Students aim for Division I hockey team, facility at Illinois


Logan Hodson

Forward Jack Kolb attempts to shake off Grand Valley State as the team locks in on him on Oct. 23. Students express interest over Illini Hockey’s goal to become an official division 1 sport at the University of Illinois.

By James Barrowman, Staff Writer

There’s no denying that it’s a good time to be a fan of Illinois sports, whether it’s the basketball team that’s had routine success ever since Brad Underwood was named head coach, or the recent resurgence of the football program after athletic director Josh Whitman brought in Bret Bielema. 

However, despite the success of the school’s two biggest teams, it’s also easy to forget that at one point there were plans to add another program to the University, that being a Division I hockey program that would’ve faced off against the likes of Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, and how it could’ve started a new chapter in the history of Illini sports.

In some ways, it’s strange that Illinois has never had an NCAA Division I hockey team, especially in recent years as the multiple Stanley Cups won by the Chicago Blackhawks renewed the state’s interest in the sport and created a whole new generation of hockey players who would now be old enough to be recruited to play at university programs. And the interest from recruits would’ve been almost immediate, the northwest suburbs of Chicago have proven to be a hotbed for talented hockey players in recent years, with the biggest examples being the Compher siblings from Northbrook Illinois. 

J.T Compher was part of the 2021–2022 Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche, while his sister Jesse Compher won a silver medal in the 2022 Winter Olympics with Team USA. Instead, the talent that’s already here in Illinois is poached by established programs such as Michigan, Ohio State or Wisconsin. 

Interest among the student body, as well as the local community for a Division I hockey program, was there, as Whitman made clear in his statement discontinuing the development of a hockey program last May.

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We believe the interest in hockey and the opportunity for the sport to succeed here is very real,” Whitman said. “If the right opportunity were to present itself down the road, we would always be willing to reconsider.”

When asked about the thought of attending Big Ten hockey games, many students expressed interest in the idea.

“Yeah I would (be interested). I feel like conferences are a big part of sports, it’s a big reason Big Ten and SEC games are so big,” Ansh Dogra, senior in Business, said. “Hockey’s pretty popular, and it can get rowdy so I’d definitely be interested if Illinois had a Big Ten hockey team.”

With the prevalence of Illini club hockey matches as well, a decent portion of the student body has also gotten used to the presence of a hockey team on campus.

“Definitely (would’ve gone to games),” senior and longtime ice arena employee Kevin Quinn said when asked, “I’m a fan of all Illini sports, and I’ve always loved watching club hockey and I just think with the talent they could’ve gotten from around the state it would’ve been a really competitive team. I would’ve loved to have seen that.”

The development of a NCAA caliber team would have been expensive, but the construction of a multi-purpose arena in downtown Champaign would have been a momentous undertaking in any set of circumstances, but the COVID-19 pandemic effectively ended the construction of the arena before it even began. On top of that, financial support for the program seemed to never reach the level that Illinois Athletics needed in order to comfortably start the program.

We have stated repeatedly that we would not advance the hockey project without a sound funding and financial plan.” Whitman said in his announcement last May, “To date, we have been unable to generate the financial support necessary to greenlight the project — a concern that grew even more daunting through the pandemic, when we saw cost projections for the new facility increase by 30%.”

Director Whitman also used the announcement to announce the Athletic Department’s commitment to address needs in the volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics programs, which is admirable. However, the establishment of a hockey program would have been a positive for the three programs existing as well. 

The proposed multi-purpose arena would have been built to accommodate hockey games, but it would have also been the new state-of-the-art home for men and women’s gymnastics, wrestling and volleyball. Instead, the three programs have continued playing in Huff Hall, which would not be able to compare to the arena downtown had it been built. However, to be fair, Whitman has delivered on his promise to allocate the funds originally devoted to the hockey program to bolstering the established programs, with his recent announcement of plans for a brand new wrestling training center across from State Farm center. 

There is a community for hockey at Illinois. The club hockey team’s games have been a beloved activity for students and community members for years. A large portion of in-state students grew up watching hockey because of the Blackhawks’ dominance in the early 2010s, and there’s a large amount of talent within the state of Illinois itself for a Big Ten caliber program to be built on. 

There is a place for hockey at Illinois. It’s just a matter of when the time is right for a program to be built. 


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