Let’s Play Hockey recently sat down with Jon Cherney, the new executive director of the Herb Brooks Foundation. The Herb Brooks Foundation is one of several local foundations that help give kids the opportunity to play hockey. Cherney comes with an impressive resume and is looking forward to leading the foundation into the future. He replaced former director John McClellan, who retired last year.
Give us some personal background – where you are from, where you grew up, what brought you to Minnesota, etc.
I was born and raised in Allentown, Pa., which is about an hour north of Philadelphia (yes, I am a big Eagles’ fan) and went to the University of Maryland.
I received my start in the regional cable sports’ business in 1986 in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area and then moved to the Twin Cities in 1997 to join Kevin Cattoor’s staff at Midwest Sports Channel (MSC). At MSC, I was the Director of Sales and I was in charge of overseeing the sports’ sponsorship department for the Minnesota network and the one we had just launched in Wisconsin. We had a great all-around staff and it was such a blast!
MSC was the predecessor to FSN and, as most people know, it was the home of Gophers’ hockey for many, many years. Gophers’ hockey was the epitome of what I call, “appointment TV viewing” on Friday and Saturday nights.
Fox came into the market and purchased MSC from CBS in 2001 and then I took a job at ShopNBC and its FanBuzz division. FanBuzz operated online stores for brands like the NHL, USA Hockey, Elvis Presley, Peanuts and several NBA teams. This was in the relatively early days of e-commerce and now look at how that space has grown. Around that time, Amazon was primarily in the book-selling business and just beginning to scratch the surface with online retailing. Wow, have times changed!
What intrigued you about getting involved with the HBF?
When I heard that John McClellan was going to retire about a year ago, I reached out to people I knew in hockey and inquired about the position. I reached out to people like WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson, Doug Johnson (former publisher of Let’s Play Hockey), and Matt Hoover who was a hockey producer at MSC, and they all helped to point me in the right direction. Having the chance to associate with anything involved with the legendary Herb Brooks was something I had to pursue.
I was a college student at Maryland when the “Miracle on Ice” happened and knew what that meant as it transcended sports in America during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
I had been living in the Twin Cities for over 20 years which gave me a perspective of the importance of hockey in the state and how Herb was such an incredible influence on its growth. Given my background in sports media and across a variety of leadership positions, I thought I could be an asset to the future goals of the Foundation. I’m truly honored that the search committee thought enough of me and offered me the job.
What should people know about the foundation?
The HBF is all about giving the game back to the kids and growing the game – just the way Herb always wanted. I am fortunate to be around Herb’s children – Dan Brooks and Kelly Brooks Paradise – who are the guiding forces of the Foundation and who give first-hand knowledge of how Herb envisioned growing the game.
In addition to Dan and Kelly, I am surrounded by a number of accomplished and caring board members – people like Doug Johnson, Bill Weller, Todd Johnson, Henry Boucha, Paul Erickson, Winny Brodt Brown and Ross Bernstein, just to name a few. I don’t want to leave anyone out because everyone on the board cares so much about passing on Herb’s legacy to the next generation. Rob McClanahan, who was a key member of the 1980 “Miracle” team, is also on our board.
The HBF wants to give kids a chance to learn life lessons through this great team sport. Important life lessons like teamwork, commitment, integrity, respect and responsibility – the kind of qualities we all need to be successful in life. A wise and influential man named Morgan Fleming of St. Paul has often said to me, “Always remember, the HBF is in the character-building business!”
The HBF provides opportunities for youngsters to start playing floor hockey in the fall in school gyms and then progressing to the ice in the winter months. These are primarily after-school programs which we all know are much needed given the recent budget cuts in many school districts. So in our own small way, we are trying to make a difference in young people’s lives. We provide our services at no charge to the families of these wonderful children. They just love what we do for them and through the generosity of donors and corporate sponsors, we provide top-notch coaching, equipment, ice time and mentoring for the kids – again, at no cost.
