In the mid-1980s USA Hockey was in trouble.
The enormous cost of liability insurance threatened to bankrupt the organization and shutter America’s neighborhood hockey rinks.
That’s when Ron DeGregorio stepped up, helping engineer a solution, then devising a business plan that saved and ultimately established USA Hockey as the foremost hockey organization in the world.
“We were in pretty dire straights,” said DeGregorio, who will retire Saturday, ending a 12-year run as USA Hockey president and 42 years in all with the organization.
In the late 1990s, USA Hockey faced another crisis, this one over poor play.
Not since 1933 had the United States won a non-Olympic international tournament. So weak was the 1998 world championship team that it was relegated to the lower pool. Many NHL players whose teams were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs declined to participate.
DeGregorio again came to the rescue, pushing a radical concept that changed the face of American hockey: the National Team Development Program.
“It was such an enormous cultural change,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. “We went from the pre-existing system of letting other teams develop players and then borrowing them once in awhile, to taking 44 of the best young players in the country, moving them away from home, putting them in Ann Arbor, billeting them with families, enrolling them in the Ann Arbor school system, training every day and playing usually against older tougher, competition. A lot of people thought we were East Germans all of a sudden.”
Five years later, U.S. teams won medals in four International Ice Hockey Federation championships, a performance that established the United States as a world powerhouse and rich NHL talent pool as well as vindicating DeGregorio's expensive experiment.
“Now the program is held up by everyone,” Ogrean said. “We have people from the best hockey countries in the world who have come to Ann Arbor to see the things we’re doing and how we’re organized.”
DeGregorio also played a crucial role in establishing the American Development Model, which sets forth age-appropriate criteria for youngster’s play. The program is considered a hockey hallmark.
“It’s time to pass the torch,” said DeGregorio, regarded as one of the most accomplished volunteer leaders in the nearly 80-year history of USA Hockey.
“It’s a bit of a melancholy feeling. But I look forward to continuing to be involved in USA Hockey and the sport in general … and playing hockey with my grandchildren. I enjoy that.”
DeGregorio was 10 when he first fell in love with the sport. He was with friends in East Boston when a hockey game materialized on a neighborhood street.
On that day, a romance began.
“There’s something special about this game,” said the Salem, New Hampshire, resident.
After a standout career as a goalie at Middlebury College in Vermont, he earned a spot on the U.S. national team. In his free time, he licked envelopes and performed other volunteer duties for USA Hockey. When he was cut from the team, he threw himself into the organization’s work in a variety of roles: registrar for the New England District in 1973, board of directors two years later, vice president of youth hockey shortly afterward, and treasurer in the mid-1980s. His timing couldn’t have been worse for the last job.
“Technically we were bankrupt in 1986,” he said.
Not for long. In one of his shrewdest moves, DeGregorio found a way to increase USA Hockey’s revenue streams.
“Ron was the one who came up with the idea of switching from team registration to individual registration, which accomplished two things,” Ogrean said. “There was a sudden influx of income because instead of $30 or $40 from a team you would get $5 or $10 a player. Secondly, you had the ability to identity all the players and communicate with them. In subsequent years those addresses became email addresses. Today there is no youth sports organization in the world that can communicate with its members the way we can.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, but also he has a tremendous force of will. When he gets an idea, and he knows it’s a good idea, he’s going to push that idea until it happens.”
That will power was never more evident than when DeGregorio overcame considerable odds to establish the National Team Development Program. No less an authority than 1980 Olympic coach Herb Brooks opposed the plan.
“I thought it was important to have a program that was like a West Point, where we were able to develop players in the USA Hockey way, let them understand what USA Hockey was all about, have them be proud wearing that jersey in international play,” DeGregorio said. “We wanted to have a program of excellence.”
In 2013, the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based organization achieved a milestone: For the first time it led the world in medals at the six IIHF championships with three golds, two silvers and a bronze. In addition, the program has produced dozens of NHL stars and top draft choices, including Patrick Kane and James van Riemsdyk, the first and second overall picks in the 2007 draft.
“It would be hard to come up with anyone that has had more impact on the game and done more for the overall growth and development of the game than Ron,” Ogrean said.
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.