A study commissioned by the NHL, the NHL Players Association and College Hockey Inc. has concluded that an NCAA men’s hockey program at the University of Illinois would thrive.
Illinois has made no decision about whether to add the sport as an intercollegiate program but will use the study as the basis of further discussions with constituencies around the state with plans to move forward only if the program can be successfully funded and receive a level of support needed for the program to be sustained on a long-term basis.
"This is one of our most ambitious and potentially impactful projects in recent memory," Illinois director of athletics Josh Whitman said in a statement announcing the completion of the study, which began last June.
"Adding Division I hockey and building the new arena it ... would be transformative for the sport of hockey in the state of Illinois and for our university, our athletic program and, importantly, for the Champaign-Urbana communities."
The report, initiated last June, gained feedback in interviews with campus and community stakeholders as well as representatives of the Chicago Blackhawks and the NHL and studied statistical data from youth programs throughout the state.
It reveals that the state of Illinois has the sixth-highest youth hockey participation rate in the nation, with 22,373 participants in 2017, a growth of nearly 300 percent since 1993.
Although there are no intercollegiate programs in the sport currently in the state, Illinois produces the fourth-most NCAA Division I hockey players in the country, with 85 players from the state currently competing at the Division I level.
Kevin Westgarth, the vice president of business development and international affairs for the NHL, said the handful of studies are raising awareness about the potential that exists.
"We are coming ever closer to realizing our goal of delivering more D-I opportunities to elite hockey players while building a new three-sheet ice facility in Urbana-Champaign to increase access and opportunity for the next generation of hockey families," Westgarth said in a statement.
The study recommends developing a facility in downtown Champaign that would include an arena with a seating capacity of 5,000-6,000 that could provide competition space for Fighting Illini hockey, volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling programs.
The proposed location, which has the support of Illinois’ Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, would allow the university to partner with the city of Champaign on a facility project.
The Big Ten currently conducts a championship in hockey, with Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin offering programs and Notre Dame competing in the conference in the sport as an affiliate member.