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NHL to sponsor feasibility study on bringing Division-I Hockey to the University of Illinois

The NHL will announce this project at a press conference on Friday afternoon.

2016 NHL Awards - Board Of Governors Press Conference Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Illinois Fighting Illini may not be adding ice hockey to their lineup of varsity sports anytime soon, but it appears long-term planning for that effort is about to get underway.

The NHL is set to announce the creation of league-sponsored studies to determine the feasibility of adding Division-I hockey at five schools. The University of Illinois will be the first campus to undergo an examination.

The previously announced Friday press conference at the United Center will feature athletic director Josh Whitman, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Chicago Blackhawks CEO John McDonough, Buffalo Sabres owner and Penn State Hockey donor Terry Pegula, USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher, and Players’ Association executive assistant Mathieu Schneider.

Statement from Josh Whitman

"The idea of varsity hockey at the University of Illinois has great appeal. With hockey's popularity in both Chicago and St. Louis, and rapidly growing youth participation across the state, we anticipate tremendous interest in the sport at our university. We are grateful to College Hockey, Inc., USA Hockey and our colleagues with the Chicago Blackhawks, who have been incredibly supportive during our preliminary due diligence. We will add sport programs only if they can enhance the brand and reputation of the Fighting Illini by being nationally competitive, and our initial research reveals a number of factors that suggest hockey at Illinois could quickly grow into one of the country's most successful programs.

There are many questions yet unanswered, the biggest being funding for such an ambitious project. But by engaging in this evaluation in such a public manner, our hope is that it helps us identify those from the hockey community who might have an interest in supporting this initiative. We believe it could be transformative for our athletic program, our university, and our community."

Yesterday, we speculated that Whitman’s inclusion could signal a major announcement for the Orange and Blue, however the addition of two hockey teams remained unlikely for a variety of reasons mostly related to funding.

Everything [needs to be built in Champaign]. 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.

Depending on the results of this feasibility study, Illinois leadership may need to raise upwards of $100 million if they’re serious about an investment in hockey. That figure is based on previous schools’ successes within the Big Ten, specifically Penn State’s startup in 2013.

For reference, the Nittany Lions began the formation of their programs in September of 2010; the turnaround from that first announcement to the completion of all new facilities was three years. The hockey program is now the third-highest revenue generating sport in the Penn State athletic program, generating twice as much in ticket sales than the men’s basketball program ($822k vs $1.6mil).

The actual press conference will begin at 5:00pm CT at the United Center tonight. We’ll update this post with new information once it’s available.