CHAMPAIGN — A study released Thursday by the University of Illinois indicates a Division I men’s hockey program would be a good fit at the university.
The comprehensive study by Collegiate Consulting 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.”
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 U of I starting a Division I hockey program.
The report indicates the foundation appears to be in place for Illinois to develop a program that will, in a relatively short time, become financially viable and competitive.
The state of Illinois has the sixth-highest youth hockey participation in the nation (22,373 in 2017), up 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 on Division I teams.
Kevin Westgarth, Vice-President of Business Development and International Affairs for the NHL, said 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 at a proposed downtown Champaign location. The facility would seat 5,000 to 6,000 and could provide new competition space for hockey, volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling.
Illini athletics is not prepared to make the ultimate decision about adding hockey as a varsity sport, the university said. It will happen only if the athletic department can fund the program and receive needed support from campus and community stakeholders.
“This is one of our most ambitious and potentially impactful projects in recent memory,” Illini athletic director Josh Whitman said. “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.”