Kevin Warren was comfortable in his role as an executive with the Minnesota Vikings and as a Twin Cities hockey dad. But he sought a bigger challenge.
In early January 2020, Warren became just the sixth commissioner in the history of the Big Ten Conference, and unknowingly walked into a buzzsaw, with the pandemic hitting hard, and all sports being shut down barely three months later.
In the midst of a busy week, with the conference’s basketball tournaments on-going and the hockey tournament about to start, Warren gave The Rink Live a few minutes to talk about the state of college hockey among the conference’s six programs that field teams, plus affiliate member Notre Dame, and what the future might hold for the game in Big Ten Country.
There’s a photo of you one year ago this week, sitting alone at a podium, announcing the cancellation of the 2020 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament due to the pandemic. We’re not clear of the virus yet, but how much better is life in the Big Ten 365 days later?
It’s a lot better. I love our student athletes and have so much respect for them, their families, our coaches and all the people on campus, and the medical personnel that had to work so hard to provide us with a season. It truly is a blessing. I have a heart full of gratitude, and I’m excited to see some great hockey here.
Some of us in Minnesota would see you at Vikings-related functions, but also at youth hockey rinks, following your son Powers (now a junior on the football team at Mississippi State) on the rink. How big a part of your family life in Minnesota was hockey?
Powers was a hockey player for 15 years. We started at squirts and went all the way through the system. I’ve joked with (former Michigan) coach (Red) Berenson so many times and told him that they didn’t have hockey in Arizona when I grew up there, but if they had, I’d have been a hockey player more than a basketball player. My wife Greta and I are hockey parents. I spent 15 years in rinks. Powers started playing in first grade and it was special. It was always kind of the passing from winter to spring when we would get to districts. The community in our Big Ten footprint for hockey is fabulous. I love the parents, and I used to love those (youth hockey) garage parties. It taught my son so much about toughness and discipline and hard work, so I’m blessed to be a hockey dad.
You mentioned Red Berenson. What has it meant to Big Ten Hockey and to you to have him working with the conference as an advisor for the sport?
I can’t say enough good things about him. I met him when my son went to hockey camp there. We were in the middle of building US Bank Stadium in Minnesota, so instead of taking Powers to Ann Arbor and flying back to Minnesota, I just stayed there, sitting at the top of Yost Ice Arena for a week, working on stadium stuff. I had known about coach Berenson from his reputation, but to watch him coach and meet all the young men, Powers fell in love with him. They ended up making the Frozen Four the following year and I took Powers there. (Coach Berenson) remembered us right away. He’s a coach, he’s a player, he’s a smart businessperson and he’s so well-respected. I know as a hockey parent that the hockey community is based upon respect. You’ve got to be strong. Coach Berenson has done it all, seen it all, he’s a spectacular human being, and I owe so much of the success of this season to him. I trust him. He and I meet every Friday and when he suggests something, 100 percent of the time I do it. It’s just been a blessing to have someone so skilled and so experienced working with us.
Big Ten hockey didn’t make it through the season unscathed by COVID, but it came through pretty well, without a huge number of games cancelled. Looking back on everything that went into putting on a hockey season in 2020-21, what are your thoughts on how it all went down?
One thing we have to do is have a heart of gratitude. We’re playing college athletics in a global pandemic...There are so many passionate people in the game, and I said from my first press conference on Day 1 that I would always put the health and wellness of our student athletes at the center of our decision-making process. Period. Point blank, that’s it. So look at what we were able to do with our medical testing programs and the commitment of our student athletes to stay disciplined, to work hard while they’re going to college. These are not professional athletes. These are collegiate athletes, and to be able to do this in an abnormal college experience, while getting a great education, it makes me humbled and honored to be the commissioner of the Big Ten.
You have degrees from Notre Dame and Arizona State. One of them is a Big Ten hockey affiliate member and one of them played a Big Ten hockey schedule this year. When you think about the Sun Devils and what they did this season, is there a future place for them in this conference?
