U. of Illinois Abandons Pursuit of Ice Hockey Program

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After more than five years of exploring the idea of adding varsity men's ice hockey, the University of Illinois is no longer looking to make the costly addition to its athletic department.

“After more than five years of extensive evaluation and intense effort to generate interest and support, we have determined that it is not viable to bring Division I men’s ice hockey to the University of Illinois at this time,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement Monday, as reported by CBS affiliate WCIA in Champaign.

“Since we began our exploration of hockey years ago, meaningful landscape changes have pushed us to this unfortunate conclusion. We have stated repeatedly that we would not advance the hockey project without a sound funding and financial plan. 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 percent."

Among the highest hurdles was the proposed development of a downtown ice hockey venue.

"We have long championed the addition of hockey as an opportunity to address needs in our sports of volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics," Whitman stated. "As a result, we have delayed other potential investments in those sports while we continued our pursuit of hockey and the downtown facility it would require. In recent months, as the odds of adding hockey have diminished, various opportunities to advance some of these other sports have developed. We are now choosing to pursue those opportunities, which effectively minimizes some of the intended value of the downtown facility to [the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics]."

Related: Illinois Hockey on Hold Amid Financial Uncertainty

The Big Ten Conference formed a men's ice hockey conference in 2013-14, with Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin competing. At that time, Penn State was coming off its first season as an independent program after the program was suspended in the 1940s. Notre Dame joined the Big Ten men's hockey conference in 2017-18.

A club hockey program has competed under the Illini moniker for decades, and a 2018 study indicated that varsity hockey would flourish on campus.

Related: Study: Hockey Could Work at Illinois

"This is a painful decision, made all the more difficult because of the incredible commitment shown by so many to make hockey a reality," Whitman said, adding, "From the beginning, this was a ‘big idea’ with appeal across so many different stakeholders, and working together so closely over the years was the most enjoyable element of the project. Even without hockey, a wonderful byproduct of this effort is the relationships we formed, which I trust will benefit the University of Illinois and our Champaign-Urbana communities for many years to come.

"We believe the interest in hockey and the opportunity for the sport to succeed here is very real. You never say never in this business, and if the right opportunity were to present itself down the road, we would always be willing to reconsider. That said, due to other programmatic priorities and needs, we can no longer allocate human and financial resources toward the ongoing pursuit of this project. My heart believes that we can support hockey, but my head tells me it is time to direct our attention elsewhere. We must continue the upward momentum that Illinois Athletics has created in recent years, and that will require the focused energy of our staff and our community in the years ahead."

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