We know the Community Education Directors like what we do, too, and our Rink Rats Director, Kalli Funk, oversees our programs. Right now we have 15 schools involved with our fall floor hockey program in and around Minneapolis and many of these kids will also participate with us on the ice in the winter.
Why, in your opinion, is a foundation like the HBF so needed in the State of Hockey?
The HBF isn’t necessarily about developing the next NHL player or Olympian, although that would be an added bonus. It is more about exposing kids to the game who might not otherwise be given the opportunity. Challenges can be financial and logistical, and we try to remove those barriers as best we can. We have a wonderful partnership with the Morrie’s Automotive Group as they help to transport the kids to the various rinks around the metro area in the winter. They have been a great partner and advocate of our efforts for many years.
Our programs have exposed some good, young athletes to the game as they learn important life lessons from our coaches and volunteers. Getting young and better athletes exposed to the sport at an early age was one of Herb’s goals as has been mentioned to me by Dan and many of Herb’s former players including Tom Chorske, Paul Ostby, Ben Hankinson, Jim Boo and many others. Herb was such a big proponent of expanding the talent base and growing the game and he was clearly a man ahead of his time. It is our obligation to continue his legacy in that regard.
There are several existing programs that help give inner city and suburban kids the opportunity to play hockey. You have mentioned expanding that to outstate programs. How can that be accomplished?
A foundation like the HBF is in high-demand because there are many kids in communities – and not just in the urban areas – who need somewhere to go and something to do after school, and they can benefit from the values instilled in sports. We try to fill in those gaps as best we can with our programs, and there are kids in suburban and rural areas who have these needs as well. Not every family can afford to enroll their child in a youth program or even have the time to transport their kids to practices. So what we are trying to do is to provide an alternative and a way to increase participation. Right now, we are mostly a Minneapolis and St. Paul endeavor, but we should also be looking at helping other parts of the metro area where there is a need. We have expanded into New Hope and Roseville, and are looking throughout the metro to meet demand.
Down the road, let’s say within the next two years, we should look to partner with Greater Minnesota entities who think the same way as we do. Ultimately, the HBF Rink Rats program can be extended regionally and then nationally in a similar way that many successful business franchises roll out their systems across the USA.
What are the current needs of the HBF and how can you fulfill those needs?
In order for the HBF to evolve and take the mission to the next level, we need to raise more awareness about our efforts, especially to the leaders in the business community. Many of these leaders have been influenced by playing hockey on some level and many have been influenced by Herb Brooks, too. We need to connect those dots. Once they hear about what we are doing, we believe they will step up and provide the necessary funding so we can add even more robust programs.
We encourage interested people to check out our website or any of our social media channels – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We are very active in social media and believe it is a great place to pass on our message and engage with people who care about hockey and young people
If someone wants to get involved as a volunteer or a donor, what should they do?
There are numerous ways for people to get involved with the Herb Brooks Foundation. For example, individuals and companies can make donations. We make it easy for them to do it right on our website – or they can send in a check. To honor and pay homage to “Miracle,” we encourage $19.80 Gold Medal donations on our website and any combination thereof. We even think there is a way for restaurants and bars to make a difference by giving their customers an option to “round up” their purchases by donating to charity and the HBF specifically. As you can see, we are only limited by our creativity. By the way, February 2020 will be the 40th anniversary of “Miracle,” and you can expect quite a few major announcements and events as we get closer to that date.
We are always looking to add more volunteers and coaches. Volunteers can help out at events like our annual golf outing at Victory Links in Blaine, lacing up skates at a nearby rink or at an upcoming Wild game.
The HBF has a fantastic relationship with the Wild and we are grateful for their continued support.
We are also looking to engage the business community like never before with new partnership opportunities since we have many assets which add value for sponsors. Interested parties can call or email me and we can get things in motion. This is a great way for companies and organizations who want to connect and associate their brand with Herb Brooks – and by giving back. #HBFgrowingthegame