The NHL Believes College Hockey Is Its Lifeblood — Here's Why
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the puck has been passed.
By Matt Foley
When four top hockey administrators used a press conference at the NHL draft in Chicago last June to reveal plans to grow NCAA Division I hockey, it gave imaginative fans a chance to dream of college hockey fever spreading coast to coast. Now, 10 months later, those dreams are slowly becoming reality. As this weekend’s NCAA championship showed with three Big Ten teams making the Frozen Four — in just the conference’s fifth year of staging hockey — new college programs are challenging longtime stalwarts atop the rankings.
Expansion has long been a hot topic in NHL circles, but, until last year, talks were limited to new franchises — like the Vegas Golden Knights and, before them, the Arizona Coyotes — in nontraditional hockey regions. But in Chicago, where plans to expand college hockey were unveiled, the focus of the press conference was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Big Ten school with a chance to become college hockey’s first Division I program in the talent-rich state since the University of Illinois at Chicago dropped its program in 1996. On stage were NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Mathieu Schneider of the NHL Players’ Association, Pat Kelleher of USA Hockey and John McDonough of the host Blackhawks.
It’s a way to grow the game at the college level but also expand our grassroots reach.
Kevin Westgarth, former NHL forward
Bettman and company announced the NHL’s joint plans with the NHLPA to sponsor an NCAA feasibility study at five universities. Illinois was first to sign on, followed by Oakland University, a Detroit-area institution that volunteered in October 2017. Two other universities have now conducted confidential studies and a fifth school is set to be announced soon. For the NHL, it’s an opportunity to grow its fan base — and talent pool — across numerous fronts.
“It’s a way to grow the game at the college level but also expand our grassroots reach,” says Kevin Westgarth, a former NHL forward turned VP of business development and international affairs for the league. “Each new college program brings new facilities and opportunities for young players along the way.”
For sure, Oakland and Illinois aren’t necessarily navigating unchartered territory. In 2012, Penn State used the support of a hockey-crazed donor to turn Division I; today, the Nittany Lions are a destination program for the sport’s top recruits. Arizona State followed in 2014, becoming the first West Coast Division I program. What’s new is the focused plan from hockey’s professional leadership, in tandem with the NCAA, to aid the sport’s expansion at the college ranks.
But the success of Penn State and Arizona State does not ensure sustainable operations elsewhere. Title IX requires that a women’s program must be launched in conjunction with any men’s addition, and the redirection of university funds from existing programs is a constant point of contention. And for mid-major schools like Oakland, creating adequate revenue requires strategic, innovative thinking. “We don’t want to hinder funding from our other sports,” says Padraic McMeel, interim athletics director at Oakland University. “We think hockey can be a revenue generator for us, and we try to be innovators in how we utilize our funding.… It’s about finding the best people to get the most out of our resources.”
The feasibility study, which is at the heart of the college hockey expansion plan, looks at expenses, funding opportunities, facilities and community support for school programs. It also looks at school profiles. The final decisions are for the schools to make, and while no deadline has been set, sources tell OZY both Illinois and Oakland have completed the study. Now it comes down to how — and when — to announce a decision. “[The study] found that the addition of hockey would be beneficial to our portfolio,” says McMeel. “So now we need to work on next steps.… We certainly need a facility, which our president would like to see on campus.”
But an on-campus stadium doesn’t come cheap. Terry Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres’ billionaire owner who funded the Penn State hockey program, has said that his $102 million donation in 2012 was three-pronged: form men’s and women’s hockey programs at Penn State; enable the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference; and promote youth hockey in the area. Penn State’s men’s side finished this year ranked No. 13 in the country. The Nittany Lions women’s team logged its first Division I winning season in 2015, and the school is becoming a landing spot for top talent throughout the U.S. and Canada. “We’ve seen firsthand what Penn State has done,” says Rob Zepp, special projects manager for the NHLPA. “We’re trying to identify markets that could replicate that success around the country.”
Strictly by the numbers, it makes sense that Illinois was first in line for the feasibility study. Illinois sends the fifth most players to Division I hockey, “but they all have to leave the state,” says Westgarth — an infuriating fact for hockey fans and novices in the region. “Folks in the Chicagoland area want to see the game grow,” says Westgarth. “It’s hard to watch that much talent leave.”
At Oakland too, proponents believe the school can fill a similar void. While seven schools within the state of Michigan currently boast Division I men’s hockey programs, zero women’s teams exist. McMeel believes that should the school decide to add varsity hockey, its prime location in Michigan’s Oakland County and partnerships with Olympia Entertainment — which owns the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit’s state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena — will help lure prospects of both genders from across North America. “We could compete with anyone from a recruiting standpoint,” says McMeel.
Still, growing the college game presents unique challenges. Most large universities depend on revenue from the basketball and football programs to carry an entire athletics department, but smaller schools like Oakland face a fiscal burden that requires even more creativity. “We have to be nimble,” says McMeel.
That isn’t stopping these schools. And the country’s hockey administrators appear to recognize that the sport will gain from the expansion of its college program. “We’re not closed off to any regions,” says Zepp. “To continue moving into some nontraditional markets would be exciting.”