USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean is the kind of guy recent college graduates and ambitious young sports administrators feel comfortable approaching.
He’s heard, “Tell me about your career path” more times than he can count.
“The one thing I always preface my answer with,” Ogrean said, “is it is so preposterous that nobody could ever possibly try to replicate it.”
Let’s start with his role at the most famous ice hockey game of all time, the “Miracle on Ice” at the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980.
Barely 27 years old, Ogrean was director of public relations for the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (the precursor to USA Hockey). He was stationed in the press box supervising the scorers and statisticians, noting that they had “duplicate sets of scorers in case some guy sneezed and didn’t see what was going on.”
Just as no one could have foreseen Team USA upsetting the Soviet Union, no one could have predicted Ogrean overseeing all of USA Hockey just 13 years later.
He has helped drive innovations in training and marketing which led to increased visibility, growth and success for USA Hockey.
And now after serving in the position for 18 years across two terms, the popular NGB leader will retire June 10.
“He just bleeds hockey and that’ll never change,” said Mike Moran, the senior media consultant at the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation and former United States Olympic Committee spokesman. “When I met him in 1978 and watched him, I imagined that ultimately he would have a career in hockey. He just loved the sport and the players.
“He took many detours among the way, but in the end he came back to exactly where he belonged and that was USA Hockey and Colorado Springs.”
Ogrean’s first stint as executive director from 1993 to 1999 included the 1996 World Cup of Hockey in which U.S. pros beat Canadian pros, Team USA’s epic victory over Canada to secure the first gold medal in women’s hockey in 1998 and the start of NHL participation in the Games.
His second stint began in 2005 and ended Saturday morning when he turned over the reins to Pat Kelleher at the conclusion of the annual congress and board meeting.
“The legacy that he’s going to leave is USA Hockey is in the best shape it’s been in since its inception,” said Ron DeGregorio, chairman of the Board of Directors and former president. “It has now become solid both from a hockey development perspective as well as from a financial and operational perspective. A lot of that credit has to go to Dave because he was very much involved in hiring some really excellent people and he remains an advisor.”
Ogrean will attend part of the PyeongChang 2018 Games as a USOC board member, then will watch the Closing Ceremony in Lake Placid at a USOC event where he’ll tell stories about the 1980 Miracle team.
"Dave Ogrean is one of the most constructive, positive, creative people that we have on our board," said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC. "He's always very solution-oriented, always looks for ways to make us better, make us stronger without being critical. He also understands that we have to support our athletes to the very, very best of our ability. He's been a pleasure to work with and I'm glad he's going to be on our board for another couple of years and look forward to helping him close out that phase of his career."
Tucked between his three hockey jobs, Ogrean worked for ESPN corporate communications and programming, promoted the game of football, was in charge of broadcast and marketing for the USOC and was the head of the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation.
“There’s just an awful lot of incredible good fortune and good timing involved in a lot of these steps,” Ogrean said.
“I say my prayers every night that my career has been as much fun as it has been. In the aggregate of whatever 40 years times 365 days is, I’ve had only a handful of bad days, so it’s been a blast. But I’m also really, really comfortable with this decision. Pat’s going to be terrific and it’s going to be nice just to be in the bullpen when he needs some help.”
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Ogrean had been out of hockey for six years and was executive director of a non-profit started by the NFL called USA Football when USA Hockey contacted him. They said, “Your seat is going to open up again. Have you thought about moving back to Colorado?’” said Ogrean. “I said, ‘Let me think about it,’ and my wife Maryellen said, ‘Let’s go.’”
Now 64 years old – still relatively young for a senior sports leader – Ogrean felt it was time to move on even though his contract has not yet expired. He wants to focus on his work in the community where he is on the board of the Broadmoor World Arena, the El Pomar Foundation’s Pikes Peak Regional Council and the U.S. Olympic Museum. He’ll also help the USA Hockey Foundation with fundraising.
“He’s got more contacts in the sports world than anybody I ever met,” said Moran.
Ogrean began thinking about retirement after returning from the Sochi Games in 2014 and even turned down an offer to extend his contract.
“As much fun and stimulating as these jobs are,” he said, “there’s a point in time when you do get a little bit tired, and I started to think more and more often about how fun it would be to cut back and what retirement would be like.”
In addition, Ogrean said three of the six staff members who report directly to him are retiring soon and he thought filling their positions would be unfair to his successor. He preferred “to get out of the way.”
But programs Ogrean has put in place will stay put.
