April 2, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Illinois and College Hockey a Perfect Fit ... But When?

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer (@JoeMeloni)

They ruined college hockey for everybody. Penn State. Their big ideas. Their endless ambition. Their $102 million. Their fancy new rink. Their confident young coach. Their ferocious fans.

It's the best thing that's ever happened to the sport. Really.

Not Penn State, specifically.

It was the jolt. The shock. When Penn State arrived, everything had to change.

Sure, Minnesota and North Dakota didn't play for a few years. Notre Dame thought it had fans in Boston. The WCHA adopted that stupid Alaska rule for its tournament.

College hockey adapted. It corrected the early mistakes. The Gophers and Fighting Hawks played this season. The Fighting Irish will head to the Big Ten next year. Alaska-Anchorage just stopped making the playoffs altogether.

College hockey is better for it.

It's been almost seven years since Penn State announced its intent. Arizona State followed with an announcement of its own in 2014. The Nittany Lions won their first NCAA tournament game this year. The Sun Devils are already landing some big commits. Another big school. Another athletic power seemingly destined to force a seismic shift in college hockey.

The future of college hockey is a bit unclear at this point. New programs, new money, and new regions mean a drastically different look. Thursday evening, when the 2017 Frozen Four begins at United Center, we'll all be treated to another feature of college hockey's uncertain but booming future.

Illinois.

Chicago is hosting the Frozen Four for the first time. For the good of college hockey, Saturday's national championship game must lead to something more. Not another trip outdoors to Soldier Field. Not some contrived holiday tournament or IceBreaker at the Madhouse on Madison.

No. At some point soon, college hockey must return to the Land of Lincoln. This time, for good.

There are seven players originally from Illinois on the rosters of Notre Dame (three), Harvard (two), and Denver (two). Minnesota-Duluth is the only of the Frozen Four teams without one.

The Bulldogs are something of an exception in college hockey in 2017. Eighty-five players in Division I men's hockey hail from Illinois.

Only seven American states and Canadian provinces had more Division I players than Illinois — Minnesota (202), Ontario (192), Michigan (145), Massachusetts (112), British Columbia (96), Alberta (94), and New York (93).

The state would make the perfect addition to Division I college hockey. No one has stepped forward to take advantage.

"I do think it's a matter of 'when' instead of 'if,'" Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., said. "It's frustrating because we want to make it happen in four years instead of eight."

Looking at the candidates, the University of Illinois and Northwestern make the most sense. Both institutions are Big Ten member schools. Both have money and both are desperate to keep pace with their conference rivals. Still, neither has expressed significant interest in starting a program. Other Division I institutions in Illinois include Illinois State, Northern Illinois, and DePaul. All are viable options. None have expressed any formal interest in making it happen. The barriers, in many cases, seem too great to even consider.

"The two most important considerations are financial," Snee said. "If you don't have a facility, you have to build one and create a plan to build one. There aren't a lot of schools out there with a 5,000-seat arena they use for club hockey or intramurals."

Despite the hurdles, Snee knows how quickly an idea can turn into a plan and, eventually, a program. The speed with which Penn State rose to national prominence certainly hasn't made the possibility less likely.

"They don't all follow one plan," Snee said. "Penn State has reached its success faster than I think even the biggest optimist would've thought. And they did everything right. ... Illinois is producing more talent than Pennsylvania. With some smart decisions, a school in Illinois could get it done even faster."

* * *

The only Divison I program in Illinois unlikely to ever consider hockey is the University of Illinois-Chicago, which sponsored a Divsion I program from 1981 through 1996. The program folded largely due to significant financial losses, which totaled approximately $600,000 in its final season, according to a 2014 report in the Chicago Tribune.

None of the kids flying around rinks in the state now remember the UIC Flames, nor do they remember their demise. They're not exactly dreaming of playing Division III hockey either. Two colleges in Illinois, Lake Forest and Aurora, sponsor men's hockey at the Division III level.

"Players here have forgotten that there was a Division I program in Illinois," said Kevin Mann, who served as an assistant coach at UIC and has spent the last 27 years helping to build Illinois' various youth hockey programs. "I was an assistant coach at Illinois-Chicago in the late-'80s. We had more than 5,000 fans a fan a game down at the (UIC) Pavillion. Our team made the CCHA (semifinals) one year, as well. ... Kids today really look at any (Division I) program because they are the ones offering the ability to keep playing."

The state doesn't just have a lot of players. Illinois has produced some of the nation's best in recent years.

Clayton Keller, the seventh overall pick in last summer's NHL Draft and a top freshman at Boston University this season, is from Swansea. Anthony Louis, Miami's leading scorer this season, is from Winfield. Louie Belpedio, Louis' teammate at Miami and one of the top defensemen in the country, hails from Skokie. They're everywhere. Jordan Himley, of Mundelein, led Air Force in goals with 22 and nearly brought the Falcons to the Frozen Four.

Aside from those currently active, names like Vince Hinostroza, Robbie Russo amd J.T. Compher are among the Prairie Staters to thrive in college hockey and move on to professional careers.

USA Hockey data suggests participation in hockey has increased by nearly a quarter since 2002. Moreover, programs are recruiting every Canadian province and every ice-covered inch of the hockey-playing world. There's more talent than ever coming into college hockey. In general, college hockey doesn't just need Division I programs in Illinois, it needs more programs everywhere.

The lack of available opportunities is among the reasons so many American teenagers have flocked to the Canadian Hockey League. The Ontario Hockey League has territorial rights to Illinois; eight players from the state are currently on OHL rosters. Christian Fischer, the 2015 second-round pick of the Coyotes, and Christian Dvorak, the 2014 second-round pick of the Coyotes, are among the talented young players from Illinois who went north in search of a chance to play before moving into pro hockey. Neither may have taken the NCAA route with the presence of an Illinois program. It's a risk college hockey can't afford to take any longer.

It's a paradigm Snee considers to be more of an chance to pounce than a negative.

"This is more of an opportunity than a problem," Snee said. "There are a lot of young players who see college hockey and want to be a part of it. Recently, I heard Nate Schmidt, who played at Minnesota and now plays for the (Washington) Capitals, talk about how he wanted to play the game because he watch St. Cloud State play. We have a compelling product to offer."

Because of the existing interest and infrastructure in place to support the game in the state, the significant financial gift isn't the only way to move the process along like it was for Arizona State and Penn State.

"It can be a grassroots effort because of all the talent and smart hockey people they have in that state," Snee said. "They could just point to the players and say look at this opportunity and mention it constantly. It's a powerful message. It will get the attention of the right people."

The Big Ten hockey conference played its inaugural season four years ago. It will add a seventh team in the form of Notre Dame for its fifth. Even with the addition, there remains a desire to expand further. Two of the conferences' existing members call the same state home.

It's the same place all of college hockey will focus on in the coming days.

Illinois has made hockey its own in the last decade. More players from all age groups will take the ice from Chicago to Swansea this year. They'll watch their Chicago Blackhawks — or St. Louis Blues, depending — chase a Stanley Cup when they get home. They'll wonder how to get there for themselves one day.

"This is a major opportunity for the right school," Snee said. "Illinois is already doing so well without college hockey. Imagine how it could be doing with it."

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