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The Daily Illini

“It’s coming soon.” Players confident Varsity Hockey is in University’s future.

Illinois%27+Joey+Ritondale+fights+for+the+puck+during+the+game+against+Lindenwold+University+at+the+Ice+Arena+on+Saturday%2C+January+30.+The+Illini+lost+4-1.
Illinois' Joey Ritondale fights for the puck during the game against Lindenwold University at the Ice Arena on Saturday, January 30. The Illini lost 4-1.

Illinois' Joey Ritondale fights for the puck during the game against Lindenwold University at the Ice Arena on Saturday, January 30. The Illini lost 4-1.

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Illinois' Joey Ritondale fights for the puck during the game against Lindenwold University at the Ice Arena on Saturday, January 30. The Illini lost 4-1.

Stephen Cohn, Staff writer

Built in 1931, the Illinois Ice Arena sits at the corner of 5th and Armory on-campus at the University. It hosts hockey games nearly every Friday and Saturday night from September through February for Illinois’ Division I club team.

On a weekly basis, the country’s top teams, like Lindenwood, Robert Morris and Ohio, drive into Champaign on coach buses looking to take down head coach Nick Fabbrini’s squad.

According to the team’s Twitter account, the Illini average nearly 1,500 fans per game. Nonetheless, except for the team’s rink rats, including the Harassing Illini student section, many members of the University’s community are often unaware Illinois even currently has a hockey team.  

“I still laugh when I hear kids walking past me like, ‘we have a hockey team? I didn’t know that,’” Illinois hockey senior defenseman Joey Caprio said.

However, on Friday afternoon, Illini fans had reason to be excited about the idea of big-time hockey at Illinois.

Prior to the start of the NHL Draft at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman took the stage at a press conference with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough, Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, the NHLPA’s Mathieu Schneider and USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher. The group announced that the University would be the first of five colleges taking part in a feasibility study to determine if it could support a varsity hockey program in the future.  

“There are many questions yet unanswered, the biggest being funding for such an ambitious project,” Whitman said at the press conference. “We believe it could be transformative for our athletic program, our university, and our community.”

While nothing is yet finalized and the study is in its early stages, Caprio said the idea of having a NCAA-sponsored Division I team would be awesome.

“No matter what, even if you only play club, you still have that passion for hockey and you have loyalty to the University,” Caprio said. “You’re going to want to come back to because it’s going to be great for everyone.”

The press conference was announced last Thursday by SB Nation’s Travis Hughes through a tweet. Speculation on the details of the announcement ensued for the team and its fanbase.

“It was pretty exciting to hear about it and read it and see who partnered with it,” senior defenseman Joey Ritondale said.

McDonough’s team, the Blackhawks, have won three Stanley Cup Finals’ since 2010, but his team’s state, Illinois, has not called a Division I hockey team home since the University sponsored hockey as a varsity sport from 1938-1943.

Caprio, Cruickshank and Ritondale grew up in the Chicago suburbs with players in junior hockey like current Blackhawks Vinnie Hinostroza, a native of Bartlett, and Ryan Hartman of West Dundee. The trio of Illini agrees the suburbs’ top players would stay home and play for Illinois if the option existed.

“(Illinois) is a state that has produced a lot of really good hockey players who have been forced to go a different direction because (there are no Division I teams),” Cruickshank said. “The opportunity to be able to stay in your home and not have to go to Notre Dame or Miami (of Ohio) or Minnesota would be appealing.”

Two of the newest Division I hockey programs, Arizona State and Penn State, have experienced success in their first years after transitioning from the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), the league Illinois currently competes in. Penn State claimed its first Big Ten championship in 2017.

The Big Ten currently has seven varsity hockey programs.

“I think Illinois will be a mirror image of Penn State because it’s in the Big Ten, and it’s a great school,” Ritondale said. “There’s so much to be drawn to the school, academically and athletically.”

The feasibility study will factor in Title IX considerations, annual expenses and community support.

Regarding community support, the team hopes the excitement of the study’s announcement expressed by Illini fans across social media platforms results in higher turnouts at games this season.

“We’re going to get a lot more recognition,” Caprio said. “There’s going to be more eyes on us, and people are going to start coming to games more often.”

For annual expenses, the club team’s players currently pay a few thousand dollars per season for travel to games, ice time and gear and equipment.

A University-sponsored varsity team would be based on scholarships and provide perks to its student-athletes.

“(An NCAA hockey team) is getting treated like our football team or basketball team, getting apparel and other benefits,” Cruickshank said. “The hockey will be better, and it will be run by the school where there is money that can go into it.”

By the time the study concludes and an arena is built for Illinois’ varsity hockey program, as long as the study confirms the University can support a team, all of the Illini club players will likely have graduated.

Ritondale, the team’s captain last season, said he still would feel as if he played a role in bringing big-time hockey to Champaign.

“I don’t know if I’ll feel a part of the Division I team, but I’ll feel a part in helping the program create more success,” Ritondale said. “We feel like we were a big piece in gaining attention in Illinois hockey for the NHL and the Blackhawks.”

One expectation of the study is that doubters will exist. Some will argue that a college-town in east central Illinois cannot support a Division I hockey team, despite its club team two two national championships — both while Fabbrini was a player in the mid-2000’s.

But everyone involved with Illini hockey believes Champaign-Urbana can, and eventually will, call a NCAA Division I hockey team home.

“Division I will be here in a matter of time,” Ritondale said. “It’s coming soon.”

secohn2@dailyillini.com

@stephencohn14

2 Comments

  • Sally Balderick

    And I didn’t know Illinois had an athletic director. How are those new football and basketball coaches working out?

  • Ernie Watters

    cool i hope it does it would be fun to watch