D-I Hockey at Illinois Still Just a Dream
The 2017 Frozen Four in Chicago went off without a hitch. Sure, there wasn't the warm sun there was in Tampa in 2016, but Chicago was a fine host for college hockey's biggest stage, and the city responded with the largest attendance ever inside an NHL building.
About two hours down Route 57 in Champaign, the University of Illinois has a successful club hockey program. The Illini finished the 2017 season ranked No. 13 in the ACHA Division I, playing in the highly-competitive Central States Collegiate Hockey League, where all five teams in the league finished the season ranked.
So naturally, with the Big Ten expanding next season by adding Notre Dame, and Minnesota coach Don Lucia on record saying the league would like to add an eighth program, the question comes up about Illinois. The Frozen Four was a success and hockey is exploding in the Midwest market, with more college players coming from Illinois and St. Louis, for example, than ever before.
"Every spring, I can almost mark it on my calendar, someone comes to me with the question of Division I hockey," said Kent Brown, associate director of athletics and media relations at Illinois. "I can say that it's not on our radar, but that's because of a number of factors. I think if we ever had a Division I program it would be highly successful, but there are a number of reasons why it's not on our radar right now."
Within its own conference, Penn State elevated its program to Division I in 2012. However, Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills owner, Terry Pegula, gave the university a $102 million gift in order to make that jump possible. Penn State built a rink and was able to get the ball rolling with scholarships.
In 2014, Arizona State student Justin Emerson wrote a story on Sun Devil hockey, and asked athletic director Ray Anderson what was standing in the way of ASU going Division I? Anderson said money was the biggest obstacle. A few months later, two parties came forward with a total of $32 million, and the rest is history.
Illinois is the rumor du jour coming off the Frozen Four in its own backyard, but there are several schools that have been linked to Division I talk in the past. With Arizona State making the jump, there has been hope of more Pac-12 teams doing the same. Syracuse has been rumored for more than a decade, although Title IX issues persist. Other club teams — like Rutgers, Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Alabama — aren't shy about their confidence to move to the next level.
The issue with most of these programs, however, is money.
Illinois is in a similar position to Penn State and Arizona State. There's no outward ambition to go Division I, but at the same time, it's not something the university is openly trying to avoid. Especially in Illinois, it would figure to be hugely popular. Money, is the obstacle.
That might sound funny for a big university like Illinois, whose endowment tops out at over $3 billion. But without a jumpstart donation, current athletic funds need to go to support current athletic programs.
"We have a responsibility to support the programs we do have," Brown said. "Our No. 1 priority is to support the student-athletes. While it could potentially create something new on our campus, taking $100 million out of our other programs in order to do that doesn't support the programs we have now. That's why, I think with the example of Penn State, you saw a gift that got the ball rolling.
"From where we are now, I think it would take about a $100 million gift. The biggest thing you need is a facility. Our club team is highly successful and they sellout those games, they get about 1,500 fans every night. There is a lot of Chicago influence on our campus, and I think the success of the Blackhawks, among other things, would mean that there would be a lot of interest in Division I hockey on our campus. There's a lot of interest in our club hockey program. You look around the bars on campus on a night the Hawks play, and they're jammed. Hockey is huge here."
Illinois had a Division I program in the 1930s, playing its first season in 1937. Vic Heyliger, a former All-American at Michigan, was once the head coach and long-time Michigan State head coach Amo Bessone played at Illinois; he lead the Spartans from 1951-79, winning a national championship in 1966.
The team was suspended in 1943 during World War II and was never restarted after the war. In current iteration of the program at the club level began in the 1950s and the team joined the CSCHL in 1975.
The team currently plays at the University of Illinois Ice Arena, which is located on campus and seats about 2,000.
On April 11, just days after the Frozen Four concluded at the United Center, Illinois unveiled a new "campus master plan," which included several infrastructure improvements. One of the components of the plan was a new UI Ice Arena, which could be located near Memorial Stadium.
Brown said that new arena was more meant to replace the existing UI Ice Arena, which was built in the 1930s, and doesn't indicate an impending move to Division I for ice hockey. But that doesn't mean plans wouldn't change if Illinois didn't receive a donation that sparked talks of adding a program.
"The biggest hurdle is an appropriate facility, one that would probably seat 5,000-7,000 people, and if you use Penn State as an example, that takes around $100 million. If we had $100 million sitting around, it would be our responsibility to invest that in our current programs and support our current student-athletes," Brown said. "That's why, at the schools that have added hockey, I think you've seen a gift that has been responsible for it."