College Hockey was on full display during the 2017 National Hockey League Entry Draft in Chicago, but not only for the players selected (a total of 60 -- 18 from Big Ten schools).
On Friday, just a few hours prior to the first round of the draft, the NHL, NHLPA and a number of college hockey representatives gathered for an announcement "special to college hockey."
With the help and support of the Chicago Blackhawks, the University of Illinois (a team we have long marked as a potential next Division I hockey school, and almost definitely the next Big Ten school) will be the first to conduct a feasibility study under the new NHL/NHLPA initiative that is committed to the growth of NCAA Division I hockey.
“Where high-level hockey is established, youth hockey interest and participation often follows,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said during the press conference. “By expanding the footprint of elite hockey at all levels, we can inspire new players and parents to join the hockey family. By working to add programs at the Division I level, we hope to grow the game of hockey, both on and off the ice.”
So what exactly does that mean?
Ultimately it means that the NHL is going to lend a pretty significant hand in truly helping the growth of college hockey by funding the feasibility studies to ensure a jump into DI hockey is right for each school being studied. This feasibility study will analyze the many factors necessary for Illinois to start and maintain a hockey program, including, but not limited to, one-time and annual expenses, funding opportunities, facility needs, Title IX considerations, and community support. Any decisions on the possible addition of hockey will be made at the conclusion of the feasibility study. No deadline has been set for completion of the study.
Rather than Illinois just jumping into DI status they will take proper steps to obtain the status. With seven Big Ten schools competition in DI college hockey -- the only major multisport conference to sponsor hockey, Illinois would be a likely addition.
Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman made this statement when addressing the audience Friday:
"The idea of varsity hockey at the University of Illinois has great appeal. With hockey's popularity in both Chicago and St. Louis, and rapidly growing youth participation across the state, we anticipate tremendous interest in the sport at our university. We are grateful to College Hockey, Inc., USA Hockey and our colleagues with the Chicago Blackhawks, who have been incredibly supportive during our preliminary due diligence. We will add sport programs only if they can enhance the brand and reputation of the Fighting Illini by being nationally competitive, and our initial research reveals a number of factors that suggest hockey at Illinois could quickly grow into one of the country's most successful programs.
"There are many questions yet unanswered, the biggest being funding for such an ambitious project. But by engaging in this evaluation in such a public manner, our hope is that it helps us identify those from the hockey community who might have an interest in supporting this initiative. We believe it could be transformative for our athletic program, our university, and our community."