When Chicago Had College Hockey
City Remains Ripe for D-I Program Since UIC's Departure
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This week, there was a lot of emotion over North Dakota's decision to cut the women's hockey program. Those kinds of decisions are never easy, and never without pain.
It's been 21 years since one of the major men's conferences lost a team. And that team just so happened to be from Chicago, site of this week's Frozen Four.
The University of Illinois-Chicago existed as a Division I program from 1981-1996, the last 14 of those years as a member of the CCHA.
The program never made the NCAAs or anything, though it had decent seasons here and there. It had a nice on-campus facility called the UIC Pavilion, which still exists, though only basketball is played there now. What it also had, however, was a $600,000 budget shortfall.
It's not like the basketball program made much money either, but the school decided at the time that basketball had more potential. It lured Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins to be its new head coach, and offered him promises of upgrading the program. To do that, it needed to slash hockey. Of course, being $600,000 in the red may have put it on the chopping block anyway.
"We had a tough season, we finished last (in 1995-96)," said Larry Pedrie, the team's head coach at the time. "We struggled to get it going. So it was an easy target to dump hockey. ... Had the team been more successful, they may not have been so eager to dump hockey. But we were struggling, attendance was not good, and there was a lot of reasons that it was an easy target.
"Getting in and out of Chicago on a Friday night is pretty hard. So there's no fan base in the city or from the school. Urban schools can be successful — BU is successful, but you still have kids there on campus, and UIC didn't."
The irony is that, in the 21 years since, as the state of Illinois has gone without a Division I hockey program, the sport has boomed there. The city of Chicago has four prominent Midget AAA programs that have produced over 60 current D-I players. Participation, according to USA Hockey, has exploded in the state, piggybacking off the Blackhawks' recent success, which includes three Stanley Cup championships in the last decade.
But Illinois chugs along without a major NCAA program.
Pedrie created one of those AAA programs, Team Illinois, and has seen first hand how good hockey in the area is. His roots in the region run deep.
A native of Detroit, Pedrie graduated from Ferris State and eventually landed as an assistant at UIC to Val Belmonte. Pedrie left UIC for three years, to become an assistant coach under Red Berenson, who was just starting to rejuvenate the Wolverine program. The players he recruited, along with Billy Powers and Mel Pearson, laid the foundation for Michigan's successes to come, eventually leading to 22 straight NCAA appearances and two national championships.
By 1990, Belmonte was on his way out at UIC, the program having fallen off to the bottom rung of the CCHA. Pedrie returned to UIC in 1990-91, hoping top rejuvenate things. That was the first year Michigan made the NCAAs again. UIC lost its first eight games of the season under Pedrie.
"I helped recruit the kids that put (Michigan) on the map for 22 straight years, and I was dumb enough to leave," Pedrie said. "[Red] was tough at times, very demanding. But to his credit, he believed in Michigan like no one could have or would have. He believed in Michigan, he believed in education, and he believed college hockey was the route to go. And he knew in his heart that Michigan hockey had no business being where it was, in terms of how weak we were when I got there."
But UIC did not have the resources Michigan had. Pedrie knew there were hurdles at UIC, but he'd seen the team have a couple of 20-win seasons when he was there as an assistant, and he was hopeful.
"I still believed even with all those hurdles that we could be successful," Pedrie said. "When I was there as an assistant, that's when I came to believe it could work. Because in my three years there, we recruited some pretty good players. And we had a decent team. And truthfully when I left UIC in '87 and went to Michigan, as crazy as this is going to sound, I left a better team at UIC than I inherited at Michigan. And it is crazy. We were awful (at Michigan).
"At the same time, UIC's recruiting dropped off. And in 1990 they had a horrible year, the bottom dropped out and the players revolted. And that's when Val was let go, and I was brought back. So based on what I was able to do when I was an assistant there, I believed we could still be successful. So I went into it with my eyes wide open — we had these stumbling blocks but I felt that if we worked hard and went after the right kids, I could do the same job I'd done three years previously."
It didn't work as hoped. There were some successes. After that 0-8 start, the 1990-91 UIC Flames were much improved. They had some wins over the next couple years against Michigan, which Pedrie ranks among the best of his career.
But UIC could never crack the upper echelon. The school technically decided not to renew Pedrie's contract before it officially pulled the plug on the program. But the handwriting was on the wall.
Pedrie had a couple of opportunities after that, including one with the U.S. National Team Development Program as an assistant coach for Jeff Jackson. The program was just starting that year. After initially accepted, he reconsidered, and decided to stay in Chicago and not subject his family to more moving around. His daughter was young, and there was a son on the way.
That son, Vince, went on to play Division I hockey for Penn State the last two seasons, and just recently signed a free-agent contract with the New York Rangers.
He is a Chicago youth hockey success story, among many.
"I've seen every player that's come through Chicago in the last 20 years," Pedrie said. "Should there be a (college) program somewhere in Illinois, and could they be successful with just Illinois kids? Yes and yes. You could certainly build at least half your roster based on Chicago kids."
Pedrie and his wife continued to run the Team Illinois Midget AAA program in Chicago, and spring and summer camps. Pedrie was also commissioner of the NAHL for a time.
If there were ever to be Division I college hockey in Illinois again, it most likely would not come from UIC. The campus is downtown, and is mostly a commuter school.
Pedrie thinks a school like Depaul has a better chance.
But more realistic would be a Big Ten school, like the flagship in Champaign, the University of Illinois — or another Big Ten school like nearby Northwestern. Even they might need a donor, like Penn State, but it's within the realm.
"This day and age, with what's happened in the last 15 years, a lot of schools have built new rinks or renovated what was there," Pedrie said. "And the single biggest factor that allowed Penn State to grow so fast was the arena. If you don't have that, you're fighting an uphill battle.
"If you had Penn State's rink in Champaign, I think you could do the same thing (as Penn State)."
It seems like a matter of time. Not if, but when. "When?" however, remains an open-ended question. No one knows. And so on it goes in Chicago, without a Division I team, but with a Frozen Four this week.