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NU varsity ice hockey? Don't bank on it

LincolnParkWildcat put up a fanpost and poll asking whether NU should elevate its club men's ice hockey team to varsity status, since the BigTen Conference announced yesterday that it likely will make ice hockey an official conference sport in 2013-14, and I thought I'd expound on this beyond what I already said in the comments.

This topic comes up every now and then, but it's gained some heightened visibility in recent months, after Penn State said last fall it is going varsity in the sport in 2012-2013. The Nittany Lions will join Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin as BigTen hockey programs. (I am qualified to write about this issue, because I played on NU's club team for two years. The highlight of my career came when I served a bench minor for us against DePaul, after we got penalized for too many men on the ice.)

Let's get into this after the jump.


While selfishly I would love for NU to make ice hockey a varsity sport, I'm highly skeptical it will happen, for a number of reasons. The biggest one is the most obvious one: we have no place to play. Northwestern would either have to build a new hockey arena for the program, or we would have to rent a facility. A new hockey arena would be expensive. I just don't see where NU, which still struggles in football and basketball attendance, would have enough money lying around to build a new stadium, fund the scholarships, pay the coaches, recruit players, buy the required equipment, etc. If we were to rent, all of the available stadiums -- the Allstate Arena, Sears Centre, UIC Pavilion and United Center (yeah, right) -- are far from Evanston, and we still wouldn't have a practice facility.

But let's suppose that the athletics facilities study that NU is currently commissioning includes a plan that would renovate Welsh-Ryan Arena so that it accommodates ice hockey, as well as basketball, and that the project has an affordable price-tag. Adding a men's ice hockey program would probably require adding a women's program, in order for NU to maintain Title IX gender-equity compliance. So now we're talking about funding two sets of coaches and 36 scholarships (18 for each gender).  

Given the roster sizes, facilities and equipment required, ice hockey is probably the second most expensive collegiate sport to support, after football, so money would always be an issue. While we definitely rake in tons of revenue thanks to the BigTen Network, I think the athletic department would find the return on investment for ice hockey difficult to justify. If NU were to add sports, which it has not indicated any plans to do so, they likely would be cheaper sports, such as men's lacrosse or men's volleyball. Which still creates Title IX issues.

(Not-so-fun fact: In 1994, NU eliminated its varsity men's fencing program for Title IX reasons. Up until the women's lacrosse program won its first national championship in 2005, the men's fencing team had been the only NU athletic program to win an NCAA title, back in 1941.)

Let's also remember that NCAA Division 1 hockey has been tried before in Chicago. The University of Illinois-Chicago fielded a moderately successful men's ice hockey program for decades, until it was discontinued in 1996, largely due to a lack of fan support and financial issues.

But maybe we can still dream a little, and while I'm skeptical it will happen, I also don't think it's entirely out of the realm of possibility. All it would take is a well-heeled alum or two or five hundred. Penn State, after all, is making the move to varsity thanks to an $88 million donation, the largest private gift in school history. If some motivated alum(ni) were to come to AD Jim Phillips with check in hand earmarked for hockey, I'm sure he'd listen.

Also, NU has some nifty hockey connections, with 1975 graduate Rocky Wirtz owning the Chicago Blackhawks and relatively new NU Senior Associate AD for External Affairs Mike Polisky formerly serving as president of the Chicago Wolves. If NU were to launch a varsity hockey program, you'd think Wirtz and Polisky would play pretty central roles.

So, while an NU varsity ice hockey program is unlikely for a myriad of pragmatic reasons, NU does have some key connections that could make us very successful in the sport. I'd rate the chances of NU going varsity at about 4 percent, based on my scientifically imprecise estimations. 

What do you think?