Illinois hockey remains ‘on hold’ in pandemic’s wake
Then the pandemic happened, and everything changed.
In the spring of 2020, Illinois announced that hockey was on hold, with their athletic director calling it “a short-term pause and not a long-term no.” More than a year later, “when” is still the question, as there is no timeline for the Illini hitting the ice or if it will happen at all.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any new developments to report at this time. We are still evaluating the effects of COVID on our financial outlook,” said Warren Hood, the deputy director of athletics at Illinois, in an email exchange with The Rink Live.
Like what happened at many, many other schools around the county, the pandemic and the loss of most ticket revenue for a year played havoc with the school’s athletic budget, meaning that adding a high profile sport like hockey is not likely to happen in the immediate future.
“We finished the fiscal year with a deficit and the uncertainty surrounding the Delta variant has caused us to continue to pause on this endeavor,” Hood said. “Hopefully we will have some clarity later this year.”
A key to the notion that Illinois could and would add hockey and generate revenue from the program was the construction of a 5,000-seat arena in downtown Champaign, Ill., that would be within walking distance of the campus and would serve as the home rink for the Illini and the home court for their volleyball program. That project remains on hold as well. But the school is not giving up on the idea of a D-I hockey program, and is committed to at least exploring the idea some more.
In a June interview with Scott Richey of the News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said the project remains alive for discussion.
“We were very, very close to green lighting hockey,” Whitman told the News-Gazette. “There’s no question about that. Because of how close we were, I feel obligated to restart the conversations and reassess and see where are we at this point.”
The school has a very popular and successful club program, which plays in a Great Depression-era on-campus rink with seating for 1,200. The Illini club team has felt the pandemic impact as well. The arena was temporarily closed for ice events while it was being used as a COVID vaccine venue, but will reopen for sports in late August.