With seven hockey teams in the Big Ten conference, its no secret that the conference would love to find one more team to make an even eight teams. When the Big Ten added Notre Dame to the Big Ten as a hockey only affiliate member beginning this season, the rumor mill started as to who the eighth team could be. Would it be a hockey blue-blood like North Dakota, or a newer program looking for a long term home like Arizona State? Or, would another Big Ten school figure out a way to add a Division I hockey team and become the 8th team. That answer became one step closer to a reality on Thursday as Illinois released the results of a feasibility study they conducted with the NHL, the NHL Players Association (NHLPA), and College Hockey, Inc. The results—yes the Champaign region could support Division I hockey and the University of Illinois should look strongly into starting a program.
Illinois was also one of the most likely candidates to upgrade their club program into a Division I program in the Big Ten. One reason alone is the large pool of talent to tap into. The state of Illinois has 85 players playing Division I hockey this season, tied for fourth in the country with New York. Unlike New York, and the three states ahead of it—Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts, the state of Illinois does not have a single Division I hockey program. Thus all 85 players are playing for schools out of state, rather than their home state school.
Hockey is more popular than ever in Illinois with the recent success of the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL. Illinois has several very strong junior hockey feeder programs such as the Chicago Mission teams that have sent several players to play college hockey in both the men’s and women’s game. Illinois has the 6th highest youth hockey participation in the country.
The feasibility study—linked here shows that Illinois could be successful at operating a Big Ten hockey program. It looks as the finances of the other Big Ten teams, and shows their profitability. The study even goes as far as to find a potential location in downtown Champaign for a 5,500-6,000 seat arena for the Fighting Illini.
The obvious issue is the start up cost. Penn State got a huge gift from alum and owner of the Buffalo Sabres Terry Pegula. It has worked out very well for the Nittany Lions. Arizona State’s startup has progressed in a more slow fashion, but as also been successful and it appears they will be getting a new facility in the near future. Illinois would just need to find the funding for this brand new arena, and other startup costs. It won’t be easy, but this is the closest that any Big Ten school has come to adding a Division I program since the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference.
So, tell us hockey fans. Excited by this? Still bitter over the fact the Big Ten hockey conference exists at all? Just looking forward to it happening to see this sweet orange sweaters on the ice at Mariucci?
Let us know in the comments how you feel.