Gloom, doom and uncertainty have walked hand-in-hand with college athletics since March 12, the day the NCAA pulled the plug on its sports. Among the depressing developments were forecasts of revenue losses of $75 million; programs, like men’s soccer at Cincinnati, being eliminated; and student-athletes denied the chance to live out their dreams in their senior seasons.
We still don’t know when fall sports – including the revenue lynchpin known as football -- will begin and what form they will take. With all the bad news, it seems as if we’ve been waiting on a sunny day.
Maybe we got one in the hockey world on Thursday.
Long Island University, a private school with an enrollment of 15,000 based in Brookville, N.Y., and other campuses, announced it was adding NCAA Division I hockey as a sport with the ambitious goal of beginning play in the 2020-21 season. The move came as a surprise to many in the college hockey world.
Long Island’s women’s program played its inaugural season in 2019-20, and the addition of the Sharks men’s team would give Division I its 61st men’s program and first newcomer since Arizona State in 2015-16.
“NCAA Division I men’s hockey is one of the most exciting sports out there,’’ LIU athletic director William Martinov Jr. said in a statement, “and we are pleased to be able to provide another opportunity for young hockey players nationwide.’’
The news was welcome to Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., which promotes the sport and works with schools on establishing varsity programs.
“Any growth of the game is good, and it’s exciting to see schools add hockey,’’ said Snee, whose group wasn’t involved with LIU’s move to Division I. “It’s exciting news for our sport.’’
Long Island’s announcement comes 10 days after the school considered to be the odds-on favorite to be the next to add Division I men’s hockey – Illinois – put its plans on a temporary hold. Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said the school was prepared to announce hockey as early as May, but fallout from the COVID-19 crisis scuttled those plans. Complicating matters is funding for a proposed facility in downtown Champaign that carries a price tag of roughly $50 million for a multisport arena to house hockey.
“I’m hopeful that it’s a short-term pause and not a long-term no,” Whitman told the Champaign News-Gazette.
Snee, whose group worked with school officials and the NHL on a feasibility study for hockey at Illinois, remains optimistic that the state with the fourth-most Division I players will have a Division I team in the future.
“What I believe [Whitman] still sees and is very encouraging is the reasons why they were considering and very close to adding hockey don’t go away,’’ Snee said. “Illinois is a great hockey state, and they have tremendous fans of the sport in that state and the community of Champaign-Urbana. All those ingredients that they assessed before the pandemic will still be there post-pandemic.
“The idea that they can have a very successful college hockey team both on and off the ice pretty quickly – like Penn State quick – will still be there,’’ he added.
Another team that is considered to be on the cusp of becoming Division I in men’s hockey is St. Thomas, which is seeking to move all its teams from Division III to D-I since it’s being kicked out of the MIAC after the 2020-21 season. The NCAA’s Division I Council was scheduled to consider creating a direct pathway for D-III teams to move to D-I during an April 23-24 meeting, but that was postponed until at least June because of the pandemic.
That leaves Long Island to give us that new hockey team vibe. The Sharks will have a tremendous challenge in order to slap on their power-blue-and-yellow uniforms and play this coming season. They don’t yet have a coach, players or schedule, and five months isn’t much time to address so many questions.
Still, a ray of hockey sunshine, even with some questions, is welcome in these tumultuous times.