By Jess Myers
Note: The Big Ten conference completed its sixth season of hockey in March when Notre Dame and Ohio State were beaten in the regional round of the NCAA tournament. In this three-part series we are exploring hockey in the nation’s most visible conference with a conversation about the state of the game, a profile of the league’s next member school, and a look at the prospects for further long-term expansion. In part one, we have a conversation with Brad Taviolia, the Big Ten’s assistant commissioner in charge of hockey, about the past, present and future of this current seven-team league.
ROSEMONT, Ill. — Originally from Indiana, Brad Traviolia was a Big Ten champion wrestler and a then wrestling coach at Northwestern before joining the conference as an administrator more than 20 years ago. He just finished his fourth season on the job as the Big Ten’s assistant commissioner for hockey, and spoke by phone from the conference office in suburban Chicago.
After six seasons and two NCAA runners-up, what is the current state of Big Ten hockey?
I’d say we’re progressing. It’s something where everyone would love in Year 1 to start off with a national championship and have six total and be going strong. We’re obviously not there, but that being said, I think all of our schools felt like this past year was a nice step forward. We’re blessed that we have a lot of programs with historical success. Really, in the first few years of Big Ten hockey, a number of those schools haven’t lived up to their historical norms in terms of success. Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota — all of them that have had wonderful historical success have experienced somewhat of a drought. All four of those have gone through coaching changes. All have seen improvement recently and are very optimistic about the future. Then, when you throw in Ohio State and their regular season championship last year and Penn State’s splash on the scene in a short period of time, they’ve had significant success in the conference and nationally. We’re very optimistic. We didn’t think just by turning on the lights all of a sudden there would be instant success. With that said, our schools individually have had significant historical success. They have realistic national title expectations. Until we get those titles, it’s always going to feel like we’re not quite there yet, but I think everyone is optimistic that we’re well on our way.
In two seasons as an affiliate member of the Big Ten, Notre Dame has won a regular season title and two playoff titles. I would expect you’re happy with what the Irish have brought to Big Ten hockey, despite the challenge of scheduling for seven teams?
Absolutely. The Big Ten doesn’t enter into affiliate memberships lightly. It’s only the third time in our 120-year history that we’ve done so. The first and second were with Johns Hopkins for men’s and women’s lacrosse. So it’s a relatively new phenomenon with the Big Ten, but we look for programs and sports where it really can be a win-win scenario for the conference and for that affiliate member institution. With hockey, Notre Dame has had historical rivalries with a number of the former CCHA teams so it really has been what I believe is a win-win. When we, as a conference, look at how we can get better, we certainly felt that adding Notre Dame as a seventh member was a step in the right direction.
What do you think of the likelihood that Illinois will become the eighth hockey program in the conference?
That’s an institutional decision. If they do decide to go forward with all of the research they have done and how they look at incorporating the facilities and the development and the hockey rich state that Illinois is, I think that would certainly be a game-changer. I don’t know what the perfect number (of teams) is or if there is a perfect number for a collegiate hockey conference but going from seven to eight and envisioning Illinois as a successful eighth member makes us all excited. It’s not a done deal, and I don’t know when or if they’ll be able to make that decision, but if they do go forward with it, I do think they have a very good chance of being successful in the league.
If Illinois comes on board, that will leave seven Big Ten schools without hockey. Are there other places where hockey might be a logical addition, and do you have those conversations with administrators?
As a conference when it comes to sports sponsorship, we are more reactive than proactive in terms of those conversations with our membership. It really is a local decision as far as which sports they want to sponsor, how many they want to sponsor and at what level they want to sponsor. So at the other seven that don’t have men’s ice hockey, I think the question is are they willing to step up? Because I do think that in the Big Ten, you’re not sponsoring a sport unless you think you can be nationally competitive. Some may be willing and able to do it, others may not. But in either case, as we’ve seen with Penn State and with the due diligence that Illinois is going through, you kind of have to have all the stars lined up in order for it to work.
How much credibility did it lend to Big Ten hockey to have three of the four teams in the in the 2018 Frozen Four from your conference?
There’s nothing quite like competitive success to validate what you’re doing. While we thought all along that Big Ten hockey was a step in the right direction and we think that long term it is going to be a net positive for collegiate hockey, not having significant competitive success early on was easy to point to and we rightfully got ripped for not coming in with a splash. That being said, having three out of the four teams in the Frozen Four, nobody would predict that, and it’s not something that we think is an expectation each and every year, but I think it reaffirmed that Big Ten programs can be successful and it was nice to see it come together. In talking to our members, we feel like we should have three, four, even five members qualify for the NCAAs each year. Once you get in the tournament, anyone can beat anyone on any given weekend, so it’s hard to put too much emphasis on the winning within the national tournament, but with that being said, until we win national titles, we’re not going to be satisfied.
