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‘A painful decision’: Illinois ending plans to add NCAA hockey

Monday’s announcement comes after a five-year process.

NCAA Basketball: No.Carolina A&T at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

After several years of discussion, Illinois announced Monday afternoon that it has discontinued its exploratory phase of adding a men’s hockey team.

Effective immediately, the athletic department said it will end its efforts to pursue hockey at the university.

“This is a painful decision, made all the more difficult because of the incredible commitment shown by so many to make hockey a reality,” said athletic director Josh Whitman in a statement.

As Whitman said in his statement, this exploratory phase has been going on for nearly half a decade, shortly after he came into his current role.

In March 2018, a feasibility study was released, finding that hockey at Illinois could be incredibly successful.

At the time, Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. said, “The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois, 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.”

Illinois still has an ACHA Division 1 club hockey team, which plays in the Illinois Ice Arena on campus. Any plans for NCAA hockey would have included building a multipurpose off-campus ice arena, which would have been used for volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics.

“Thanks to everyone who has been involved in this journey,” Whitman concluded his statement. “We are excited about turning the page to this next chapter and continuing to establish Fighting Illini Athletics within the Big Ten Conference and on the national stage.”

Read Josh Whitman’s full statement below.

“After more than five years of extensive evaluation and intense effort to generate interest and support, we have determined that it is not viable to bring Division I men’s ice hockey to the University of Illinois at this time.

Since we began our exploration of hockey years ago, meaningful landscape changes have pushed us to this unfortunate conclusion. We have stated repeatedly that we would not advance the hockey project without a sound funding and financial plan. To date, we have been unable to generate the financial support necessary to greenlight the project — a concern that grew even more daunting through the pandemic, when we saw cost projections for the new facility increase by 30%.

In addition, as has been well documented, college athletics is now existing in an incredibly fluid, dynamic environment, including Alston awards, NIL, and student-athlete employment rights. We are investing heavily in new benefits for student-athletes, which increases the marginal cost associated with any new sport offerings. Such intense disruption has created ambiguity about the future, and we believe it unwise for Illinois Athletics to expand our sport model in such an uncertain environment.

And lastly, we have long championed the addition of hockey as an opportunity to address needs in our sports of volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics. As a result, we have delayed other potential investments in those sports while we continued our pursuit of hockey and the downtown facility it would require. In recent months, as the odds of adding hockey have diminished, various opportunities to advance some of these other sports have developed. We are now choosing to pursue those opportunities, which effectively minimizes some of the intended value of the downtown facility to DIA.

This is a painful decision, made all the more difficult because of the incredible commitment shown by so many to make hockey a reality. In particular, we would like to express our heartfelt appreciation to Mike Snee and College Hockey, Inc.; the Chicago Blackhawks and the National Hockey League; the City of Champaign; the Mass Transit District, led by Karl Gnadt and Jane Sullivan; Hans Grotelueschen, Brian Neiswender, and Brian’s team at Core Spaces; Ed Scopel and the architects at Ratio; Kevin Warren and Diana Sabau at the Big Ten Conference; various donors and corporate sponsors; a number of state and federal government officials; and a long list of colleagues in a variety of departments at the University of Illinois, led by Chancellor Robert Jones and Vice Chancellor Mike DeLorenzo. From the beginning, this was a ‘big idea’ with appeal across so many different stakeholders, and working together so closely over the years was the most enjoyable element of the project. Even without hockey, a wonderful byproduct of this effort is the relationships we formed, which I trust will benefit the University of Illinois and our Champaign-Urbana communities for many years to come.

Finally, I want to thank many members of our DIA staff who have worked diligently to advance this project. In particular, I would like to recognize Deputy Director of Athletics Warren Hood, who has championed this project since its early days. Warren has been responsible for leading some of the most ambitious, transcendent facilities projects in Illinois history, including the renovations of both Memorial Stadium and State Farm Center, and we both dreamed of him taking the downtown arena across the finish line as well. He has led our effort with dogged determination, strong vision, and creative thinking. He retired from DIA last week, and he can walk away from this project with his head high, knowing that he did everything within his power bring varsity hockey to Champaign.

We believe the interest in hockey and the opportunity for the sport to succeed here is very real. You never say never in this business, and if the right opportunity were to present itself down the road, we would always be willing to reconsider. That said, due to other programmatic priorities and needs, we can no longer allocate human and financial resources toward the ongoing pursuit of this project. My heart believes that we can support hockey, but my head tells me it is time to direct our attention elsewhere. We must continue the upward momentum that Illinois Athletics has created in recent years, and that will require the focused energy of our staff and our community in the years ahead.

Thanks to everyone who has been involved in this journey. We are excited about turning the page to this next chapter and continuing to establish Fighting Illini Athletics within the Big Ten Conference and on the national stage.”