Whitman confident UI hockey can become a reality

Whitman confident UI hockey can become a reality

CHAMPAIGN — Josh Whitman has been cautiously optimistic about the future of hockey at Illinois since the idea was first broached last summer with a feasibility study commissioned by the NHL, NHLPA and College Hockey, Inc.

That study revealed what was expected. Hockey at Illinois could be a success. Funding a brand new program would be the biggest hurdle to clear.

Whitman's cautious optimism has taken a turn toward more optimism than caution. Division I hockey at Illinois could become a reality.

Soon.

"I will say that I'm increasingly confident in what this could look like and our chances of making it a reality," the Illinois athletic director said. "We have had several folks step forward with seven-figure gifts here over the last number of weeks to support this effort.

"We have to raise a lot of money, so we've got many, many, many more millions to identify, but there does seem to be growing interest. It seems like a lot of the parties that need to be a part of this project are starting to line up."

Whitman still doesn't have a firm timetable for when hockey could be added at Illinois. The anticipation is it's between two and two-and-a-half years from green light to first game.

"When we're in position to give that green light remains a little bit to be seen," Whitman said. "We're hoping to be in a position to do that by the end of this calendar year. We've identified the universe of people to whom we need to talk to about this project."

That's a different group than Illinois typically reaches out to for fundraising matters, with costs evaluated at $50-60 million to build a new arena and jump start the program. Whitman has approached hockey enthusiasts that would like to see the sport grow but might have little or no connection to Illinois. Hockey is also being broached to the regular pool of Illini donors and, because the possible arena would be located downtown, Whitman has reached out to the Champaign-Urbana community.

"It's an ambitious project," Whitman said. "We don't hide from that. It's hard to imagine a project that's more complicated, more complex, in terms of the number of people sitting around that table."

That group includes the university, private developers, the city of Champaign, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, donors and potential corporate partners.

"What we're working to do is to identify and develop a funding model that allows us to get this thing off the ground," Whitman continued. "What's likely to happen is there will be a dozen different revenue sources that are going to be needed to get this moving.

"We'll have some corporate dollars. We'll have some retail dollars. We'll have some concessions dollars. We'll have some private donor dollars. Some dollars donated from the developer. We need to be able to piece all those together."

Those pieces will be pieced together at the proposed downtown location. Whitman prefers it because it would move Illinois athletics outside of their "university bubble" and into the Champaign-Urbana communities. The presence of nearby hotels, restaurants, bars and retail opportunities also makes the downtown location preferable.

"It becomes a destination," Whitman said. "College hockey is played on Friday and Saturday nights. It's a very social experience. We want our fans to not just go to the game and go home. We want them to go experience all that downtown Chamnpaign has to offer."

Whitman also said the downtown location — and all it has to offer — also makes the proposed arena more attractive for non-DIA functions.

"We would manage the facility but according to our calendar, we'll use it for about half the year," Whitman said. "In order to make that building viable — it's an incredibly expensive building to both build and operate — we have to be sure it doesn't sit there dark the other weekends of the year. We need to be sure we can go out and attract activities to use that space."

Hockey at Illinois would also be a boon for several other Illini sports. That proposed downtown arena would become the new home of Illini volleyball, wrestling and men's and women's gymnastics. All four are programs that currently use Huff Hall, which opened in 1925.

While the gym at Huff Hall has been recently renovated, there are other issues. Parking will come at an even higher premium now that the Siebel Center for Design will be located directly south of Huff. Locker rooms, training rooms and the weight room are all located in the Huff basement that hasn't been fully renovated.

"We think that a wholesale solution — a new building — is the right answer," Whitman said. "Generating the resources to build a new building for those particular sports is very, very challenging. We think that using hockey to drive that plan is the right answer. That allows us to create a new solution for those sports that I think otherwise would be very hard to come by."

The reasons for Illinois pursuing a hockey program haven't changed. The Big Ten had three of the four teams in the Frozen Four in April, including Notre Dame, which finished as the national runner-up to Minnesota-Duluth. Multiple Big Ten teams are also in the top 10 nationally in attendance, with a conference attendance average between 4,500 and 5,000.

"Some of the great programs in the history of the sport come from our league," Whitman said. "We're excited to be a part of that. We know that there are 85 Division I hockey players from the state of Illinois currently playing hockey somewhere else. They should be playing in our state."The chance to fill that void and to bring our fans together more frequently — to give them something to celebrate and be behind — it's just a great opportunity for us. Excited and grateful for the traction that project continues to gain."

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