NHL To Sponsor Feasibility Studies On Bringing More Big Schools Into D-I Hockey
The NHL, in conjunction with the NHL Players Association, has announced a new initiative to evaluate the feasibility of U.S. colleges to add Division I hockey. The University of Illinois is the first university to undergo the study.
The announcement was made at the NHL Draft, taking place this weekend in Chicago, which also hosted the Frozen Four in April.
“The idea of varsity hockey at the University of Illinois has great appeal,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “With hockey’s popularity in both Chicago and St. Louis, and rapidly growing youth participation across the state, we anticipate tremendous interest in the sport at our university.”
Attendees at the press conference also included NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, USA Hockey’s Mathieu Schneider, Buffalo Sabres owner and Penn State hockey benefactor Terry Pegula, and Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough.
The news doesn’t mean that Illinois, or any of the other four schools, will join Division I, but the study should give those schools a framework as to what will be needed in order to make the jump, including financials. Of course, it was only Pegula’s $102 million donation to Penn State which made that program possible.
“There are many questions yet unanswered, the biggest being funding for such an ambitious project,” Whitman said. “But by engaging in this evaluation in such a public manner, our hope is that it helps us identify those from the hockey community who might have an interest in supporting this initiative. We believe it could be transformative for our athletic program, our university, and our community.”
In April, Illinois athletic department officials spoke with CHN about the idea of going D-I in hockey. The school has often seemed like a natural, and constantly gets asked about it, they said, but without major funding, it was going to be difficult. That is the same story for many top universities with a local campus and/or community that has shown interest.
The NHL being involved is an attempt to push a better framework for making the situation work at big universities in the U.S.
About two hours down Route 57 in Champaign, the University of Illinois has a successful club hockey program. The Illini finished the 2017 season ranked No. 13 in the ACHA Division I, playing in the highly-competitive Central States Collegiate Hockey League, where all five teams in the league finished the season ranked.
Illinois is part of the Big Ten, which began sponsoring hockey when Penn State elevated its program.
As a state, Illinois produces the fifth-most Division I men’s hockey players in the nation. Youth participation in the state has more than doubled since 1993, to more than 22,000 in 2017. Despite these facts, the state of Illinois does not currently have a Division I hockey program.
This feasibility study will analyze the many factors necessary for Illinois to start and maintain a hockey program, including, but not limited to, one-time and annual expenses, funding opportunities, facility needs, Title IX considerations, and community support. Any decisions on the possible addition of hockey will be made at the conclusion of the feasibility study. No deadline has been set for completion of the study.
Illinois sponsored hockey as a varsity sport for six years from 1938-43, when it was disbanded during World War II. Despite winning Big Ten titles the final three years, the sport was never re-started after the completion of the war.
The other four schools that will participate in the study have not been named yet.