On thin ice: Hockey team short on funds

By Sean Nuemann

For three and a half hours on Friday and Saturday nights, a small blue banner hangs outside of the Illinois Ice Arena advertising Illini hockey home games.

It’s a vast contrast from the 36-by-96-foot videoboard at Memorial Stadium hanging over campus as a constant reminder of football games happening on Saturday morning, but it’s the best the club hockey team can do on a tight budget.

Although the University paid head football coach Tim Beckman $1.6 million last year, the Illini hockey coaching staff never sees a cent of the school’s money. Instead, Illini hockey head coach Nick Fabbrini and assistant coach Blake Sorensen’s paychecks come directly from annual dues paid by the players on the team.

“It’s definitely different being a club sport,” senior winger and team treasurer John Scully said. “They’re giving up their time. Fabbrini (lives in Champaign) to coach us and that’s his No. 1 priority.”

To acquire health insurance, Fabbrini took a job as a safety aid for the Unit 4 Champaign Public School District. Sorensen also works as the head coach for the Latin School of Chicago’s varsity hockey team, while working another job as a sales consultant for a hockey equipment supplier in Chicago.

Sorenson lives in Chicago but gives up the last half of his week to travel to Champaign for practices and games, staying in an extra bedroom at Fabbrini’s house from each Wednesday through the weekend.

“For him to come down a couple days a week and dedicate his weekends to coaching us is huge,” Scully said of Sorenson. 

Fabbrini said the team’s financial relationship with the University is getting better as the years go on, especially after receiving a deduction in rent costs for the club’s home games this past offseason.

But sophomore John Olen said the financial side of playing hockey at the University can become stressful, especially when making sure each player’s individual dues — which increased from this year, according to Olen — are paid at the beginning of each semester. And despite the University’s reduction, the team still has to pay thousands of dollars per week in order to practice and play games on its own home ice.

The week prior to its weekend series against Lindenwood, the club paid $450 to rent just five and a half hours of ice time for practice. During the weekend series, the team spent an additional $2,773 to rent out the arena for the games against the Lions. In addition to hiring employees, the team has to hire police officers to monitor the crowds.

But after seeing fans come to games every weekend, assistant captain Mike Evans said the players believe the work they did to promote the team earlier in the season is worth it.

On homecoming weekend, the Illini drew more than 600 fans and generated $4,914 in ticket sales alone.

Fabbrini has no doubt the Illini hockey club would be a successful Division I program, drawing crowds as well as it currently does without University support. The head coach said the program would immediately become relevant and a top destination for hockey players across the Midwest.

“I get emails from 200 kids a year looking to come play hockey,” Fabbrini said, just days after receiving a couple emails from players in Ontario, Canada, who were hoping to come play at Illinois. “We’re pretty much limited to in-state kids, but there’s a lot of interest in our program across North America.”

Without scholarships to offer, the hockey team misses out on many recruits that can’t afford the price of out-of-state tuition.

“It’s a lot to ask,” Fabbrini said.

The Illini hockey club has won the ACHA National Championship twice in the past nine years (2005, 2008), including the only undefeated season (38-0) in league history in 2007-08. During the team’s championship run in 2004-05, only five of the team’s 29 players were from outside Illinois, while just two of 28 players on the Illini’s 2007-08 roster were out-of-state recruits.

“It’s a credit to our guys and the club as a whole over the past couple of years that we’ve been able to succeed without some of the administrative support from the University that other schools in our league and our conference get,” said Fabbrini, who was a player on both national championship teams. “If we were able to offer scholarships and things, we would be a pretty good hockey team every year.”

Fabbrini said the Illini hockey club is grateful for everything it currently has and won’t use the team’s financial obstacles as an excuse for its performance. But to Fabbrini, who is midway through his sixth year with the club as both a player and coach, it’s hard to imagine the harm that would come from a minimal donation from the very school the club team represents.

“It would be huge for our club to get some kind of money from the University,” Fabbrini said. “$5,000 or $10,000 from the school would be a huge deal when it comes to our budget, and I don’t know if that money would matter much in the grand scheme of things to the University.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.