It was very special to be able to work with Arizona State, which has had an incredible role in the life of my family. My father was a professor there and I think we have almost 30 degrees from Arizona State in our family. So to see them build a hockey program under president (Michael) Crow and athletic director Ray Anderson, it was an honor to work with them this season to make hockey happen. They’ve got a really good team, they’re passionate about it. This was one of those ideas from coach Berenson for us to round out (the schedule) this year and I think it worked. In life I always look for the win-win-win and the Big Ten was able to win, our student athletes got more games and Arizona State was able to compete, so it turned out to be outstanding.
Is there an idea that the Sun Devils could be an affiliate member of the conference for hockey in the future?
One of the things that we’re going to do is focus on having a successful Big Ten tournament and hopefully have some great teams in the Frozen Four. And then, at the end of this season, in all these areas we will take a step back and evaluate what’s good going forward. Arizona State was a great partner this year and especially for me, growing up in Tempe maybe five miles from campus, seeing them play at a high level was another opportunity to be grateful.
Those of us in the hockey world have seemingly been waiting about five years for the University of Illinois to make a formal announcement of adding hockey. Do you have conversations along those lines with the folks in Champaign?
I know they’ve had discussions and Illinois has expressed an interest in building a hockey program. One thing about 2020 and 2021 is that having to deal with COVID has complicated certain issues, but I’m sure once we’re able to all take a collective breath in June and make some determinations, we will see what the future holds for Illinois and any other potential schools in the Big Ten to start a hockey program.
A 5,000-seat hockey-ready building recently opened near the University of Iowa. Any discussions about hockey there, or at any of the conference’s other non-hockey schools?
I haven’t had any formal discussions with any of the Big Ten schools, but again, one of the things that COVID taught us -- and I always try to look for the rainbow after the storm -- is it caused us to continually evaluate the better way to do things, not just keep doing it this way because we’ve done it this way. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves. We’re strong people, we’re creative, we’re passionate, we’re wise, so I’m excited about this summer, to sit back and reflect and see what we can do, not only in hockey, but as a conference, to continually make ourselves leaders in college athletics.
- A look at Big Ten hockey Part 1: Q & A with the commissioner
- A look at Big Ten hockey, Part 2: Illinois program coming soon
- A look at Big Ten Hockey, Part 3: Which school is next to join?
Big Ten Network televises many of your games, as do the FOX regional sports networks. Sinclair, which owns the FOX networks, is currently in a dispute with some carriers meaning that fewer people can see the games. Is the conference involved in those conversations regarding TV availability?
I’m a hockey dad, but I wasn’t a hockey player, so I wanted to lean into hockey. We’ve been blessed with our own network, and I have weekly meetings with the president of Big Ten Network. I was very clear with him and he was clear with me that (hockey) is an area we could grow. You look at the numbers and we’ve blown some of the statistics through the roof, because we’ve leaned into it and made it a priority. We have to continually get more exposure, not only on Big Ten Network and other networks, but also on social media platforms. We’re going to continually see it grow and we’re going to promote hockey in the Big Ten. People recognize that not only is it phenomenal hockey, but they can get a world-class education from one of our fine institutions.
Do you anticipate full capacity at the conference’s hockey venues next season?
I want to thrive through these next couple months, then take a breath in June and get an update from our medical personnel. Being at the basketball tournament, even having a few fans in the stadium brings a certain kind of energy, but again, what we do in the Big Ten will always be baked on health and safety. We have some time over the summer to evaluate before we go into the fall.
You and your family live in Chicago now, but are there things you miss about Minnesota, having spent a significant part of your life here?
Minnesota will always have a special place in my heart. It’s a place where we recognized dreams and raised our kids. Our kids went to elementary school and high school there. We have some incredible fond memories there as a family. When we moved to Minnesota in 2005, we didn’t know a person in the state. We had a distant cousin, and he moved away right after we moved there. I look back on how much we’ve been blessed and how much we were able to accomplish as a family and the number of people we call friends there. I love the people in Minnesota and that will always be home for us. They treated us like family and took care of us and took care of our pets and took care of me. It was a spectacular 15 years for us there.