Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman speaks during his annual media roundtable at Bielfeldt Athletic Administration building in Champaign on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

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CHAMPAIGN — He can hardly go anywhere these days without getting inquiries from people curious about the status of whether Illinois might have men’s hockey in the future.

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman understands the interest. But ...

“I’m most excited to get that project started just so people can stop asking me about it,” Whitman said with a laugh.

The notion of the Illini potentially fielding a Division I men’s hockey team has generated buzz for more than two years after the NHL and NHLPA announced they would partner with the Illini to conduct a feasibility study in June 2017 to evaluate the possible addition of hockey at Illinois.

The buzz has only continued to grow with the results of that feasibility study saying, yes, hockey would thrive at Illinois. Add in the potential of a new downtown Champaign arena to house the new team — with Whitman saying in June the earliest that could likely happen is 2022 — and Whitman can hardly go anywhere these days without the topic of hockey coming up.

“It’s been a great project for us,” Whitman said during his appearance on WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Monday Night SportsTalk,’ at the Esquire in downtown Champaign earlier this week. “There’s not a lot new to report. Once we have something new to talk about, we’ll share it. I’ve said this many, many times, and I can’t underscore it enough. It’s just an incredibly complicated, exciting possibility for us to bring a new arena into downtown Champaign literally steps from where we’re sitting right now.”

Discussions continue in a positive direction, according to Whitman, about the possibility of Illinois fielding a hockey program in the not-too-distant future.

“It has a lot of people around the table and a lot of different partners,” Whitman said. “You’ve got to be able to get all those agreements in the right place and make sure the funding is where it needs to be. As we’ve learned, it just takes time to take somebody from the starting point to cross the finish line on one of these agreements. It’s a tough process. To do that on a dozen different fronts with all the different stakeholders who have a role in that project is just a very time-intensive process.”

While the public waits on whether a downtown Champaign arena to house Illini hockey, volleyball, wrestling, men’s gymnastics and women’s gymnastics comes to fruition, Whitman said work is ongoing in the northeast portion of Memorial Stadium. With the new Smith Center open for the Illini football team’s use on the east side of Memorial Stadium, the former football coaches’ offices, football weight room, lounges and other amenities will change in the coming years.

“We have a lot of square footage, including a big, beautiful weight room and some office spaces,” Whitman said. “There’s a lot of meeting rooms that are now empty. We’ve got the opportunity to re-purpose that space for the benefit of the rest of the athletic program. That’s something we’re really excited about.”

Whitman, who did not provide a figure for what the work will cost, said work is currently focusing on a “deep cleaning process, painting and rebranding.”

“We’ve got some new staff that we’ll move in there,” Whitman said. “Eventually, our sports medicine space will be in there, along with our strength and conditioning and nutrition. Academics will have a satellite facility in there. Equipment will be in there as well. It’ll become a hub for really all of our student-athletes. We’ll have a really nice student-athlete lounge space. It’s going to cost a little money, and it’s going to take some time, but over the next several years, we’ll incrementally make some improvements to that space once we get through this initial phase of deep cleaning. It hasn’t been emptied in over 30-plus years, and we want to take that moment, while we have it, to get it clean.”

Sports Editor

Matt Daniels is sports editor at The News-Gazette. His email is mdaniels@news-gazette.com.