CHAMPAIGN, ILL -- The University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA) has released a comprehensive study completed by Collegiate Consulting into the feasibility of starting a Division I men's hockey program. The study was initiated in June, 2017, and commissioned by the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), and College Hockey, Inc.
"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."
Based on interviews with, and feedback from, campus and community stakeholders and strong support from the Chicago Blackhawks and the NHL, the report indicates there is growing excitement among the statewide hockey community about the UI starting a Division I hockey program. The report states that with the expanding enthusiasm for ice hockey at all levels in the state of Illinois, the foundation appears to be in place for Illinois to develop a men's hockey program that will, in a relatively short timeframe, become financially viable and competitive on a conference and national level.
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. Despite such broad participation and such quality players, the sport is not sponsored by any Division I school in the state.
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"The NHL and NHL Players' Association, expanding on the good work of College Hockey Inc., are proud to support the expansion of NCAA DI college hockey," said Kevin Westgarth, Vice-President of Business Development and International Affairs for the NHL. "The excitement that we've seen in the wake of our partnership with the University of Illinois and the Chicago Blackhawks to fund a feasibility study to explore the addition of varsity hockey has been palpable and widespread, from UI alumni, the Illinois hockey community, and the entire college hockey family. The support from the Blackhawks has been critical in raising awareness, and we are coming ever closer to realizing our goal of delivering more DI opportunities to elite hockey players, while building a new three-sheet ice facility in Urbana-Champaign to increase access and opportunity for the next generation of hockey families."
The study recommends development of a new facility on the location proposed in downtown Champaign. The DIA concurs with this recommendation and will begin focusing its planning efforts on the downtown location. The facility, which would have seating capacity of 5,000 – 6,000, could provide new competition space for hockey, volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling. The downtown location allows the University to partner with the City of Champaign, with its easy accessibility to the many amenities and business establishments that downtown has to offer, should serve as a boon to the local economy.
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At this time, the DIA is not prepared to make the ultimate decision about adding hockey as a varsity sport. This will happen only if the DIA can successfully fund the program and receive needed support from various campus and community stakeholders.
"We are excited to share the results of our feasibility study and continue advancing our efforts to bring Division I hockey to Champaign-Urbana," said Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman. "This is one of our most ambitious and potentially impactful projects in recent memory. Adding Division I hockey and building the new arena it would require would be transformative for the sport of hockey in the state of Illinois and for our university, our athletic program, and, importantly, for the Champaign-Urbana communities. We are grateful for the partnerships we have developed with the Chicago Blackhawks, the National Hockey League, and College Hockey, Inc., all of which have become true champions for this cause. We look forward to engaging with more people from across the state to generate the support necessary to make this project a reality."