University of Illinois hockey hype chat

University of Illinois hockey hype chat

Friday, August 17, 2018 - 12:00pm

Could the University of Illinois soon have a Division I hockey program? Momentum has continued to grow toward that possibility throughout 2018. With that in mind, Chicago Blackhawks blogger/resident News-Gazette hockey expert Coin Likas is here to answer your questions about the sport and what it's possible inclusion in Champaign-Urbana could mean.

Colin Likas wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Hello, University of Illinois athletics fans. Welcome to the first of what could be many chats about Division I hockey in Champaign-Urbana.

We haven't had a true, official update on the sports's D-I future at Illinois since the March release of a feasibility study from Collegiate Consulting. But last night, we learned Josh Whitman met with potential donors at Urbana Country Club to discuss moving forward on the plan of establishing a D-I men's hockey program.

Of course, there are still a ton of questions surrounding the idea at this time, and plenty of concerns that need to be addressed before such a team can even exist. The questions I've received certainly dive into some of those issues. Let's get to it.

The Timmer wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

What's the kind of $$$ needed to get the right head coach right away to make the program flourish?

Colin Likas wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for the question, Timmer.

Referencing the feasibility report released in March, "The average base salary for Big Ten head coaches is $293,333 with bonus/merit compensation ranging from $35,000 to a high of $370,000."

For an idea of where $293,333 would land among current Illini coaching payouts, the following program leaders make more than that right now: baseball coach Dan Hartleb ($295,800), men's golf coach Mike Small ($308,000), volleyball coach Chris Tamas ($308,000), women's basketball coach Nancy Fahey ($508,000), men's basketball coach Brad Underwood ($2,750,000) and football coach Lovie Smith ($3,000,000). These numbers all are according to the University of Illinois Gray Book.

There are also some assistants -- in men's basketball and football -- who make more than that $293,333 figure, which is again just an average for Big Ten men's hockey coaches.

The definition of the "right" coach, of course, depends on more than the dollar value. You could find an entirely ineffective coach for $300,000 if you didn't do your homework. But Josh Whitman seems committed to making Division I hockey happen here, so I'd hedge my bets on him doing an intensive search to find the first leader for this prospective program.

Mr. Illini wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Colin,

I think the idea to build the hockey arena downtown is fantastic. I think the game day experience for hockey, volleyball and the other sports will boost attendance and create a buzz at all the cool  downtown bars and restaurants on game nights.. Are things still looking good for the downtown  location  if they can pull it off?

Colin Likas wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for the question, Mr. Illini.

There has not been a significant update about the proposed location for a hockey arena, unfortunately. What we were last left with was two possibilities.

One comes from area developer Peter Fox, though the idea does not immediately include a D-I hockey arena. Fox's plan involves building on to the I Hotel Conference Center with a sports facility that would contain two sheets of ice for local use, The News-Gazette's Tom Kacich reported earlier this year. Fox said at that time that, should the U of I decide to go ahead with plans for a D-I hockey team, that a separate arena to house the program could be built on the same site.

The second proposal is powered by developer Hans Grotelueschen and would be involved with an expansion of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District's Illinois terminal. This hockey arena would be built just west of campus, much closer to downtown Champaign than the Fox plan.

So it's hard to say right now if things are still looking good or not for a downtown location. As far as pros and cons for the two plans, I think each plans contains some.

Students probably would be more enamored with an arena directly on campus, as Fox's plan would plot a building not far from State Farm Center. On the flip side, the downtown Champaign location would, as you said, allow easy access to cool downtown bars and restaurants on game nights. It would cater well to the alumni base, as well as students of drinking age.

Hard to say which plan is the favorite right now, but one would have to imagine money playing a significant factor at the end of the day. The feasibility study cites such arenas as Penn State's Pegula Arena ($88 million), North Dakota State's Scheels Center ($25 million) and Bemidji State's Sanford Center ($35 million), which puts the possible cost of an Illini facility at an uncertain figure.

Donald G wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

I'm impressed when I watch the Illini club team. How do they compare to a top tier college team? Could they compete?

Colin Likas wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for the question, Donald.

This is an interesting question, because it really is hard to compare a club team to an NCAA-sanctioned program. There's no doubt Nick Fabbrini is doing a great job with the current Illini club, and while Illinois faces quality competition in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League, an American Collegiate Hockey Association conference, the Big Ten is a different beast entirely.

Sixty-seven then-current or then-committed NCAA D-I athletes were taken in the 2018 NHL Draft. That's not something the ACHA can boast. It's a competitive league in which the players want to win a conference championship, but goals are even higher in the NCAA.

So could they compete as currently constructed? It would be a challenge. It's worth noting that, according to the feasibility report, "the average Big Ten operating budget ... (included) all institutions offering the NCAA maximum of 18 scholarships." Having that on the table absolutely changes which athletes you're drawing in. And that's not meant as a knock on the Illini club team -- that's just the reality of NCAA hockey versus club.

FaithInJosh wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Shouldnt we fix football and basketball before putting so much into something new and shiny like hockey? To me, there are bigger fish to fry

Colin Likas wrote on August 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for your question, FaithInJosh.

It is important for Illinois to get back on track when it comes to football and men's basketball. Those are the obvious moneymakers and teams that a majority of alumni are most interested in shelling out money to see. However, I don't think improving in football/men's basketball and establishing a D-I hockey team have to be mutually exclusive ideas.

Among Josh Whitman's first tasks when he became AD was to clean up football and men's basketball. He's quickly tried to set both on a better trajectory by overhauling the coaching staffs. That on top of necessary updates to football facilities. Things haven't exactly panned out just yet as far as on-field results, but it can't be said effort isn't being put in to improving the product in both sports.

As for D-I hockey, this is something a good enough number of Illinois students/alumni are interested in to have Whitman exploring the option. I'd argue he wouldn't look into bringing a D-I hockey team on campus if he thought it wouldn't be good business. Good business in one area of athletics can prove helpful across the board and brand.

If Whitman was watching football and men's basketball post winless seasons and not doing anything about it, I could get behind your argument. But I think he's doing what he can in all of these sports to make Illinois athletics better as a whole.

Colin Likas wrote on August 17, 2018 at 1:08 pm

I'm going to close up today's Illinois hockey chat. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions for this; I think we had some solid discourse here.

It'll be interesting to see how the future of Division I hockey in Champaign-Urbana plays out, but there seems little doubt we'll be talking about it plenty moving forward.