The NHL and the NHL Players Association are teaming up to support and promote the growth of Cawlidge Hawkey.
The NHL will announce on Friday -- during NHL Draft weekend festivities in Chicago, which also hosted the Frozen Four this past April -- that the league will sponsor studies at five U.S. colleges to examine the feasibility of adding a Division I hockey program. The University of Illinois will be the first school to undergo the study.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Illinois, or any of the other schools involved, will sponsor a Division I hockey program. But the study -- conducted by Collegiate Consulting Inc., and paid for the NHL/NHLPA initiative -- should give those schools a framework as to what will be needed in order to make the jump, including financial considerations.
There are currently 60 NCAA Division I men's programs and 35 women's programs.
Illinois seems like a natural fit to add a program for a number of reasons. The university has an undergraduate student enrollment of approximately 33,000 students and a successful club hockey program. Given the success and significant popularity of the Chicago Blackhawks, who play two hours away up Route 57, it's not a surprise that Illinois was the sixth-largest state in terms of hockey-playing population in 2014, according to USA Hockey, with nearly 30,000 registered hockey players -- a surge of 36.5 percent in just five seasons. But the state has no Division I men's hockey program.
Illinois is also, of course, part of Big Ten, which became the first Power Five conference to sponsor Division I men's hockey when Penn State elevated its program in 2012. the Big Ten will include seven teams this fall, now that Notre Dame has joined the league as a sport affiliate member. It is also sanctioning women's ice hockey, although not as many of the member institutions have women's teams.
Mike Snee is the executive director of College Hockey, Inc., a nonprofit that serves as a marketing arm for Division I men's hockey. He and his organization have been the "little engine that could," trying to promote and grow the sport and serve as a resource for youth hockey players who are considering the college route.
"This is significant news," said Snee. "The NHL has real pull, and we really appreciate that the NHL looks at college hockey as a key component of the growth of hockey in America -- especially in places, like Huntsville, Alabama." (The University of Alabama in Huntsville has only Division I men's hockey team in the Southeast.)
Illinois isn't the only obvious "hole" that those in college hockey would like to fill. Missouri, which has been home to the St. Louis Blues for half a century, has become a hotbed of youth hockey and produced both Division I athletes and NHL players.
Doesn't Syracuse University, which already has a women's team and hockey facilities in place, seem like a natural fit for an NCAA men's hockey team? Folks in Las Vegas are excited about their new Vegas Golden Knights NHL franchise -- and that could help spur UNLV to continue pursuing its curiosity in a possible move to a Division I program.
When considering adding an athletic program, changing the level of competition or improving facilities, NCAA schools commission feasibility studies to analyze the costs, benefits, risks and rewards. The sport's leaders determined that the best way to encourage growth at the NCAA level was to encourage and incentivize new schools to examine the benefits of having a Division I hockey program. These schools can now have their feasibility studies paid for -- and also get emotional and passionate backing from the NHL.
The sudden success of Penn State's program, which vaulted to Division I thanks to the deep pockets of Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula (a Penn State graduate who donated $102 million to build an arena and fund scholarships) and Arizona State's more measured entry into college hockey, has already led others schools and their alumni to look at the possibility of adding college hockey to their athletic departments.
The hope is that the funding of the feasibility studies by the NHL and NHLPA will lead more schools to take the next step in seriously contemplating adding hockey.
Like who? Here are some viable options:
Nebraska: Hockey can obviously flourish here. Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel -- who scored a playoffs-best 13 goals on the way to winning the 2017 Stanley Cup -- was born in Omaha and played college hockey at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Lincoln's Pinnacle Bank Arena, which is already home to Nebraska's men's and women's basketball games, can support an ice sheet. There is even an existing arena where the team could practice. The John Breslow Ice Hockey Center opened in December 2015 and is currently used for youth hockey and Nebraska's club hockey team.
Iowa: Like Nebraska, the Hawkeyes are part of the hockey-friendly Big Ten. Plus, more than 30 percent of Iowa's students come from the Chicago area. Most importantly, a 6,000-seat ice arena is in the works about one mile from campus.
Penn: The University of Pennsylvania had a Division I hockey team until it folded the program in 1978. The 3,000-seat, on-campus arena where Penn's team used to play would need a paint job and a good dusting, but it certainly could still host hockey. Penn and Columbia are the only Ivy League schools that don't have hockey, so they would be a very logical fit for the ECAC Hockey conference, which has 12 member schools for both men's and women's hockey, including the six other Ivies. The Ivies do well in hockey, as evidenced by Yale's national championship in 2013 and Harvard's in 1989.
Navy: The Midshipmen have an arena -- Annapolis' Brigade Sports Complex hosts both Navy men's and women's club teams -- and draw well. And two other service academies, Army and Air Force, have hockey. They don't have the "expense" of scholarships and Title IX is enforced differently at the service academies.
Rhode Island: The Rams have an arena, Brad Boss Ice Arena, and compete in the Eastern States Collegiate Hockey League (ESCHL). Every state university in New England has hockey except URI.
The Pac-12: Getting five Pac-12 schools (six schools are needed to form a conference) to join ASU and create a Pac-12 hockey league would be a dream scenario for college hockey. But each school would need to build facilities, so it would be an expensive undertaking and require aggressive fundraising.
Kevin Westgarth, now the NHL's vice president of business development and international affairs, played college hockey at Princeton before spending five seasons and 169 games with the Los Angeles Kings, Carolina Hurricanes, and Calgary Flames. He is charged with helping grow hockey participation and passion, both domestically and abroad.
"The college hockey experience is also valuable in its ability to help positively shape men and women," Westgarth said. "College hockey is a great opportunity for players to develop their game and themselves, all while getting an education. Having the University of Illinois as the first to partake in the project, and explore the potential of establishing a D-I hockey program, is exciting and encouraging. We look to build momentum and get more schools excited about the prospect of adding hockey."
Hockey is still a young sport in the U.S. There were just four NHL teams based in the U.S. during the 1966-67 season. When Las Vegas begins play this fall, it will become the 24th U.S. team -- and another foray into an "nontraditional" hockey market. To some, hockey is great enough of a sport to be successful and popular anywhere.
"When high-level hockey teams are established, it often ignites youth hockey in the surrounding area and inspires young people to get involved," says Westgarth. "One of the best recent examples is what occurred in the wake of Alabama-Huntsville getting a D-I team. Youth hockey in the area exploded, and we saw a Huntsville native, Nic Dowd, in the NHL this past season."