Brother, can you spare $100 million?
That’s how much the University of Illinois would need tp start men’s and women’s NCAA Division I hockey at the University of Illinois, according to Kent Brown, Illini sports information director.
Varsity hockey is a familiar subject for Brown. Inevitably each spring, as the National Hockey League playoffs gear up, a student reporter will ask him: “Why doesn’t Illinois have a hockey program?”
And I asked Brown a similar question recently, in regards to past efforts to build a new ice rink in Champaign-Urbana.
The question about big-time hockey has merit. A substantial portion of the UI’s student body comes from the Chicago area, where the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup three times since 2010. Plus, the fan enthusiasm for hockey is obvious whenever the Illini Hockey Club has a home game.
“There would definitely be a following,” Brown said.
But then there’s the money.
Brown bases his $100 million figure on what Penn State has spent to bring NCAA men’s and women’s hockey to State College.
In 2010, Terry Pegula, a PSU alumnus who made billions in oil and natural gas drilling, donated $88 million so his alma mater could build a ice arena. Later, he and others pitched in several million more to endow scholarships and other costs, according to Jack Hanna, sports information for men’s hockey.
The high-priced startup is doing well.
In just its fifth season, the Nittany Lions men’s team briefly held the No. 1 ranking before dropping six of their last eight games. The men sit in fourth place in the six-team Big Ten, while the women’s team is having a rough season at 9-18-5 in College Hockey America.
By all appearances, the sport is popular in “Hockey Valley,” the nickname given to the 5,700-seat Pegula Arena. The Roar Zone, the student section, is usually full.
A huge part of starting hockey is building an arena. Penn State’s facility, opened in 2013, cost about $90 million. But that includes two rinks — one for the Nittany Lions and the other for the community.
Another factor: Title IX, part of the 1972 federal legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Adding a men’s sport means adding one for women, too. More players, more scholarships, more coaches, more salaries.
For a brief time before World War II, the Illini had a hockey team.
According to the 1943 Illio, hockey started at Illinois in 1938. But by the 1943 season, the team was running out of players; the men were entering the service. There was a war, after all.
The student yearbook shows the team competing through Feb. 23, 1943. In the 1944, no team is mentioned, the end of Illini hockey.
Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette’s editorial board. His email is email@example.com, and his phone is 351-5218.