CHICAGO, IL – The University of Illinois will partner with the National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) to evaluate the possible addition of hockey as a varsity sport. In an effort to support the growth of collegiate hockey, the NHL and NHLPA will fund feasibility studies exploring the potential of adding NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey programs at five institutions across the United States. Illinois is the first university to participate in the study. The announcement was made Friday at a joint press conference hosted by the NHL prior to the NHL Draft in Chicago. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Chicago Blackhawks President and CEO John McDonough, NHLPA Special Assistant to the Executive Director Mathieu Schneider, and Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman spoke at the press conference, among others.
“The idea of varsity hockey at the University of Illinois has great appeal,” said Whitman. “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. We are grateful to College Hockey, Inc., USA Hockey and our colleagues with the Chicago Blackhawks, who have been incredibly supportive during our preliminary due diligence. We will add sport programs only if they can enhance the brand and reputation of the Fighting Illini by being nationally competitive, and our initial research reveals a number of factors that suggest hockey at Illinois could quickly grow into one of the country’s most successful programs. There are many questions yet unanswered, the biggest being funding for such an ambitious project. 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.”
Another participant in Friday’s press conference was Terry Pegula, owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. In 2010, Pegula’s $102 million gift to Penn State University made it possible for the Nittany Lions to add varsity hockey in 2013, including construction of the state-of-the-art Pegula Ice Arena on the Penn State campus. Last season, only Penn State’s fourth in NCAA competition, the Nittany Lions spent several weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation. The most recent school to add Division I hockey, Arizona State, did so following a $30 million anonymous gift.
Here's Eric Cruickshank's goal that opened the scoring. pic.twitter.com/WjpgULJFm7— Illini Hockey (@IlliniHockey) March 10, 2017
Beginning with the 2017-18 academic year, the Big Ten Conference will have seven hockey members (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin). It is the nation’s only multi-sport conference to sponsor hockey. Collectively, Big Ten teams have won 23 national championships and fielded 256 All-Americans. Fan support in the conference is strong, with every Big Ten varsity hockey program averaging at least 5,000 fans per home contest last season.
“The interest and excitement of the University of Illinois to be a part of the NHL’s Feasibility Study is a reflection of the extreme growth of youth hockey across our state,” McDonough said. “The Chicago Blackhawks are proud that such a prestigious institution has made a strong commitment to the development of our game on all levels.”
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. It has been a very successful club sport on campus for decades.