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Crawford focuses on learning and growth as new OHL commissioner


For the first time in 45 years, the Ontario Hockey League will have a new boss at the helm.

Bryan Crawford was announced as the new commissioner of the OHL on Thursday, taking over from long-standing commissioner David Branch who had held the role since 1979.

Crawford, 42, was most recently an executive with Golf Canada and the tournament director of the highly successful RBC Canadian Open. He previously served as the senior director of operations for Basketball Canada and interim executive director and director of operations with Ontario University Athletics.

“I’m incredibly honoured to be named the next commissioner of the OHL and follow in the footsteps of a truly extraordinary leader [in Branch] whose dedication, commitment, and passion to this league has been unparalleled,” Crawford said at a press conference at the Hockey Hall of Fame. “It’s an incredible honour to entrust me with the responsibility for leading this league forward, protecting its integrity, and fortifying itself as the best developmental league in the world.”

Crawford takes over a 20-team league that hosts franchises throughout Ontario, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The OHL is one of three pillars of hockey development in Canada, along with the Western Hockey League and Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League, and has had the most players drafted into the NHL since 1969.

The Queen’s University alum comes into the role with the understanding that he has a lot to learn after taking over from a predecessor who had 45 years of institutional knowledge.

“The No. 1 priority for me is listening, understanding, and learning. That’s my job to start,” said Crawford. “I’ll never have the institutional knowledge that [Branch] has, but I can work hard to gain the understanding of what has come before, which will set us up for the future.”

Crawford maintains his priority is to hold up the OHL’s status as one of the premier hockey developmental leagues in the world while finding ways to grow and improve on its solid foundation.

He also recognizes the league’s position in growing the sport of hockey as a whole and the challenges that come with keeping the game as Canada’s most popular sport.

“I think it is imperative for us to be forward looking and not rest on our laurels of being the primary sport in Canadian life,” said Crawford. “If we rest on the fact that we’re the No. 1 developmental league in the world, we won’t be for very long. Basketball and soccer will surpass hockey in terms of participation and [the tools] families choose as the way to educate their children and learn all the skills sport teaches us.

“We need to be aggressive to make sure we maintain our position by looking forward to improve and strengthening ourselves.”

Crawford adds that there are areas of growth where the league can be creative in bringing its product to their communities. He believes that the reach that they have throughout Ontario and the United States is one of the OHL’s greatest assets, and the ability to be storytellers about their players and league can create future fans.

“I’m a believer that you can try something and if it doesn’t work, you can go back to what you were doing before. But if you don’t try, you don’t know it can be successful.” said Crawford. “There is so much storytelling that can be done, which is why people support teams and why they love sports.”

Crawford pointed to his time with Golf Canada as an example of thinking outside the box in order grow interest in a sport without dismissing its traditions.

“We turned a Par-3 on a golf course into hockey hole and people thought that was absolutely crazy, but it’s been one of the most important things to happen to the RBC Canadian Open,” said Crawford.

A major focus for the OHL will be growth in the Golden Horseshoe in Southern Ontario. The Steelheads franchise moved from Mississauga to Brampton this off-season, and the area has also seen the Battalion and Hamilton Bulldogs franchises move around within the last decade.

“I think the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area needs to be a supporter and driver for the OHL,” Crawford said of both cities’ importance to the league. “This is the centre of development for so many young players, so it needs to be central to our league and be a part of our OHL family.”