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 three, we visit two Big Ten members where the pieces seem to be falling into place and the addition of varsity hockey in the future is at least possible, if not probable.
ROSEMONT, Ill. — With the expected addition of Illinois to the NCAA Division I hockey world and to the Big Ten hockey conference in the near future, there will be seven of the 14 Big Ten schools that do not field varsity hockey teams.
Of those, hockey is a current long shot at five of them — Purdue, Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers and Northwestern — for lack of a hockey-ready facility within realistic distance of the campus. There are some hockey-equipped buildings in the vicinity of those schools, but not places where hockey is likely to succeed.
Take Northwestern, for example, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill. There has been message board chatter about the idea of the Wildcats playing varsity hockey at Allstate Arena, the 16,000-seat home of the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, which is near O’Hare Airport. It’s less than 15 miles from the Northwestern campus to the arena, but in Chicago’s ever-present traffic, that journey routinely takes 45 minutes or more.
If Northwestern wanted to play Division I hockey in the worst way, playing in a way-too-big arena located a 45-minute drive from campus would likely be the worst way.
It’s a similar story at Maryland, which is less than 10 miles from Capital One Arena, the home rink of the NHL’s Washington Capitals. You could certainly try to play college hockey there, but the distance (40 minutes plus in DC traffic) from campus and size of the rink are impediments to success.
The accepted thinking in college hockey is for a new program to succeed you need three things: money, an on-campus arena that’s the right size for college hockey (4,000-6,000 seats), and a conference to play in. Yes, Arizona State has made a fantastic debut with only one of those things in place, but there’s constant talk that an arena is coming to Tempe, and a conference should follow.
Ice storm in Nebraska
There are two non-hockey Big Ten schools with two of the three elements in place. In Nebraska, they have the relatively new Pinnacle Bank Arena, which is the home of Cornhuskers basketball. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they would need a significant investment to make the building hockey-ready.
“We don’t do hockey,” said Tom Lorenz, Pinnacle Bank Arena’s general manager, via email. “We made ice only once prior to our grand opening in September of 2013, never since. If the University of Nebraska and the City of Lincoln ever jointly decided they would want to play hockey at PBA, we would have to either invest in an ice plant, or bring in a portable ice plant. We have dashers without glass and we don’t have dehumidification in the building. So we are several hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not $1 or $2 million away from doing hockey.”
The building will host Disney on Ice in October, using a portable ice plant.
Nebraska’s competitive club team plays in an 800-seat rink near the campus, and will bring six high school players from Edina in for the coming season. Larry Taylor, the Cornhuskers’ coach, said he’s heard no official talk from athletic officials at the school about varsity hockey there.
According to several sources, perhaps the biggest obstacle to Division I college hockey at Nebraska is political. Lincoln and Omaha are an hour apart. They are Nebraska’s two biggest cities, and certainly civic rivals. For generations, Cornhuskers football has been the dominant sport in the region, with their basketball program battling Creighton, in Omaha, for the hearts and minds of hoops fans in the state.
But Omaha has taken the lead on the hockey rink, with the University of Nebraska Omaha playing as members of the NCHC before large crowds near their campus, and got to the Frozen Four in 2015. There would certainly be an outcry in some circles if the folks in Lincoln looked to steal some of the college hockey thunder from Omaha.
“There has been discussion of hockey at Nebraska, but I think one of the largest holdups is that UNO is Division I and Omaha is 60 miles away,” said Shawn Spencer, the president of the Midwest Amateur Hockey Association, who lives in Omaha. “But there has been a lot of discussion about Nebraska having a Division I hockey team, possibly in the Big Ten.”
Under construction in Iowa
In 14 months, there will be a near-perfect facility in place for hockey at the University of Iowa. Xtream Arena is currently under construction roughly 2 miles northwest of the Iowa campus in the neighboring community of Coralville. The facility will have 5,200 seats for hockey. While there has been no official declarations of interest in even studying the addition of the sport from the Hawkeyes athletic department, people in the Iowa amateur hockey community are confident that Division I college hockey could thrive there.
“I think there’s is a marketplace for it, with the growth of hockey over the past 5-10 years in the area,” said Dustin Timm, who runs the youth hockey program 30 minutes away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is an assistant coach for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders — one of five USHL teams in the state. “Iowa City is a great city for the university, and the Hawkeyes have great support in the community, so if they could get buy-in from their student body, this sport is great, fast-paced and very viewer-friendly in the moment, so I think it’s a viable option for them down the road.”
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, who played youth hockey in Burnsville, Minn., and was a part of three national champion football teams at NDSU, was not immediately available for an interview.
But Mike Snee from College Hockey, Inc., confirmed that his organization has met with Barta in the past and has broached the subject. College Hockey, Inc., provides marketing and information for Division I men’s hockey with support from the NHL and USA Hockey. The Hawkeyes will play volleyball at Xtream Arena when it opens in August 2020, and there has been talk of the school’s club hockey program moving there, but nothing from the school about any official interest in varsity hockey.
“Barta has been asked about it on a few occasions, but no, there’s been no discussion,” said Brian Hixenbaugh, the general manager of Xtream Arena. “We’re in talks with the club team, both the men’s and women’s team, about potentially hosting their home matches, but it hasn’t gone anywhere further than that.”
Sport sells itself
Even in those places where other sports have traditionally dominated the campus, like football and basketball at Nebraska and Illinois, those who promote college hockey note that it’s a relatively easy sell for sports fans looking for something new and exciting in the winter. The venues are usually intimate and students sit close to the ice. The tickets are affordable, and the games are generally always played on Friday and Saturday nights. As one fan said, Friday night college hockey on campus is, “the first party of the weekend.”
Snee feels that even with arenas and a conference available, the third leg of the stool — money — might be what’s currently holding hockey back at Nebraska, Iowa and elsewhere.
“All of these schools are so desperately trying to raise money already for existing projects, especially football, that I don’t know if they want to add another priority fundraising campaign,” Snee said, alluding to a Penn State Terry Pegula-style donor that could make hockey happen just about anywhere, with the right-sized donation. “But if they get a pretty nice head start by somebody who’s willing to give something, then they might.”
So the college hockey world remains focused on Illinois, not only to give the sport another high-profile team, but to give others in the Big Ten another example to emulate.
“At this time we aren’t formally working with any other schools, but we are always pursuing conversations,” Snee said. “And we believe if Illinois does happen, it will be cause to have further conversations with most of the other non-hockey-playing Big Ten schools.”
Jess Myers (@JessRMyers) can be reached at email@example.com.