Feasibility study: UI setting just right for hockey

Feasibility study: UI setting just right for hockey

CHAMPAIGN — The final report of the study on the feasibility of adding Division I hockey at Illinois didn’t contain any surprises. The facts and figures provided were more a reaffirmation of what Illinois thought heading into the process.

Division I hockey at Illinois could be a success.

“The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc., who joined with the NHL and NHLPA to commission the study. “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.”

Division I hockey at Illinois would also come at a cost.

That’s what kept Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman from taking decisive action on the future of Illini hockey with the report from the feasibility study released Thursday. A Division I hockey program at Illinois will only come it if receives the support of the campus and community and can be successfully funded.

“Certainly, it’s a very ambitious project and a very expensive project trying to get something like this off the ground with a new arena,” Whitman said. “It’s a big number out there. We’re working hard to try and generate the support that’s necessary to get the project lifted off the ground.”

With the feasibility study report in hand, the next step for Illinois is a decision to pursue hockey or not. That other potential facility upgrades are dependent on a hockey decision means some expediency is needed, but Whitman said that wouldn’t come at the cost of making the right decision.

“There’s some urgency to what we’re doing, but we also don’t want to sacrifice quality for speed. Once we do make the decision, I think it’s probably a two- to three-year time frame to get the program off the ground if, in fact, that is the decision we make.”

“We don’t intend to spin our wheels on this for years and years. We understand there are some things that are waiting on this decision to materialize one way or the other. We’ll reach a decision as quickly as we can.”

Whitman said adding hockey at Illinois would likely cost more than $50 million — a combination of building a new arena and the startup costs associated with the program. That would put Illinois between the initial $32 million raised by Arizona State when it played its inaugural Division I season in 2014-15 and what turned out to be a total donation of $102 million by Terrence and Kim Pegula to jumpstart the Penn State program that played its first season in 2013-14.

“Where you get into some gray area is if we’re able to raise $45 million, are we going to walk away from it?” Whitman asked rhetorically. “I don’t know. It’s a big number and certainly probably one of the more ambitious projects we’ve ever undertaken.”

Illinois is two years removed from the conclusion of $169.5 million renovations at State Farm Center. Construction is underway on a $79.2 million football performance facility. Next up is $18 million for Demirjian Park, the new home for Illinois soccer and track and field that will be completed in two stages — 2019 for soccer and 2021 for track and field.

Adding hockey would mean more fundraising for another major facility. Whitman said work on identifying prospective donors started when the feasibility study was announced last summer.
“We’re not asking the same people for more,” Whitman said. “One of the fun parts about being a fundraiser is trying to match people with opportunities. … We’ve had a lot of meetings with a variety of potential donors. We feel good about the enthusiasm that has existed out there.”

Whitman said the fundraising feelers for adding hockey have allowed him to approach multiple groups. They range from traditional donors with ties to Illinois athletics, donors simply interested in growing hockey and donors that would see the construction of a downtown arena as profitable for the Champaign-Urbana community as a whole.

The report generated through the feasibility study recommended the downtown location rather than one on St. Mary’s Road in the more traditional campus footprint for Illinois athletics. The DIA concurred with that opinion given the restaurants, bars and hotels in or near downtown that could add to the typical weekend gameday experience of college hockey and the fact Illinois’ student population is migrating north to the Green Street area.

“Having all those in close proximity to the arena we think helps to augment the atmosphere and make it a more appealing location for our students and for our fans,” Whitman said. “It lends itself to a particularly social experience. … I really like the idea of stepping outside what I would call our customary campus bubble. It extends our university into the community in a way we often haven’t done.”

A new downtown arena could also be the new home for Illinois volleyball, wrestling and men’s and women’s gymnastics. All call Huff Hall their competitive home now, while both gymnastics teams practice at Kenney Gym Annex.

Construction on Kenney Gym Annex started in 1889 and was finished in 1890. Huff Hall opened in 1925.

“That has been one of the biggest hooks for me into this whole project is the idea we can improve the situation for these other sports programs that need it,” Whitman said. “I love Huff Hall, but it has some limitations. We need to try and develop a solution to put those programs into a better situation as we go forward. They’ve had unbelievable success and done a lot of things in the face of some challenging circumstances that Huff presents. If we can use hockey as a lever to try and put those sports into a better situation, then we’d be foolish not to explore that.”