CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- If you listen to Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman, the debut of a Division I men’s hockey program isn’t accurately addressed as an if proposition but a when ordeal.
In a video virtual town hall broadcasted on the athletics department website and social media platforms such as Facebook on Monday night, Whitman said he hopes to have “good news in the not-too-distant future” about being able to announce the addition of hockey being a NCAA-sponsored sport at Illinois for the first time since the end of World War II.
“We’re in the red zone, for sure,” Whitman said using football language to answer an alumni question on the progress of the Illini hockey program. “We’re getting closer to the goal line. Every day we gain a couple inches, a yard on a good day.”
However, the University of Illinois athletics administration isn’t nearly as close as it was assumed by an ESPN anchor who was the face of the network’s hockey coverage for several years. John Buccigross who, with analyst Barry Melrose, still leads the NCAA Frozen Four coverage on ESPN, stated on Twitter that Illinois officials would soon be naming the hockey program would be official despite no Illini athletics personnel making any announcement toward the fundraising or future groundbreaking of the downtown Champaign building, which would host Illinois hockey, volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics.
“Sources tell me the University of Illinois is very close, perhaps in the next few days, to finally announce their plans to birth a Division 1 @collegehockey program,” Buccigross tweeted on Feb. 27. “It would be the 61st D1 #cawlidgehawkey program.
During a interview spot on Champaign ESPN Radio show Tay and Piper on Monday, Illinois associate director of athletics for media relations Kent Brown clarified that he contacted Buccigross via email to inform him his tweet was “a little premature” but Brown also did say that deputy director of athletics Warren Hood, the U of I athletics department’s No. 2 person in charge, was working on this hockey project nearly on a daily basis.
“We’re committed to doing everything we can to make it happen and hope to have good news in the not-too-distant future,” Whitman said in the alumni virtual town hall Monday night.
Illinois hasn’t added a Division 1 sport since the implementation of women's soccer in 1997. In June 2017, Illinois athletics announced the creation of a feasibility study for the Illini to being the state’s only Division 1 college hockey program. The study, which Illinois partnered with the National Hockey League and included front office personnel of the Chicago Blackhawks, was released to the public nearly a year later in March 2018.
“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., who joined with the NHL and NHLPA to commission the study. "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. We are very appreciative of the university administration’s willingness to consider bringing NCAA hockey to Champaign."
When the study was commissioned in 2018, the state of Illinois produced 85 players on NCAA Division 1 hockey rosters (not including the players who skip college to immediately play minor league hockey at 18 years old), which is twice as many as hockey-popular states Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“Eighty-five players are playing Division I hockey and it’s about time they had the opportunity to play in their own backyard,” Chicago Blackhawks CEO John McDonough said.
Penn State was the latest Division I institution to add hockey in 2012 as the seventh program in the Big Ten Conference after billionaire alum Terry Pegula, who also owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, donated $102 million to pay for the new arena and other costs of starting the program. The Nittany Lions received NCAA tournament bids in 2017 and 2018 while also clinching the 2020 Big Ten Conference regular season champion. Illinois is hoping soon to be the eighth program in the Big Ten and optimism exists for the possibility for Illini hockey to be successful very soon even among highly traditional programs in the Big Ten.
“My words to Illinois (when Whitman came to Chicago in 2017 to visit with Blackhawks personnel) were that you guys could have a great team right away, just with the talent here in Chicago,” Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “There’s a lot of kids in this area that I think would love to have a team in Illinois that you could go and play Division 1 hockey. We would certainly support it. It would be great for the sport and great for college hockey too.”
The “support” from the Blackhawks could mean more than words for Illini hockey as it is the only relatively major sport where an 18-20 year-old prospect is drafted, have his rights owned and held for several years by the NHL franchise but still allowed under the NHL collective bargaining agreement to participate in college hockey before signing a professional contract.
The 2019 NHL draft was a highlighted moment to the continued development of American junior hockey as seven of the first 15 picks were from the United States and two were Illinois natives (center Alex Turcotte - No. 4 pick by Los Angeles Kings and winger Cole Caulfield - No. 15 pick by Montreal Canadians), both of which now play on the same power play unit at the University of Wisconsin. Of the nine American players drafted in the first round of the 2019 draft, six currently play on Big Ten Conference rosters.
“What I’ve learned is that hockey is a big deal in the state of Illinois — up in Chicago in particular and down in the St. Louis region,” Whitman said Monday. “We have the sixth-highest youth hockey participation rate of any state in the country. And it’s not just quantity, it’s quality. We have the fourth-most Division I hockey players coming out of the state of Illinois of any state in the country but we have zero Division I hockey programs. So we think there’s a great opportunity there for us to fill that void.”