceived as an innovator, somebody who might look five or 10 years down the road.”

The WHL is one of three top-tier junior circuits under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella, with 22 teams scattered across four provinces and two U.S. states.

“We talked a lot about what we think the future of the league can and ought to look like,” Neal said. “This is the best development league in the world.”

Near, his wife, Lori, who's originally from Montreal, and their three U.S.-born children will be relocating from Oregon - where the ponds don't freeze - to Calgary.

“The cold and the snow will take a little getting used to,” he said. “But we're genuinely thrilled.”

The incoming commissioner trumpeted his predecessor's work, including with education and impacting change in hockey culture.

But it was also under Robison's watch that the Lethbridge Hurricanes hired former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters in August - his first job in North America since it emerged he directed racial slurs at a player in the minors during the 2009-10 season.

The Hurricanes emphasized Peters completed an anti-racism training and coaching certificate program. Robison endorsed the move.

Near said he hadn't been briefed on all WHL issues when asked about Peters directly, but added the league “has a responsibility to create standards, expectations (and) programming that fosters safety, that fosters inclusivity.”

“We need policies, we need to be committed to initiatives,” he continued. “They need to reflect the values of our fans, of our players, of the families.

“It will be something I speak about early, something I speak about often. There's work to be done at all levels of hockey, and the WHL accepts its responsibility.”

Near has a vision for his new league.

His time at Adidas - and more specifically what he was willing to try with outside-the-box moves like the Reverse Retro jerseys - offers a glimpse of what could be in store.

“Not everything has to be a lifelong commitment,” Near said. “Not everything will work. But if you never cross the line and figure out what people can't handle, you'll never know where that line is.

“I hope we can take some chances. I hope we can try some new things.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023. Top Stories

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