By Jess Myers
Note: The Big Ten conference completed its sixth season of hockey in March when Notre Dame and Ohio State were beaten in the regional round of the NCAA tournament. In this three-part series we are exploring hockey in the nation’s most visible conference, with a conversation about the current state of the game, a profile of the league’s next member school, and a look at the prospects for further long-term expansion. In part two, we check in on the University of Illinois, where hockey is a hot topic, and the school is expected to cash in on the game’s popularity in the Land of Lincoln by announcing the addition of a varsity program soon.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The college towns of Champaign and Urbana, Ill., are conveniently located roughly halfway between two NHL markets where there has been plenty to celebrate over the past decade.
From the heart of the University of Illinois’ main campus, it is less than a three-hour drive to Enterprise Center in St. Louis, where the Blues will hang their first Stanley Cup banner sometime in October. If you prefer the Original Six teams, a hockey fan in this part of Central Illinois farm country can head north a little more than two hours (depending on the whims of Chicago’s ever-present traffic) to United Center, the home rink of the Blackhawks, where they have raised a trio of Stanley Cup banners in the past decade.
But for the hard-core fan in the middle of Illinois, even bigger hockey news may be coming any day now.
Final pieces being assembled
When he met with the media on campus last week, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said that a few things have caused them to hit the pause button, but he still fully expects to announce the formation of an NCAA Division I varsity hockey program there, which would give the Big Ten eight hockey teams.
“We’ve come a long way and have had some significant milestones that have been accomplished. We’re really just trying to get to the last stretch through a partnership with a developer and then a partnership with another landowner that’s next to the property that we’re involved with,” said Warren Hood, the deputy athletic director at Illinois, and the school’s point person on hockey. “Once we get those two hurdles done we should be able to move forward. Those are kind of the last two pieces, and if those all take place, then we’re off to the races.”
The school’s very successful club hockey program currently plays on campus at the University of Illinois Ice Arena, a Great Depression-era building with seating for 1,200 and a massive (192 feet long by 115 feet wide) rectangular ice sheet.
The next version of Illini hockey is expected to be staged off campus in downtown Champaign, in a modern 5,000-seat rink that is a part of a larger convention, office and retail complex. School officials stress that when complete, it will be easily within walking distance of the north end of campus, and the bulk of student housing for the nearly 34,000 undergrads there.
“That was important for us to not put it in a location where students and others wouldn’t naturally be able to get to, especially in the winter months,” Hood said. “It’s a quick walk.”
Boosted by the Blackhawks
For the Big Ten, an eighth hockey member will be important for scheduling and visibility in a conference where the Chicago television market is clearly its epicenter.
For hockey in Illinois, having a college team to call their own again (the University of Illinois-Chicago had varsity hockey until 1996) is a natural outgrowth of the sport’s jump in popularity that began a decade ago when college stars like Jonathan Toews (North Dakota), Duncan Keith (Michigan State), John Madden (Michigan) and Adam Burish (Wisconsin) helped the Blackhawks bring the Cup back to the Windy City after a nearly 50-year absence.
“A lot of the growth of hockey in Illinois is attributable to the successes of the Chicago Blackhawks,” said Mike Barrett, president of the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois. “Our success at the youth level, and especially at the younger youth level, is directly attributable to the success of the Chicago Blackhawks. That just breeds unto itself.
“As more kids get involved in the sport, they tell their friends, and it becomes like the old Vidal Sassoon commercial — they tell two friends, and they tell two friends and sooner or later you have your own explosive growth.”
Barrett has a son and daughter who played hockey and left the state to continue playing at the college level. That’s a problem in this state of 12.7 million (three-quarters of them in Chicagoland) which sent 83 men to Division I hockey teams in other states last season. That number was fourth in the nation, trailing only Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. Hence the excitement over the prospect of seeing the Illini play on the Big Ten Network.
“It’s sorely needed. Our kids that are coming out of here have a lot of opportunities, and hockey is a great way to get you to an education,” said Barrett. “Drop a pin in the middle of Chicago. The closest NCAA Division I hockey program would be Notre Dame, which is about two hours away or Wisconsin, Michigan State or Michigan. There’s nothing within a two-hour drive for kids in the Chicago area that have the ability to play Division I hockey. If fans here want to see a game, same thing.”
School officials have been doing their homework, visiting rinks around the Big Ten to see what works (Penn State’s and Notre Dame have rinks opened in 2013 and 2011, respectively) and what doesn’t (the rinks at Wisconsin and Ohio State are bigger than the current ticket demand there). Pegula Arena at Penn State has 5,700 seats and the Nittany Lions have sold out 94 straight games. Compton Family Ice Arena at Notre Dame has 5,022 seats and has averaged more than 4,100 per game each season since moving there.
“We’ve been to visit Penn State and Notre Dame several times,” Hood said. “We’re looking at a 5,000-seat arena. We think that’s the right number to have so there’s a significant demand and maybe not excess supply.”
Blueprint for the the future
The Big Ten offices in suburban Chicago hosted a fundraiser for the future program in May, where alumni from the school’s club team gathered to contribute and ponder the prospect of Illini hockey. The school has gone as far as to bring some of the state’s top college hockey prospects to Champaign to see the campus and the plans for an arena and a hockey program that don’t exist yet.
They also hosted Terry and Kim Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres’ owners whose check for $100 million facilitated construction of the rink at Penn State and kickstarted the formation of the Nittany Lions hockey program. The Pegulas spoke to Illinois school officials and community leaders about why they gave to Penn State, and what their gift has meant for the community beyond hockey on campus.
Interestingly, the lack of a major donor like the Pegulas or the group led by Don Mullett, who gave $32 million to foster creation of the Arizona State hockey program, is perhaps the best thing about the expected announcement of Illinois hockey, say experts in the sport.
“What’s so exciting about Illinois, in addition to all of the other aspects, is that it’s a repeatable blueprint,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. “It’s addressing needs elsewhere in the athletic department, it’s a partnership with the city, it’s a partnership with a private developer. It’s a series of small gifts, so by no means is there any one person giving an inordinate amount of the money.
“As much as anything that’s the most exciting thing about Illinois is that it will allow us to demonstrate us to other schools that you can do it without one big generous gift.”