The first feasibility study into adding Division I men’s hockey was released Thursday, this one by the University of Illinois.
The bottom line to the study offered few, if any, surprises: there is strong interest in hockey at Illinois, it would do well from a fan interest and revenue standpoint if it was started, but it needs major funding in order to get it started.
It was first announced last year that the National Hockey League, in conjunction with the NHL Players Association and College Hockey Inc., would commission a series of studies aimed at discovering the feasibility of adding hockey at various schools. The first to be conducted was at the University of Illinois, announced at the Frozen Four in Chicago last April.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who followed the formation of programs at Penn State and Arizona State over the last decade. Both of those schools were long believed to have interest, but didn’t get off the ground until donors stepped forward with massive contributions.
“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 report noted expanding enthusiasm for ice hockey at all levels in the state of Illinois, which creates a foundation for Illinois to develop a men’s hockey program that would, in a relatively short timeframe, become financially viable and competitive on a conference and national level.
The last Division I program in the state was at Illinois-Chicago, but it disbanded in the early 1990s.
The state of Illinois has the sixth-highest youth hockey participation in the nation (22,373 in 2017), which has grown exponentially with an increase of nearly 300 percent since 1993. The state also produces the fourth-most Division I hockey players in the country, with 85 players from Illinois currently competing for Division I teams.
The study recommends development of a new facility on the location proposed in downtown Champaign. The school agrees it would be a good location, and will start planning efforts on a 5,000-6,000-seat arena.
However, Illinois was careful to note that no decision on adding a hockey program is being made, and would happen only if it “can successfully fund the program and receive needed support from various campus and community stakeholders.”