Is NCAA hockey finally on the horizon for Illinois? – Chicago Tribune
For decades, promising youth hockey players in Illinois have not had an opportunity to play college hockey in their home state.
Since 1996, when Illinois-Chicago’s varsity program disbanded, the state has not had any Division I college hockey programs.
That may be changing.
“We’re always looking for ways to promote the University of Illinois and create positive energy amongst our fans and in our community,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “We look at hockey as an opportunity to do something special.”
The study will explore funding to create men’s and women’s programs as well look into fan interest. Illinois, which has a club team that plays in an aging facility, would need to build an ice arena.
Hockey experts estimate that the operating budget for hockey would be second only to collegiate football, taking between $1.5 and $2 million to implement a program. With a maximum of 18 scholarships, facilities, maintaining ice and Title IX implications requiring a women’s sport to be added sometimes make college administrators hesitant to add men’s hockey.
Illinois’ athletic budget operated at a $6.2 million deficit last season. Whitman also announced Tuesday plans to put on hold a renovation project of Memorial Stadium. The Illini will construct a football new training facility aimed for a 2019 completion that is expected to cost between $60 and $80 million,significantly less expensive than an original plan of $135 million that was announced in October.
Hockey would be another heavy cost.
UIC‘s hockey program, which started in 1966 and became Division I in 1982, lost about $600,000 in its final season, according to a Tribune report.
Penn State was the most recent Division I program to add hockey after a $102 million donation in 2012 from Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who attended Friday’s news conference. The money built a $90 million hockey arena and create an endowment for scholarship funds.
The Blackhawks have not made a financial commitment to Illinois, but it was promising for the Illini that Hawks president John McDonough was also at the news conference held before the NHL draft. He met with Whitman a few times to discuss the idea.
“The interest level (in hockey in the state) is at an all-time high,” McDonough said. “It’s a mercurial pace we’re going at right now. The opportunity is there. The timing is right.”
That rapidly growing popularity of youth hockey in the state indicates an Illinois program would have a fertile recruiting ground.
The state ranked fifth last season in producing 84 men’s college hockey players and third in producing 35 women’s hockey.Men’s college hockey has seen a 95 percent growth rate of players from Illinois since 2004, and a 192 percent growth rate among women’s players from Illinois.
Surrounding states of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio combine for 24 men’s and women’s college programs.
Illinois currently has 22,373 youth hockey players. Of course, the Blackhawks success has inspired a generation of new players to put on ice around Chicago.
“Illinois is a great state for hockey,” colleghockeyinc.com executive director Mike Snee said. “But it’s not complete. There’s a hole there (for college hockey).”
Whitman aid the Illini would look into various facility options such as an arena that could also be used for Olympic sports like volleyball and wrestling. The Illini would not put ice in the recently renovated State Farm Center, understanding the need for a smaller arena for hockey.
Making an arena a multi-use facility with the Champaign community could be another option.
Two other college programs, which were not named, are considering joining the feasibility study.
Whitman initially put ideas about a hockey program on a back burner when he was approached by Snee. But the more they talked, Whitman began to see benefits to adding a program.
“I see the opportunity at Illinois for us to be great at hockey,” he said. “If we’re going to do something like this, we’re going to be great at it.”