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Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks’ Role In (Maybe) Bringing D-I Hockey To Champaign

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CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 06: An NHL logo is displayed on a net prior to a game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Chicago Blackhawks on January 6, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 06: An NHL logo is displayed on a net prior to a game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Chicago Blackhawks on January 6, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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College hockey showcases the country’s most skilled young adult hockey players giving it their all with the goal of reaching the NHL in mind. Being in the Midwest, where hockey is as prevalent as anywhere else in the country, a city as large as Chicago needs a team to support. Could the University of Illinois provide that, and could the Chicago Blackhawks have a role in that team’s creation?

Champaign, Ill., is a college town full of storied sports success, and current sports dismay. But, with recent hirings of ex-Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and ex-Oklahoma State basketball coach Brad Underwood, the future is bright, and there’s a buzz throughout the Illini fan base. With hope in the air, there is no better time to add a Division I hockey program to the town, giving fans yet another popular sport to embrace. So two questions now remain: Will the city get a team, and will the Chicago Blackhawks have a role in it?

There are 60 D-I college hockey teams in the country, and 20 states have at least one team. The Midwest specifically is college hockey heaven, with every single team in the Big Ten Conference having a historically successful program. For example, many forget that Duncan Keith played college hockey at Michigan State.

With four large universities in Chicago along with many smaller ones scattered throughout the state, it is simply both unacceptable and unbelievable that not one school in the state can support a program.

(Note: The University of Illinois-Chicago had a D-I hockey team that lasted from 1981-96 and was eventually removed from the university.)

On June 23 of this year, the morning of the first NHL draft ever hosted in Chicago, Illini athletic director Josh Whitman stood in the bowels of the United Center along with various members of the Blackhawks front office and the NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, to make a very important announcement.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association had decided to partner with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conducting a study to determine if the university and surrounding towns are capable of funding, supporting and embracing a Division I men’s hockey program. Specifically, the NCAA has said the study will encompass the following:

"“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.”"

In anticipation of this potential city-altering decision, the university has announced that it is prepared to build a brand new rink for a D-I team, if the university is granted one. For more information on potential sources of funding along with community impact, click here.

This opportunity for the university wouldn’t have come about if the Blackhawks hadn’t paired consistent elite success with willingness to help the sport grow, and Whitman made sure to give them thanks:

"“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.”"

Impact on the university

With the Illinois football team having four winning seasons since 2000 and the men’s basketball team not making the national tournament since 2012-2013, residents of the Champaign-Urbana community are looking for sports success to embrace. This is where the Blackhawks come in.

With their recent successes, especially before the Cubs started winning games again, they have taken over the city of Chicago and its residents. With a bulk of UIUC students coming from Chicago to C-U for the school year, they bring their favorite team with them.

Watching Patrick Kane do things nobody else can or getting that mid-playoff OT heart attack both are things that become addicting, and over time, it makes people want to give the team more support and watch it more often.

I’m a student at the university, and I can’t seem to go anywhere without seeing an Indian Head on a jersey, T-shirt, banner or flag. In a full 180-degree change since 2007, when you couldn’t even find Blackhawks games on TV, students are making it a point to take interest in the game.

Furthermore, the recent interest in the Blackhawks has further sparked interest in the game of hockey as a whole, and this could be translated to the D-I team, if the study deems the school worthy.

While they already have their games broadcasted on the radio (107.1-FM), the interest in the team has been taken to the next level, as a group of girls started a brand new club that allows students to be ice girls for the team, similar to what the Blackhawks and other NHL clubs already do.

This gives students even more of an incentive to come out, and this could be translated to the D-I team if the university was given one. The school even has an underwater hockey club which I had never heard of until coming to campus. Evidently, the hockey fans are here — that just needs to be proven to the hockey world.

Next: Chicago Blackhawks’ New Facility Should Invite College Hockey

The university has nine Division I teams, including the men’s golf team that has gone to the NCAA tournament for the past 10 years. The bottom line is, D-I sports have been and currently are successful in Champaign. With the Blackhawks increasing fan interest in the game of hockey, the university would be able to use this as a marketing advantage to get fans into the rink and ultimately support the schools 10th Division I sport.

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