It is a question that has surrounded fans for the past few years: “Will the Big Ten hockey conference ever expand, and who will step up?”
Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves re-ignited the conversation in an interview with the Journal Sentinel. In the interview, Eaves expressed his desire to see the six-team conference grow in the near future, and listed Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern as potential additions.
After its first year of existence, the Big Ten hockey conference has come off as a huge success. The Big Ten Network is reporting a boost in viewers thanks to their Friday night hockey coverage, and overall interest in college hockey has risen.
While the Big Ten is focusing on improving on what it already has, one cannot help but wonder what other schools may be in a position to make the jump a decade down the road when the conference is a bit more firmly established. Make no mistake, there are large barriers that have to be overcome, namely Title IX and money. But if Big Ten hockey establishes itself as a popular niche and strong revenue stream, institutions would have to give serious thought towards adding D1 hockey.
Here are my top four schools that could conceivably elevate their hockey program to the Varsity level in the next 10-12 years.
University of Illinois
The Illini would almost certainly be the first to make the jump to D1. First and foremost is their location. The state of Illinois has recently become a hotbed for hockey talent (even rivaling Michigan) and the sport has now become even more relevant with the resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks. The argument that some have made that UI would be unable to recruit players is now a mute one.
The second reason is that the groundwork is already there. The Illini have a stellar club team that already looks and plays like a D1 varsity team; similar to Penn State before they made the jump. Home sell outs are common, and the team is highly regarded both on campus and in the club hockey community.
The Illini also already have an on campus rink to play in, known as “The Big Pond”. While the rink would require substantial renovations to bring it up to league standards, it would not be the biggest challenge. Illinois could also consider building a new rink if it would be a cheaper option.
Finally, the value of a D1 hockey team at Illinois would be crucial to getting students interested in UI athletics again. With Illinois drawing a lot of students from the Chicago area, coupled with the fact that hockey is now a relevant sport in the state could yield a kind of hockey renaissance that could re-spark some interest (and pride) in Illini athletics again.
Venue(s): University of Illinois Ice Arena aka “The Big Pond” (requires renovation), Unknown facility
Possible student section name: Illinicers
Distinguishing feature: The Blue Line (everyone dresses in blue).
Potential Rivals: Ohio State, Northwestern*
* If they move up to D1
The second team that would likely make the jump to D1 varsity would be the Northwestern Wildcats. Seeing as Illinois is Northwestern’s biggest rival, it makes sense that the Cats would want to get a D1 program going should their neighbors in Champaign make the jump.
Like Illinois, Northwestern benefits greatly from its location. The campus is located in Evanston, which is just a short drive north of Chicago. In fact, Mike Eaves recently revealed that Chris Chelios (father of MSU hockey alums Jake and Dean Chelios) is part of a study group looking into the possibility of hockey at Northwestern. The interest is definitely there, and it seems that the Cats are seriously thinking about D1 hockey in Evanston.
While the Wildcats’ club team is not on the same level as Illinois, it still could make the jump. The biggest obstacle Northwestern is facing right now is the foundation. They would need strong funding in order to build a rink and pay for the scholarships.
But they have another resource they can draw upon. Northwestern’s alumni base includes Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks. It is not too much of a stretch to think that Wirtz would be interested in helping his alma mater get a hockey team off the ground. Plus an association between a Northwestern hockey team and the Chicago Blackhawks would be momentous.
Possible student section name: Wildside (It’s the same for all varsity sports at NU).
Distinguishing feature: Waving purple and white balloons non-stop.
Potential Rivals: Illinois*, Wisconsin
* If they move up to D1
University of Nebraska
Nebraska, may be a pick that is surprising, but the Huskers have promising potential. In fact, the hockey conversation is not new to Lincoln, as many people have been discussing the issue for over a year.
Helping Nebraska’s cause is the fact that their current club team will soon play in a brand new ice arena on campus, and Pinnacle Bank Arena (where the Huskers play basketball) is ice compatible.
While Nebraska may not be in the best hockey market, there is still an interest in the sport in both Omaha and in Lincoln, who are home to several junior teams. However, hockey is still a niche sport in Nebraska, and while Big Red has a lot of clout in the west, it may be a tough sell when competing against North Dakota, Denver and others for recruits.
The other problems facing Nebraska is Title IX and money; that, and the fact that Nebraska’s athletic director has repeatedly shot down the idea. I do not see Nebraska as willing to take the initial plunge into D1 varsity hockey, but they could easily follow other schools that do. But before that happens, Big Ten hockey will have to become both financially attractive and popularly accepted.
Venue(s): Pinnacle Bank Arena, Breslow Ice Center (in construction)
Possible student section name(s): The Penalty Box, The Back 40
Distinguishing feature: Wearing big, red, foam hats (like the one Herbie Husker wears).
Possible Rivals: Wisconsin
Indiana is the last school on my list simply for the fact that it is Indiana. The state of Indiana has very little hockey interest. Basketball is king in the Hoosier State, just as it is king at IU. Despite this, Indiana’s club hockey program enjoys a small, but passionate following on campus and has been able to hold their own in D2 play. In addition, they have made it a policy of representing Indiana University just like any other varsity team despite their status as a club team.
The Hoosiers have the steepest hill to climb in terms of supporting a D1 hockey team. In-state recruits would be scarce and it would take a while for IU to get a competitive team on the ice.
Secondly, a brand new arena would have to be built to accommodate the hockey team, which would skyrocket the already high costs of granting new scholarships.
Despite all of these challenges, the Hoosiers could potentially field a D1 hockey team, but only if the rewards greatly out ran the costs. Even then, Indiana would probably wait until other Big Ten schools elevated their programs and experienced some success.
Possible student section name: The Crimson Club
Defining feature: Chanting “Who’s your daddy?” at the opposing goaltender after every IU goal.
Possible rivals: Michigan State, Illinois*
*If they move up to D1
Jason Ruff is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports
Photo: Jonathan Yales/Impact Sports