A decade ago there were questions about Penn State and how long it would take that program to be nationally competitive. Today they have made it to the NCAA tournament, they have won a Big Ten playoff title and have sold out 94 consecutive home games. Are you surprised by their success?
It’s a wonderful facility and a wonderful environment. The administration there has really supported hockey. Guy Gadowsky and his staff have done a great job recruiting and getting their teams ready. It’s exciting. If you could just bottle that, I’m sure there are a number of schools that would like to replicate that kind of immediate success. And I’m sure if you bottled that you would have a lot more schools signing on to sponsor Division I hockey right away. The stars aligned, they were able to put their best foot forward as a result. We were able to come together and start Big Ten hockey and long term I think it’s going to be a net positive for college hockey overall. Our Big Ten schools with their name recognition and the amount of fans they have, there’s the ability for them to get what I call the casual sports fan. The hockey fan base is loyal and rabid and there are a lot of great things involved with it, but the question is, how do you grow the sport and get new people involved? I think that whether it’s Penn State or if Illinois comes on line, there are lots of people or alumni that may be interested in following that group even if they didn’t play hockey or know someone who played hockey. I think that’s where the Big Ten’s name recognition, and the Big Ten Network, may be able to grow the pie a little bit.
For all of the sellouts in places like Notre Dame and Penn State, there have been attendance issues in places like Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. What is your level of concern about ticket sales?
That’s a great question. I know that each campus and their administrators are thinking and trying different things to figure that out. The conference recognizes that, but we’re sitting here in Rosemont, Illinois, and we don’t pretend to know the Minneapolis market better than the folks at Minnesota. That being said, we certainly have some control and influence when it comes to scheduling the conference season. When scheduling non-conference, that’s local. Game times are sometimes impacted by TV, but I think that Minnesota is really looking to everything from their ticket price structure to selling alcohol at home games. Each of them are trying to figure out how they can grow this. Minnesota has had the competitive success historically, so has Wisconsin, but they’ve got some big arenas. Ohio State hasn’t had the historical success, but with their recent success, they’re growing their fan base. I think all of them feel confident that they’re headed in the right direction. While they’ve had some recent years where they haven’t drawn their historical norms, I think think they feel confident that they’re changing direction and getting that trend increasing.
After four years of neutral site Big Ten tournaments in St. Paul and Detroit, you’ve played the playoff games on campus the past two seasons. How well has the change worked?
We love the campus format. The atmosphere has been great for the championship game. Each of the last two years, it’s been in South Bend as Notre Dame was the highest remaining seed. This year, they set an attendance record at that facility. It was packed three deep at the rails, which was great. I understand it was an issue with the WCHA and CCHA tournaments that the early round games would sometimes fall over spring break, so (attendance) is going to be hit or miss on some of the early rounds. The early rounds in St. Paul and Detroit struggled, so if we have 3,000 to 5,000 showing up for those early round games, it looks much better in a 6,000-seat arena than in a 16,000-seat arena.
How closely do you work with the Big Ten Network and regional television networks like FOX Sports North in Minnesota?
We work closely with Fox Sports North in Minnesota, for example, to try to make sure that their coverage of Gopher hockey and the coverage by the Big Ten Network compliment each other. We understand that FOX Sports North has other obligations with the Minnesota professional sports franchises, so there are maybe certain games on the calendar where they may not be able to air Gopher hockey. Maybe that’s a night where Big Ten Network is stepping up and airing the game. On the flip side, FOX Sports North really does enjoy airing Gopher hockey, so if they do have windows of availability after they know their NBA and NHL calendar, we work with them and the network works with them to essentially let them fill up their calendar with as much Gopher hockey as they can, and then BTN complements that. After a couple years of scheduling and assigning TV rights the old fashioned way, we took what we learned and went to the schools and went to the Big Ten Network and asked them to be a bit more flexible. Instead of them picking first, we let FOX Sports North pick first and it has really worked out well. BTN still gets a number of Minnesota hockey games that they like and they still complement FSN.
Kevin Warren is coming to the Big Ten as the new commissioner from the Minnesota Vikings, and he has children who have played hockey. Have you talked Big Ten hockey with him, and what do you feel is his interest in the sport in your conference?
I have not talked to him about Big Ten hockey yet. I’ve met Kevin on a couple occasions and I’m extremely excited that he’s coming on board with the Big Ten. I think he will do a wonderful job. I know that he’s a broad-based sports supporter, whether it’s hockey or football, basketball or other Olympic sports, he’s all in. I’m looking forward to talking with him about his experience with hockey. Certainly being in Minnesota the last 15 years, he’s going to have a pretty unique perspective from that state.