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Is the University of Illinois on the verge of announcing a Division-I Hockey program?

Fighting Illini athletic director Josh Whitman is attending an NHL press conference on Friday.

St. Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks - Game Six Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

UPDATE (2:00pm): It seems that Illinois won’t announce a college hockey program on Friday. Still, a joint effort between the NHL and Illinois probably means they’re examining the feasibility of this project.

The University of Illinois may be on the verge of making a massive announcement related to the addition of a Division-I ice hockey program.

Fighting Illini athletic director Josh Whitman will attend a NHL press conference “in support of college hockey” in Chicago on Friday. He’ll be joined by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Chicago Blackhawks CEO John McDonough, Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher, and Players’ Association executive assistant Mathieu Schneider.

This is all purely speculation at this point, but that lineup of participants indicates some major news could be on the way. And, really, why else would Josh Whitman be involved? This could certainly be an announcement for a neutral site game at Memorial Stadium, except the “in support of college hockey” qualifier makes that seem unlikely.

But let’s make one thing very clear: Illinois needs to clear a number of hurdles before adding two ice hockey programs to their lineup of varsity sports. Budgets and finances have been the talk of the town lately, so it begs the question — which donor(s) would be willing to step up to the plate and provide $60-100 million?

Who Would Fit the Bill?

Some of the bigger names in professional hockey have expressed interest of an in-state program in the past. A few options for program funding with NHL ties could be:

  • John McDonough (Blackhawks President)
  • Eddie Olczyk (Blackhawks Alumni, IL native)
  • Chris Chelios (Blackhawks Alumni, Detroit Red Wings front office)
  • Rocky Wirtz (Blackhawks chairman/owner)

Penn State’s $90 million stadium was made possible thanks to a donation from current Buffalo Sabres owner and PSU alum Terry Pegula, who as mentioned above, will be at the press conference. Pegula has been a wonderful influence on the growth of Big Ten Hockey, and the conference has talked of adding an eighth team for a few years.

What needs to be built?

Everything. The State Farm Center, which is home to Illinois’ basketball teams, recently underwent a $170 million renovation, however that project did not add ice to the iconic venue. There’s room for potential renovations at the University’s Ice Arena, as the facility currently holds an olympic-sized rink compatible for US Olympic Speed Skating. However, there isn’t much available room to house added seating for fans and new spaces for training/rehabilitation. So item No. 1 on the agenda for the Fighting Illini would be an arena to play and practice at.

We imagine the training facilities could be shared with other sports, especially since the football team plans to move out of their current space to a stand-alone performance center by 2019. Oh, and that project was suspiciously cut in half by about $50-70 million earlier this week. Makes you think.

Club Team to Varsity?

Illinois already has club teams on campus, and it wouldn't be completely unprecedented to see them elevated to varsity status. In fact, Arizona State did this just a few years ago; they played as an NCAA Independent in 2016-17.

What about Recruiting?

The state of Illinois has been home to a wide pool of hockey talent over the years. Recruiting players to stay in-state would be a fairly easy task, provided the proper resources. Illinois is home to three junior minor league hockey teams (Chi-Town Shooters, Chicago Steel, Bloomington Thunder) and had the sixth-highest participation in U.S. Hockey programs with just under 30,000 players registered in 2014. Since 1996, those players have had to look for college teams outside the state, as the closest schools currently housing Division-I programs are Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Miami (OH), and Western Michigan.

A Division-I program in Champaign-Urbana would not be the first in-state college hockey team, either. The University of Illinois-Chicago housed a team until the mid 1990’s, but tight budgets and depleting resources lead to the program’s demise.

Who would watch?

Illinois has the benefit of drawing interest from both the Chicago and St. Louis markets. Last season, both the Blackhawks and the Blues recorded combined attendance records of 1.6 million tickets sold, with turnstile attendance percentages of 110.3 and 104.6, respectively. The Blues have increased their local TV rating percentages by 20%, which is the third highest average rating in the NHL. The Blackhawks have continued to produce ratings in the Top 5 of local NHL TV coverage, with a strong presence despite other local Chicago teams having success in the postseason.

But we’re curious! Would you follow an Illinois Hockey Program? Let us know in the comments.