Whitman, Illini remain all in on hockey

 

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Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman set a tentative initial goal of having a decision on Division I hockey at Illinois — one way or the other — by the end of 2018.

The end of the year came and passed without an answer, the timeline for such pushed back until spring.

Spring has sprung and the fate of hockey is still undetermined at the moment, but Whitman remains positive about what could be the next big sport at Illinois.

"It’s been a very complicated puzzle, but one that has been already very rewarding for us and gives me, as I’ve said before, increasing confidence that we’ll get where we want to go," Whitman said on ‘Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk.’ "I know the timeline has continued to be pushed out. Each time we get to a threshold moment, I think the question I always ask is are we within range here? Does it make sense for us to continue to move after this? Or at some point do we need to accept, look, this isn’t going to work and start to devote our resources in a different direction?

"At least to date, each time we’ve gotten to one of those forks in the road, I’ve felt like we’ve been in the midst of positive momentum. We’ve been making positives steps, and that we are remaining within range of a yes. We’ve continued down that path. We’re getting closer and closer to a decision point."

Interest in Division I hockey at Illinois remains high. It’s a subject Whitman is regularly asked about since last year’s feasibility study by the NHL, NHLPA and College Hockey, Inc., declared it would be a fit.

"A lot of hockey questions, which I appreciate," Whitman said. "I really am thrilled that people are so interested and obviously excited about it. … We’ve been in a position to start solidifying some really interesting, meaningful partnerships with different organizations around town, different organizations around the state and within hockey."

Money remains the driving issue. Whitman mentioned multiple seven-figure donations in support of hockey in June 2018. It’s needed with the cost initially projected between $40-60 million to build a new arena and jump-start the program.

"It still is an awful lot of money," Whitman said. "I think if we are able to bring this to fruition it will be perhaps the most rewarding project that I’ll ever undertake just because of the number of different people and the variety of the organization that have had to come around the table to make it possible. This will be a true community undertaking."

While Illinois has looked to team with private developers, the city of Champaign, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, donors and potential corporate partners for hockey, it’s not the only facility push under way on the Illini campus. The Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center is on budget and on schedule to be completed in July. Construction is under way for the new soccer field at Demirjian Park, with an updated track stadium to come. And fundraising for a $30 million renovation and expansion of the Ubben Basketball Complex is under way.

"Ubben has been going very well — as we thought it would," Whitman said. "We have a lot of people who are very passionate about Illinois basketball, of course, and a number of alums who are interested in the program and want it to be successful. … We’ve had a number of people step up in very meaningful ways and we’ll be excited to share news of those gifts in some point in the not-too-distant future."

Ubben was the first of its kind when it opened in 1998. Illinois has since been passed by in the world of basketball practice facilities. Those renovations and expansions, Whitman said, could spark the same kind of success the initial construction did two decades ago.

"After we opened Ubben in the last ‘90s, we went on an unprecedented run with the basketball programs," Whitman said. "I think we’re optimistic with the staff we have in place, if we can get this facility work done, we can see a similar ascent back into the national rankings the way that we believe we should be."

That would be a significant change for Illinois basketball. A smaller one could come for Brad Underwood’s team in the near future regarding its annual game in Chicago. The Illini have played at least one regular-season game at the United Center in each of the past 24 seasons.

This year’s basketball game — a Big Ten matchup against Ohio State — drew an announced crowd of 5,285. Illinois football also drew a small crowd (21,725) last season against South Florida at Soldier Field.

"I would say both of those games were disappointing for us from an attendance perspective," Whitman said. "Certainly we would have liked to have seen more fans in the stands, and I think we’ve got to take that into consideration and look at what we want to do long term.

"I will say I don’t think we’ll take another Big Ten basketball game back to the United Center. I think we will always have a presence in Chicago. We will always play games there. Whether those continue to be as regularly as we have been I think is something we’ve got to determine."

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).