Tate | Ice, ice baby — time to bring hockey to Illinois

Tate | Ice, ice baby — time to bring hockey to Illinois

City planners deserve plaudits for the way downtown Champaign has exploded on summer weekends.

That festive atmosphere will be expanded into 25 wintry weekends if $50-plus million can be raised to support Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman's plan for a multi-purpose hockey structure.

Imagine the November excitement surrounding a 5,000-seat arena hosting volleyball on a Friday night, Big Ten hockey on Saturday and Illini wrestling on Sunday. That's the dream as Whitman spearheads a serious drive toward bringing it to reality.

Varsity hockey here, bolstered by thousands of Chicago area students, would soon rocket into the UI's third-most-attended sport behind football and men's basketball.

Whitman stated Wednesday that he is "thrilled with the possibilities of a downtown location" and what it would mean not only for the athletic program but for "hotels, restaurants, bars and retail ... the social life."

He noted further that ever-increasing construction of student living quarters is "moving north" and closer to downtown. And the proposed downtown development will resolve future parking problems around Huff Hall.

It all makes sense

Varsity hockey is, of course, years away. If the needed seed money of $50 to $60 million can be raised, Whitman estimates the project will require more than two years to complete AFTER the green light is given. That green light could hopefully be turned on by the end of this year as Whitman already has received "several seven-figure gifts" in recent weeks.

While space for such an enterprise is available on the south campus, the Whitman planners have settled on downtown with the hope of combining three sources: (1) traditional Illini donors, (2) civic and corporate leaders and (3) hockey enthusiasts, many of whom are non-UI graduates.

"This is a public-private partnership and more complex than anything I've dealt with," Whitman said. "We're also studying how we can monetize the arena with youth sports and other attractions so that it doesn't sit dark for the other 25 weekends."

Three sheets of ice would allow for varsity practices as well as youth and community skating while the main arena is used for something else. Gymnastics would help keep the building busy after Jan. 1.

Whitman was working behind the scenes a year ago when he attended the NHL draft in Chicago where commissioner Gary Bettman and others announced — with Arizona State in the fold, the emphasis was on Illinois and Pittsburgh — an initiative to help American schools form varsity teams.

The NHL and NHLPA offered to provide $20,000 to universities for feasibility studies.

Illinois is the perfect fit for the seven-team Big Ten hockey conference featuring 2018 conference champion Notre Dame and six regular Big Ten members. It is already a highly competitive league with four members advancing to the Sweet 16 (won by Minnesota-Duluth).

Since the Illinois-Chicago Flames dropped hockey in 1996, the state has no varsity team while producing, in Whitman's words, "85 Division I players who compete elsewhere." Only five states have greater youth participation, much of it stemming from the popularity of the Blackhawks.

The golden goose

The Illini effort faces one major hurdle and one minor one.

It'll take a lot of money. That's No. 1. And if the necessary dollars are realized, Whitman is obliged to meet Title IX requirements by locating a matching sport for women (maybe lacrosse, or in mimicking Penn State, women's hockey).

So, again, it's always about the money. And Whitman has been a whirlwind in that regard, most recently engaging in facility improvements for football, soccer and track, and with additions planned for baseball and softball, not to mention an upcoming Monday announcement on the Ubben basketball practice facility.

Penn State did it with one spectacular gift from Terry and Kim Pegula, who not only providing initial funding of $88 million for an all-purpose arena but ultimately gifted more than $100 million. That single act by the Buffalo Sabres owner in 2012 led to Commissioner Jim Delany's announcement of a Big Ten league. Penn State caught on quickly, Pegula stating last year that 72 of the first 74 games were sellouts in the 6,000-seat area.

We could expect similar enthusiasm if Illinois becomes the eighth member of the relatively young Big Ten hockey league. This could be Whitman's crowning achievement on a long list of facility achievements.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com