Talk in club hockey says that Jimmy John's founder Jimmy John Liautaud could be looking at funding Illinois' jump from club to DI hockey.
Jimmy John's is headquartered in Champaign, Ill., also the home of the University of Illinois. Liautaud is a native of Illinois.
OK so initial excitement over, at this point it's still quite a long shot that U of I adds D1 hockey, but it's the first anything that I've heard about it. Far be it from me to take one random tweet as fact, but you can bet I'll be following this closely. Growing the Big 10 hockey league can only be good for the game.
It's been a rumor for a while now, but very interesting if this actually comes to fruition. But it's a long shot, as there's no way that the Big Pond is viable as a Division I arena, and there hasn't been any real news about building either a specific ice arena for a varsity team or building a replacement to the Assembly Hall that could be basketball and hockey functional, other than a rumor here and there that doesn't go anywhere. If Jimmy's actually interested in donating towards funding a varsity hockey team, it's not going to be in the millions of dollars but the tens of millions to make it at all possible.
I'd absolutely love if it happened, as the Illini club hockey team is the team I've seen the most live, by far, but not holding my breath any time this decade, unfortunately.
So I’ve really be trying to hunt over the web for rumors of the University of Illinois getting a NCAA division 1 team. Their ACHA team has been good for quite some time. People have always mentioned rumors of how they were likely to upgrade the program, largely due to the success of the team I’d imagine. I found a pretty interesting plotline that may have also contributed to those rumors. Forgive the long post as I was taking notes as I tracked all this info down. Plenty of links for anyone who really wants to dig into the story as well.
The Danville Wings were in the NAHL from 1993 through 2003. Danville is a smaller town easty of Champaign Urbana by a little more than half an hour. Lou Mervis, a prominent local businessman, was the owner and Josh Mervis (Lou's son) was the GM. They upgraded for the 03-04 season to the USHL.
July 2003 Blagojevich signs the Downstate Sports Facility Act, which would allow interested townships to sell bonds for the purposes of building arenas then tax local hotels to recoup the investment. Mervis is interested in relocating the Wings to Champaign with a newly built arena. 7/23/2003 - Blagojevich signs 2 bills in visit to UI
The Wings struggle to make a profit. In June 2003 Lou Mervis was helping to push the idea of building a new ice arena on the south end of Champaign / Urbana to be a new home for his USHL team. The arena was supposed to seat 4,000 as well as be a multiuse facility for conferences. This was planning that was taking place due to pending legislation in IL that would help offset costs with a hotel tax. 6/8/2003 - Convention center, ice rinks on drawing board
In April 2004 current owner of the Wings, Lou Mervis, sold the franchise to Paul Skjodt who moved them to Indianapolis. Mervis cited $500,000 operating loss. Attendance per the league policy was supposed to be 1,600 but the Wings only averaged 964. Skjodt became the new owner and Josh Mervis stayed on in his current role as GM. The franchise became known as the Indianapolis Ice. 4/20/2004 - Wings relocating to Indianapolis
By May 2004, the financial planning has been dragging on. U of I is willing to donate land and cover a small amount of cost, but Champaign and Urbana argue over who covers what expenses and who is likely to see increased revenue due to hotel / conference related revenue. Mervis has purchased another USHL franchise and still wants to put a USHL team in Champaign. 1/29/2004 - New ice arena has funding gap 5/5/2004 - Funding plans for ice rink detailed
As of March 2005 the project still hasn’t died. The rink was part of the overall Research Park development process, but U of I decides to split this out as its own project. New development sites are looked at. 3/4/2005 - Proposed ice arena could end up in Urbana
I lose track here. I couldn’t find any new progress about putting a large arena in Champaign. I assume that the finances stayed deadlocked and interest just died out for the most part.
February 2010 it’s announced that Muskegon will be an expansion franchise in the USHL owned and operated by the Mervis family. “We spent a lot of time and effort exploring multiple cities that would be a solid USHL market, but Muskegon clearly established itself as not only the right fit for us, but for the League,” said Josh Mervis. No kidding. 2/16/2010 - USHL Expands to Muskegon, Michigan for 2010-11
So while this story isn’t directly related to U of I getting a team, had this worked out I can only imagine they would have. With an arena in place it would have been operating costs, scholarships, and balancing Title IX. No small act, but the biggest hurdle would have been out of the way. The arena wouldn’t have been as large as other Big 10 teams, but something is better than nothing, right?
The problem is that the arena in Danville is 30+ minutes away, as well as the fact that the current rink on campus is a joke. You can't have a team practicing on ice that size daily and then playing games on a regular size (or even olympic size) rink and expect them to be successful, nor can you put student athletes on buses for an hour-plus a day when you have limited contact hours per week, or for that matter, make them drive themselves an hour a day to practice. Until there is a rink on campus capable of supporting real college hockey, Illinois will not have real college hockey.
Yeah, no chance that Illinois would start a Division I team without the arena in Champaign-Urbana, and that won't happen until the economy improves a bit and Illinois starts up a new major capital projects drive, likely to build the long-rumored replacement to the Assembly Hall.
Yeah mixed feelings. It sucks to know that they tried to get an arena on campus. But it would have likely only held 3,000 - 4,000. Call me greedy but I'm kinda glad it didn't pass. A Big 10 program should have a larger arena than that. If they did build a smaller one like they tried, no way they would have built a larger one too. Hopefully the thinking has shifted a bit now that Big 10 hockey is in place.
Also I'm not holding out hopes for the Assembly Hall renovation project. It's still in the early stages, but I haven't heard anything about ice.