Hello, TCR! My name is Cristiano Simonetta, and I am the Director of Communications and play-by-play voice of Illini Hockey. I am a senior at the University of Illinois, but you may have recognized my name from writing about the Blackhawks and Blues for several outlets over the past five years, including The Hockey Writers.
If you can’t tell by now, I live and breathe hockey.
But, when I came to campus as a bright-eyed freshman in the fall of 2014, I knew very little of the Illini club hockey team. Being from a western suburb of Chicago (shoutout Carol Stream), I assumed rabid Illini fans would devote their time to supporting Big Ten sports like football or basketball. Nonetheless, when hockey season rolled around that September, I was intrigued.
I’d wanted to become a hockey play-by-play broadcaster ever since the lively voices of Gary Thorne, Pat Foley and Doc Emrick first hit my eardrums as a two-year-old. You can thank my Hawks-loving father for that one; he’s had season tickets since 1982.
So, I showed up to the U of I Ice Arena, hoping to be brought onto the program’s student broadcasting crew. I stepped foot inside the rink (famously dubbed “The Big Pond”) and was blown away by what I saw. The line for tickets was extended across the lobby, with droves of students in NHL and Illini sweaters piling in.
It was at that moment when I was ushered into a new storied brand of hockey: Illini Hockey.
The team’s first official season came in 1937 as an independent NCAA program, but was dissolved five years later due to World War II. In the 1950s, the organization was back, but at the club level. Illinois officially joined their current conference, the Central States Collegiate Hockey League, in 1974. The CSCHL then merged into the American Collegiate Hockey Association in the 1990s, where the Illini have failed to qualify for the league tournament only three times since 1993.
In the process, Illinois has won two ACHA national championships (2005 and 2008).
Aside from the consistent success of the product on the ice, Illinois boasts one of the most unique club hockey atmospheres in the country. The Big Pond holds up to 2,000 fans and the majority of its seating is held above the ice. This gave a few fans an idea: hang over the railing and heckle the opposing team’s bench directly below them.
The "Harassing Illini” student section has been a staple of Illini Hockey ever since, rattling opponents with chants similarly to Predators faithful in Nashville. As far as the ice itself, that too is remarkable. Its dimensions are 192x115, thirty feet wider than the average NHL rink. Built in 1931, the Big Pond recently underwent renovations costing $1.7 million.
The National Hockey League has taken notice of Illinois’ prosperity, partnering with the school to undergo a feasibility study this year, in hopes of adding a varsity program back to the University in the future. The possible move to Division I would be tremendous, attracting talent from the state and the rest of the Midwest.
Could you imagine current Illinois-born NHLers like Ryan Dzingel, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tommy Wingels and Christian Dvorak draped in orange and blue? An NCAA Illini Hockey program would be competitive directly out of the gate, which is why the feasibility study holds monumental importance this upcoming year.
It’s also why the club hockey team should gain an influx of interest from Illini fans in the 2017-18 season, which begins Friday in Champaign against Michigan State. Illinois is currently ranked 13th in the nation and is projected to head to the national tournament for the 7th consecutive season.
So, in a time when Illinois football and men’s basketball are in a rebuilding period, don’t you think it’s time for something new? Let us know in the comments or message The Champaign Room if you’re interested in seeing more Illini hockey coverage this upcoming season.