Which schools won't we see in the Big Ten?
Forget the math. Yes, there are twelve teams in the Big Ten. And yes, only six will play in the conference’s new hockey league next season. There are many stories ahead for Big Ten hockey but before we go further toward its first season, how about the six teams we won’t see?
For some schools, this is an abiding issue. That’s due to existing interest in strong club teams and, of course, cash infusions that are on the horizon from the Big Ten TV Network. For others, big-time hockey is a non-starter and will stay that way.
Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of the Big Ten schools that aren’t putting Division I hockey teams on the ice next season along with predictions on which ones will and won’t make the jump in the future.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: It will surprise many fans but Husker hockey could well be the next Big Ten entrant. A number of coaches with whom I’ve discussed the prospect, including the Gophers’ Don Lucia, say there’s plenty of interest in Lincoln, fueled in part by the success of USHL junior hockey in the city. Lucia told the Golden Gopher Blue Line Club in March, “Nebraska is within the footprint of a very successful junior program, they have passionate fans, they’ll have a new facility. I think it would be a natural.”
Another attraction is the success Division I hockey is finding just an hour east on I-80. The Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks have a solid program and Omaha has long been a home for minor pro hockey. There would surely be a set of games between the two schools and while they wouldn’t be conference tilts natural geographical rivalries are always compelling.
A few things work against Nebraska, the newest member of the conference, joining the new hockey league.
First, and most important, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of push in favor of the idea from the school’s top brass. Husker Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst said during the season that the next programs he wants to add are men’s and women’s volleyball.
There’s also a question of where a Division I team would call home. Lincoln’s USHL team, the Stars, has been successful playing in The Icebox at the former state fairgrounds. The university team gets some practice time there but its home games are played in relative obscurity at Sidner Arena in Fremont. That’s an hour and fifteen minutes away. A new rink is in the works for Lincoln, however. Thanks to a $7 million gift from a former state auditor, the new Breslow Ice Center is under construction. It’s set to open in 2014 in Lincoln’s Haymarket Park area.
Iowa Ice Hawks: A club program since 1974, Iowa has a big program numbers-wise. More than 50 players are involved, so many that the club divides its players in two: Division II for more-skilled upperclassmen and Division III, which functions more or less as a JV squad.
Hockey in Iowa City has struggled to gain traction, even online. The team’s official website isn’t functioning and the club’s page on the U of I athletics website was last updated in 2010.
One of the more unusual aspects of Hawkeye hockey is where it plays its home games.. With no on-campus rink, the Ice Hawks play at an arena across from the food court at Coral Ridge Mall in the Iowa City suburb of Coralville.
Purdue Boilermakers: Purdue has the fewest number of varsity sports in the Big Ten, 18. Don’t look for number 19 to be a Division I ice hockey team.
Hockey has some attraction in Lafayette but the prime concern, of course, is money. “We’re on the low side of sports offered and we would like to add to that,” said Purdue Assistant Athletic Director Tom Schott. “But we don’t have the funds to do that right now.” Schott wouldn’t say where ice hockey is on the school’s wish list of additional varsity sports.
Of course, a major issue for all these teams is that under Title IX, any school that adds men’s hockey must also add a women’s team, a decidedly less-attractive sport from a financial standpoint for schools in non-traditional hockey markets.
With a defenseman as marketing director and 200 to 300 fans in attendance at home games, Boilermaker hockey holds its ground but doesn’t appear fast-tracked toward varsity status any time soon.
Indiana Hoosiers: Only 106 miles to the south, Indiana University’s club team has a sharp-looking (and current) web page and a modern home. The team plays at Frank Southern Arena, which is owned by the city of Bloomington.
The team even has a four-man scouting staff that covers both coasts, the South and even western Canada. The Hoosiers are coached by former Indianapolis Ice (CHL) player Jan Jas, who played his junior hockey in western Canada and was a mainstay on the national U-16 and U-17 teams in his native Slovakia.
Hockey could be a tough sell in Bloomington, though, where Hoosier basketball is king.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Of the two universities in the Land of Lincoln, Division I hockey has the best shot in Champaign-Urbana. Illini hockey has a solid track record of success, with an undefeated national championship season in 2008. Illinois won it all in 2005, too, and was runner-up to Penn State, which began its Division I career in 2012-13, back in 2002.
There’s a decent rink, too: Illinois Ice Arena draws rabid fans and features Olympic-sized ice.
A Division I Illini team could draw from a wide area in southern and central Illinois without direct competition from anything larger except basketball. Here as everywhere, money is an obstacle. There also doesn’t appear to be a lot of support at the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics or from the alumni.
Northwestern Huskies: There’s a history of club team hockey in Evanston, too, and like all the other non-Division I hockey teams, Northwestern’s must battle the twin challenges of funding and Title IX.
The Wildcats turned in a dismal 8-20 season, winning only four times at home. That home is changing, too. After playing at Robert Crown Arena, barely five minutes from campus, head coach Brad Chamberlain’s team just announced it’s moving to Centennial Ice Rink in Highland Park for next season, primarily so it can have decent Friday/Saturday evening ice time for its games.
Northwestern hockey is going to stay at the club level for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the biggest killer to its Division I hopes is simply its location. There is a LOT of hockey in Chicago, from the NHL Blackhawks to the minor league Wolves, who play just a few miles away in Rosemont to the USHL Steel who play out in Bensenville.
Then there’s the history of Division I hockey in Chicago. The University of Illinois-Chicago gave it a good try between 1985 and 1996. Flames hockey scheduled the Gophers and other top teams but could never make a lasting impression in a very large market that is already well-fixed for places to spend the sports dollar.
The Wildcats are top cats among Windy City club teams, though. The University of Chicago managed only six players in a late-season loss. The Maroons play in a house league with team names like Neanderthals, Booze Hounds, Short Bus and Lawrence Funeral Home.
Alums Dig Deep: Any Big Ten school considering the leap to Division I hockey may have to rely on the largess of its alumni. That, after all, is what got all this started: a gift from alums that lifted the Penn State Ice Lions out of Pegula Arena and into the new Hockey Valley rink as the newly-minted Division I Nittany Lions. And that made possible a Big Ten hockey conference in the first place.