Blackhawks success contributing to Illinois hockey popularity

By Ethan Swanson

As the final horn of the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals sounded in the United Center June 15, the Chicago Blackhawks stood victorious on their home ice for the first time since 1938. 

With their recent trifecta of championships — the Blackhawks have won three of the last six Stanley Cups — questions of a potential dynasty have arisen, and while the Blackhawks are transforming Chicago into a hockey town, the in-state team’s winning ways are affecting how the sport is viewed on campus.

“When a major sports team from a local wins a major award, it brings attention to the game,” junior defenseman and Chicago-area native Austin Zima said. “When people can identify with a common interest, it creates a sense of unity. I believe that translates to us and the support we get from students.”  

According to Illinois student enrollment data, in 2013 the University had more than 10,000 students from Cook County — the county in which Chicago’s city limits are located — enrolled in undergraduate and graduate courses. DuPage, Lake and Will counties, which border Cook County to the west, north and south, respectively, had over 7,800 enrolled students combined.

These students bring their NHL ties to Champaign-Urbana with them.

“Hockey’s one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. It’s everywhere, East coast to West coast,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “It’s a fast game, an exciting game and a highly skilled game: something people want to watch.”

By the time classes resume in mid-August, sports fans have two major choices for a true spectator sport: football or hockey.  However, the Illini’s success on the gridiron in recent years has been lacking and the team’s mediocrity has been reflected in game attendance.

At the Illini’s 2014 season opener, only 36,234 fans were recorded at 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium, which was the fourth-smallest turnout for a home opener among the nation’s power-five conferences.

Only Duke (31,213), Vanderbilt (31,731) and Northwestern (34,228) had smaller crowds.

The Illinois hockey team, on the other hand, has given fans something to cheer about in the past decade, winning the Division I American Collegiate Hockey Association national championship in 2005 and 2008, and making the ACHA tournament 13 times in the past 15 seasons. Fabbrini and his players believe the team’s success originates from an unwavering fan base that according to Fabbrini, makes it the third-highest attended sport on campus behind football and men’s basketball.

“We have the largest fan base in the ACHA,” added Zima. “Teams from around the country want to play here because of the atmosphere. Every time we step out onto the ice, there’s a buzz and hype around us.”

The Illini only graduated four players last spring, meaning there’s no sign of the team’s following and prowess diminishing anytime soon.

The Illinois hockey team will begin its run to another ACHA national title Sept. 18 against Michigan State, and Illini players hope fans will be able to see their favorite collegiate and professional teams making deep postseason runs once again.

“We want teams to be scared when they see ‘Illinois’ on their calendar,” Zima said. “With the guys we have this year, we’ll definitely be able to do that.”

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