He believes his greatest accomplishment is helping launch the National Team Development Program, which is “a totally different approach to training than we had had before because we were simply not satisfied with mediocre results,” he said.
In the 1990s, the program was viewed as “a pretty radical change,” Ogrean said. “I think the 20 years since have validated it because not only has performance internationally been so much better, but we also have a much higher number and higher percentage of Americans in the NHL.”
Ogrean said USA Hockey’s financial support from the NHL is also exponentially bigger than it used to be. And by purchasing an arena and relocating the National Team Development Program from Ann Arbor to Plymouth, Michigan, in 2015, he said, “we now own our own place as opposed to paying somebody else for ice time.”
Two months ago, USA Hockey Arena hosted the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship in which Team USA won its fourth straight gold.
Ogrean helped position the U.S. women for their campaign to win the first Olympic gold medal, and he calls this his greatest thrill as executive director.
“We were there from the very, very beginning,” he said, “when we knew we had a chance – as the other countries did – with a clean sheet of paper to put a strategy together to figure out how could we get this done.”
As part of the strategy to promote the women’s Olympic tournament, the USA Hockey Foundation created the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award for the top female Division I collegiate player and kickstarted the Women’s Frozen Four by underwriting it until the NCAA took over.
During Ogrean’s tenure, Team USA has won 60 medals in major international competition (32 golds, 18 silvers and 10 bronzes). In 2016-17, the U.S. became the first country to win four gold medals out of the five major IIHF world championship play in a single season: women’s worlds, world juniors, U18 women’s worlds, U18 men’s worlds.
Ogrean also takes pride in USA Hockey’s administration of the sled hockey program.
As a leader, he’s generous in giving credit to people who work with him, such as the volunteers who have contributed to phenomenal grassroots growth such as an 83 percent increase in overall players from 303,611 in 1993-94 to 555,175 in 2016-17 and a 456 percent increase in female players from 13,644 in 1993-94 to 75,832 in 2016-17.
“Dave is the type of guy you want to work with, because he’s smart, he’s fast and he’s easy to work with,” DeGregorio said, whom Ogrean cites as instrumental in starting the National Team Development Program.
And Ogrean has boundless enthusiasm and good humor. “That positive attitude is infectious,” DeGregorio said, “and helps drive the staff in the same direction. He believes in collaborative leadership and in empowering those within his organization, obviously within the structure of what the strategic goals are.”
Ogrean put Dave Fischer, USA Hockey’s senior director, communications, in charge of the selection process and induction event associated with the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Hockey Weekend Across America.
“I gave him an idea and he put flesh on the bones and ran with it,” Ogrean said. “That’s really been fun for us.”
USA Hockey created the American Development Model in 2009, which is an age-appropriate training and competition model for associations. It was adopted by the USOC for the entire Olympic family.
“We realized as we developed this big, big mass of players that we ought to be producing more high-end players,” Ogrean said. “We figured if you taught the game better, kids would love it more and then stay with it longer.”
He added that a precept of the ADM, “which was seen as heresy by a lot of people,” is refraining from playing year-round to avoid burnout.
“You come back to it more refreshed,” Ogrean said, noting that it leads to increased retention as well as more skilled players.
“I expect the number of Americans on National Hockey League rosters is going to continue to rise,” he said.
In the 1990s, Ogrean helped orchestrate the introduction of NHL players to the Olympic Winter Games, which he said has resulted in “the most visibility the sport has ever gotten.” However, the NHL has announced it will not participate at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“I think it’s come to a stop, but I don’t think it’s come to an end,” Ogrean said. “I think there’s a much better than 50-50 chance they’ll be in Beijing (in 2022).”
While he’s not optimistic about ice hockey catching on in South Korea, Ogrean believes the 2022 Games will boost the sport.
“I think the Olympic Movement and hockey are going to find a way to be back together and hit it out of the park in Beijing,” Ogrean said. “I’ve heard the ministry of sport and the government want to build 1,500 rinks and have 300 million young people playing winter sports in the next six years.
“It’s a marketplace that’s still largely untapped. The potential of what that could do for the sport and the business of hockey is enormous.”
But Ogrean won’t be in the center of the action any more – and that’s fine with him.
“Executive Director of USA Hockey – that’s not what I need to have on my gravestone,” Ogrean said. “Hockey has been a fabulous part of my life, but not every part. I also have family and friends and a love of travel. I’m always amazed at people who can’t let go as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, we did it for a long time. And we did it well.’”