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NCAA eyes expansion with interest from Illinois, Pitt

There’s an appetite for NCAA expansion, and if the money is there to support it, from a Terry Pegula-like figure, Illinois and Pitt might be the first new entries.

At the draft in Chicago this past weekend, college hockey got its place in the sun. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Mathieu Schneider of the NHLPA, Pat Kelleher of USA Hockey and John McDonough of the host Blackhawks were among the speakers brought together to announce an initiative that will hopefully help more American schools get Division 1 hockey.

Needless to say, the focus of the press conference was on the University of Illinois, a Big Ten school that would fit perfectly in college hockey’s landscape and become the first D1 program in the state since the UIC Flames bowed out in 1996.

Based on the participation rates – only five states have more registered players than Illinois – it’s practically criminal that the state has gone without a team for so long. But it’s not easy to fund such an endeavor these days. Basically, you need a Terry Pegula. The Buffalo Sabres owner and his wife, Kim, funded the Penn State hockey program, which shook up the entire NCAA a few years ago and helped form the Big Ten conference. Pegula, who also spoke at the press conference in Chicago, noted that he and his wife had a three-pronged goal with their $102 million donation back in 2012: 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. So far, the Nittany Lions have been a huge success, particularly on the men’s side, where this past season’ edition was briefly the No. 1 team in the nation and made its first Frozen Four tournament. And the locals have bought in.

“In 74 games, we’ve had 72 sell-outs,” Pegula said. “This year we played to 104 percent capacity. I think that speaks for itself.”

Yes it does. It certainly paints a rosy picture and with Arizona State joining the ranks recently (thanks to a cadre of donors, including businessman Don Mullet), there’s a lot of buzz around expanding the NCAA’s ranks. The other guest of honor in Chicago was University of Illinois director of athletics Josh Whitman. He was both enthusiastic and measured in his words.

“I see the opportunity to be great at hockey,” he said. “That all said, there are more questions than answers right now. We have a long road ahead of us.”

Indeed, someone has to pay for all this stuff. And a small part of that was the thrust behind the press conference. The NHL and NHLPA will use its Industry Growth Fund to help with feasibility studies for any school that wishes to explore D1 college hockey and I’ve been told that such studies cost about $20,000 each. But knowing you can support college hockey versus knowing you can pay for it is very different. That’s when you need a Pegula.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: From what I’ve been told, the Blackhawks aren’t the only NHL team trying to drum up interest in college hockey. High-ranking executives with the Penguins have apparently already been laying the groundwork to help the University of Pittsburgh (aka Pitt) go D1 in the future. Do they have a Pegula? The rumor is they might.

Now, this is not going to happen overnight. It may be years before we see the Pitt Panthers in Division 1, but it certainly makes sense. Pittsburgh has become a huge hockey town thanks to the Sidney Crosby-era Penguins and numerous NHL young guns, from John Gibson to Brandon Saad, have come from the area recently.

Pitt would also have a natural landing spot in Hockey East, where schools such as Boston College, UConn and Providence College would be familiar from past or present basketball and football rivalries. With Notre Dame joining the Big Ten, Hockey East now has an uneven 11 teams and while adding another program won’t be forced, it sure would make things easier in the future from a scheduling perspective.

All this gets me excited. With grassroots hockey continuing to grow in the U.S. and more European players signing up to play NCAA, the sport can support more teams (it’s also a fabulous incubator for talent on the women’s side). I know Rutgers is working hard on stepping up and that’s another Big Ten school, while expansion into California (UCLA, Stanford, Cal, USC) seems inevitable at some point. And I know I’m not alone on this one.

“By expanding our footprint,” Bettman said, “we can inspire new players and their families.”

Even if most folks prefer booing the man, there’s nothing wrong with his thoughts on this topic.


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