When new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren visited Yost Ice Arena in February, he was on a mission.
Warren set a goal to see every team at every Big Ten institution play at least once in the first year of his tenure, so watching the Michigan hockey team take on Wisconsin on Feb. 7 was just a step along that path. But Warren had a second goal that day: Get former Michigan coach Red Berenson to join his staff as a special adviser for hockey operations.
At 80 years old, three seasons removed from his retirement after 33 years behind the bench for the Wolverines, Berenson attends nearly every home game and can be found holding court from the first box on the right. That night, Warren joined him.
“He made it a point to corner me and we sat down and talked,” Berenson told The Daily. “He said he really felt strongly about Big Ten hockey and hockey in general. … He said he just loves hockey and he wants to see the Big Ten conference get better and he wants me to be his special adviser and work with him in trying to make the conference better.”
A few weeks after their conversation at Yost, Berenson signed on and began his role as Warren’s special adviser on hockey, as first reported by Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal. Two weeks later, the remainder of the college athletics season was canceled. There have been no decisions made about next season, which changes things for Berenson.
It’s a rule-change year for college hockey, which only adopts rule changes every other year, so ordinarily, this summer would be filled with meetings and conferences among Big Ten coaches and coaches across the country — exactly the kind of meeting Berenson would attend. Now, those meetings have become conference calls, but discussions haven’t slowed down in the slightest.
“Everyone’s working from home, but it’s amazing how they’re still inspired and invested in the upcoming season,” Berenson said. “Whatever the conversations have been about rules or overtime or whatever it’s been, the coaches are all over it. It’s been really good.”
Berenson’s role currently involves being on just about every conference call that happens in college hockey — whether it’s with Big Ten coaches, coaches across the league, other Big Ten administrators or commissioners of other leagues that sponsor hockey. Once a week, he has a call with Warren to stay up to date on the rest of the Big Ten and update Warren on what’s happening on the hockey side of things.
And despite taking on this new role, Berenson is continuing to work for the Michigan athletic department as an adviser to athletic director Warde Manuel — though he’s technically retired.
“I enjoy it,” Berenson said. “I really do. I can’t say that I miss coaching. I don’t miss coaching, but I enjoy the games, I enjoy the environment. I love going to Yost. I know all the coaches around the league, and they’ve been very receptive to my coming on board.”
Since the Big Ten began sponsoring hockey in 2013, there have been a myriad of criticisms of how the league has handled the sport. Everything from TV presence to team performance has come under fire, and Berenson is taking on the task of dealing with those concerns.
“My goals are whatever’s best for the conference, but I’d like to help it grow in the right direction,” Berenson said. “You’d like to see the teams do well. You’d like to see the chance of expansion. I would be a big promoter of expansion, particularly within the Big Ten. For example, there were rumors Illinois might be interested in adding hockey, and then this virus hit. … I’ll stay close to Steve Piotrowski, who’s the head of officials, and in terms of officiating and just making the conference better.
“…I want to improve the game and then improve the communication with the teams and the coaches. If there are things we need to address as a conference, they can work through me. Kevin and I have a good line of communication, so I think that’ll help where you’re not dealing with non-hockey people.”
With Warren as the commissioner, the Big Ten intends to put a greater focus on hockey — a contrast to how things where handled under previous commissioner Jim Delany, who focused primarily on football and basketball.
“The thing that really inspires me is Kevin’s passion for hockey,” Berenson said. “It’s not like he doesn’t know anything about hockey. He knows a lot about hockey, and he cares about hockey. I don’t know that we’ve had that passion, necessarily, coming out of the Big Ten office for hockey. It’s been a conference maybe driven strictly by football or some basketball, but it sounds now that he wants hockey to get better.”