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What Did the NHL’s Press Conference with Illinois Mean?

2017 NHL Draft - Round One
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Last Friday, the NHL held a press conference hours before the start of the NHL Draft announcing that the league would be providing money for five schools to conduct “feasibility studies” into starting Division I NCAA men’s and women’s hockey programs, and named the University of Illinois as the first school to receive that funding(the other four schools have not been chosen yet).

The NHL’s contribution will come out of their “industry growth fund,” an initiative proposed by the NHLPA in the 2013 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations as a revenue-sharing program that, in the PA’s own words, was “designed to make long-term improvements in the revenue-generating potential of low-grossing clubs”.

Though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners were somewhat reluctantly dragged into the idea in CBA negotiations, and the end result was about $60 million per year to the fund, down from the initial $100M proposed by the players, Bettman admitted that it was nice that the fund, managed by representatives from the Players’ Association and the owners, was an area where the two sides were able to work together on a common goal.

The strategy for doing that has been to get more fans involved with the game of hockey at a younger age. One of the biggest problems the NHL faces, especially in less traditional hockey markets, is that while a lot of people grew up playing baseball, football, and basketball, thus making it easier for them to be fans of MLB, the NFL, and the NBA, very few grew up playing hockey, making it tougher to sell them on the NHL when they become adults.

Most notably, the industry growth fund has been used to create a league-wide “Learn to Play” initiative, where all 31 franchises have a program to get kids aged 4-8 started in the game of hockey.

But the league also sees another avenue for growth with college hockey. Men’s and women’s college programs could potentially bring high-level and high-profile hockey to areas that don’t have NHL teams and create new hockey fans that way. Gary Bettman mentioned Huntsville, Alabama in his remarks and the effect of the Alabama-Huntsville program on that community. Traditionally when people talk about the Chargers’ impact, it’s in the context of Nic Dowd, who came out of Huntsville’s youth hockey program and now plays in the NHL. But Dowd wasn’t mentioned by Bettman. For him, it’s not the one kid that “makes it” that interests him, as much as the 700 players in their youth program, who have the potential to become ticket buyers/television viewers/hockey-related revenue producers.

That effect was on display at this year’s Draft as well. When Michael Karow was drafted in the fifth round by the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday, he was asked about his favorite NHL team growing up. He said that growing up in Green Bay, he didn’t really have a favorite NHL team since Wisconsin doesn’t have an NHL franchise, but that he grew up a big fan of the University of Wisconsin’s men’s team, which was just two hours away.

There’s little the NHL can do in terms of nudging the growth of college hockey, given the huge upfront costs involved with starting a college hockey program, but this is at least a start in terms of the league helping college hockey grow across the United States.

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As for the first recipients of the NHL’s feasibility study funding, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, a former football player, is not necessarily a “hockey guy”. He said that when he was first hired to the job a year and a half ago, he had to be convinced by College Hockey Inc. executive director Mike Snee—Snee called Whitman literally on Whitman’s first day at the job—about the possibilities of Division I hockey at Illinois. But Whitman certainly seemed to have fully bought into the idea of Division I hockey at Illinois, and thinks he could be the guy to bring it there. When asked about what makes now different for Illinois than past efforts to bring Division I college hockey to Illinois Whitman said:

““It may not go anywhere this time. We don’t know that. But, I think that there is enough intrigue for me. Maybe I’m the difference this time.”

The biggest appeal, a point mentioned multiple times by Whitman, was that every Big Ten school last season averaged over 5000 fans per game. That’s a level of engagement rarely seen in NCAA athletics outside the realms of football and men’s basketball. It’s not necessarily about profit-generating potential either. Whitman said that some Big Ten hockey programs are profitable, and some aren’t, but that it does generate a lot of interest and generate a lot of buzz that they think can be beneficial.

“We’re excited about the impact hockey could have not just on Illinois athletics, but the university and the broader Champaign-Urbana community. If you’re able to build an arena and fill it 18-20 times a year with 5000 fans, that could be a really positive thing for our entire area.”

A new facility for hockey could also be used for other sports—Whitman mentioned volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics—allowing Illinois to upgrade facilities and improve other programs as well.

And finally, Whitman strongly believed that hockey was something Illinois had the potential to be very good at.

But for every bit of excitement and optimism on the part of Whitman, there was an equal measure of reality as to the difficulties that Illinois will face in making this happen. Even before the results of the feasibility study provided exact numbers, Whitman seemed to have a very solid understanding of what it would take for Illinois to create a program, same as just about anyone who has followed college hockey closely for some period of time.

That would include:

-A significant chunk of money to sustainably endow scholarships, hire coaches, and create a budget. That number is likely in the $30+ million range.

-Building a new on-campus facility for the hockey team. Whitman didn’t see the State Farm Center, home to Illinois’ basketball program, as likely due to the use in the winter by the basketball teams as well as various other events like concerts that the arena hosts. Whitman also said the most attractive thing about college hockey is the environment, and that putting 6000 people in a 16,000-seat arena is not going to feel great(which means he already understands college hockey better than anyone on the NCAA Tournament committee), so he wants an arena that feels a little more intimate. It would have to be a new building.

-Creating a new women’s program to keep Title IX numbers in alignment. In Whitman’s words, “It may be women’s hockey. It may not be. It may be something else on the women’s side”.

Whitman was very clear that money wouldn’t be taken from existing programs at the school in order to help start funding the hockey program, which means the entirety of it would have to come from private donations. In total, Illinois would likely need something similar to the $102 million donated to Penn State by Terry Pegula and family to get their program off the ground. It goes without saying how difficult it is to raise that kind of money.

“We need to find some new money to make this possible. If we’re able to do that, I think there’s tremendous benefit. If we’re not, we have to be disciplined enough to say, despite all this hoopla, that it doesn’t make sense for us.”

So what did that whole thing on Friday actually mean? There wasn’t very much in terms of actual substance. I don’t think it comes as a major revelation to say that a university athletic department will cash your check if you’re willing to give it to them.

But the press conference did serve as a clear signal of intent from Illinois. It’s one thing to give a friendly quote to the local newspaper about being interested in starting a hockey program. It’s another for Whitman to stand at a podium flanked by some of the most powerful people in hockey and say that they believe Illinois can be great at hockey. It’s a powerful message, and hopefully one that will resonate with donors when the time comes for Illinois to start making phone calls to raise that money. Friday wasn’t what one would call a historic day for college hockey by any means, at least at this point in time. But perhaps one day, years from now, we’ll look at that press conference as the start of something special.