The state of Illinois is one of the most talent-rich areas for youth hockey in the United States of America outside the state of Minnesota. Yet, kids growing up in the state have little choice but to head outside of the state if they want to play on the highest levels.
All of that could be changing in the near future, as the University of Illinois athletic department announced the findings of a feasibility study in to adding hockey as a varsity sport. The findings indicated that adding the sport would be something positive.
“The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. “From the number of native Illinois players currently playing college hockey to the continued growth of youth hockey players in the state, there are many reasons to be confident that the Fighting Illini could quickly become a top national program and sustain it every year. We are very appreciative of the University administration’s willingness to consider bringing NCAA hockey to Champaign.”
The NHL and it’s Player’s Association are also on board with the Illini adding hockey and indicated they agree with what the folks at College Hockey, Inc. had to say. Additionally, the university athletics department made it clear they would be open to adding the sport, but with one big caveat — funding.
“We are excited to share the results of our feasibility study and continue advancing our efforts to bring Division I hockey to Champaign-Urbana,” said Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman. “This is one of our most ambitious and potentially impactful projects in recent memory.”
One of the biggest issues would be getting a new arena off the ground for this type of program. In fact, it was the specific mention of Whitman in his statement about the feasibility study.
“Adding Division I hockey and building the new arena it would require would be transformative for the sport of hockey in the state of Illinois and for our university, our athletic program, and, importantly, for the Champaign-Urbana communities,” said Whitman. “We are grateful for the partnerships we have developed with the Chicago Blackhawks, the National Hockey League, and College Hockey, Inc., all of which have become true champions for this cause. We look forward to engaging with more people from across the state to generate the support necessary to make this project a reality.”
As for the realistic expectations on the funding side, Whitman and his department have done a great job of securing funding for improvements to the overall athlete experience already. Funding is strong for the $79 million project for the football performance center, announcing a $1 million donation just three days ago.
If anyone can get the funding needed to get the project off the ground, it is Whitman. Luckily, just like Penn State had a huge hockey-loving alumnus to fund its program, the Illini also have that potential in its alumni base.
Everything else seems to be in place for success of this project should they want to go forward. There’s plenty of in-state hockey participation, a lack of D1 hockey in the state and tradition with the sport at the university as we speak. That tradition may not be known outside the campus much though.
Club hockey is something taken very seriously at the University of Illinois and there’s a tradition of success for the program. The Illini have won two ACHA national championships since the formation of the organization in 1991 and is one of the perennial powers.
It’s a good building block for an upstart program to work from.
That building block was very important to the last Big Ten team to add varsity hockey to the mix — Penn State. It had a strong base to add scholarship players to thanks to its quality club level of hockey and stabilized the building of the program in the beginning.
Illinois 2017-18 club team sits at 28-9-0-2 as they head in to the national tournament following a second-round conference tournament exit at the hands of Lindenwood University late in February.
The Illini earned a No. 5 seed in the national tournament, and will take on No. 12 seed Jamestown in the 2nd round of the tournament this weekend.
It’s safe to say that the stars seem to be aligning that another Big Ten institution is smartly going to add hockey to its athletic offerings. What will be most interesting is to see if it will be just the men’s side or will the Illini also look to offer women’s hockey as well.
Let’s hope this recommendation is taken seriously, because Illinois is ripe to make an impact on the college hockey landscape and it would be a huge boost to the sport within the Big Ten ranks.