By Ryan Lund
Miami University freshman Louie Belpedio was still a few months shy of the delivery room the last time a Division I college hockey team represented the state of Illinois.
A product of Skokie and youth hockey powerhouse Team Illinois, Belpedio is one of 61 Illinois natives competing on Division I teams across the country, more than all but four other states in the U.S.
However, while top talent producers Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts and New York all boast at least five NCAA Division I programs, college hockey at its highest level has been conspicuously absent in Illinois for nearly 20 years.
“I think that college hockey would draw a lot of Chicago kids to go to [an Illinois school], no different than Minnesota, where the majority of their kids are from that state,” Belpedio said.
Illinois has seen its youth hockey totals surge in recent years, jumping from just under 22,000 players in 2009, to nearly 28,000 players in 2013, according to enrollment statistics released by USA Hockey.
The timeline parallels the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup revival, and the numbers are still growing.
USA Hockey’s enrollment records show that 29,977 players registered to play in Illinois last year, up 7.8 percent from the previous year.
But despite a surplus of top players, Illinois remains a flyover state on college hockey’s western landscape, a gaping hockey hole surrounded by programs like Notre Dame, Miami-Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
College hockey across the country
“I think that Illinois produces some really good hockey players, and the success of the programs in Illinois is great at all the different age levels, not just one or two,” Belpedio said.
And the players aren’t the only ones to have noticed Illinois’ rise.
Detroit-native Larry Pedrie coached the most recent Illinois entry through its final seasons, leading the University of Illinois-Chicago from 1990 until the program’s demise in 1996.
Despite a four-year playing career at Michigan’s Ferris State University and a lengthy college coaching resume, the Chicago resident isn’t afraid to compare his adopted home to the city known as “Hockeytown.”
“When you look at the players that have come out of Detroit and Chicago, and you compare them with the players that have come out of Minnesota, and then out east, I think that the players here are as good as the players anywhere,” Pedrie said.
Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes and markets the game to prospective recruits, said that Illinois is on his short list when it comes to hockey states that lack an NCAA program.
“Illinois and California are co-number ones in terms of the state,” he said. “We haven’t received any contact from any school in either state though.”
College Hockey Inc. also provides information to prospective hockey schools on how best to begin competing in the costly sport.
It took $88 million – the single largest donation in Penn State history – to lift the Nittany Lions from so-called “club” status to Division I back in 2012.
More than 2,000 miles away, in sweltering Tempe, Arizona State will attempt to make the transition in 2017 with less than half of that amount, a comparatively paltry $36 million.
“As you start to think about all of the expenses involved, it isn’t necessarily just travel,” Snee said. “It’s also the facilities, the scholarships, the opportunity costs and then, in addition, being Title IX compliant.”
While financial hurdles certainly played a role in UIC’s decision to drop hockey 19 years ago, Pedrie said that the program’s issues ran much deeper.
Shuttered just 14 years after their inception, the Flames were unable to bring the nation’s top talent to Chicago.
“For kids that were looking for a traditional campus, who wanted things to do on the weekends, you just didn’t have that at UIC,” Pedrie said. “It was a commuter school, it’s still a commuter school, and when we would bring kids in for visits I think that was visible.
Today, recruiting would likely take a backseat to other problems inherent in starting a major hockey program.
Tom Wendlandt, Director of Hockey Operations at Robert Morris University-Illinois, said the school considered elevating its highly successful American Collegiate Hockey Association program to NCAA status several years ago, but that the logistics of the move were problematic.
“We’ve had such a great success in building our brand at Robert Morris via athletics that we took a very serious look at moving to the NCAA maybe seven or eight years ago,” Wendlandt said.
Wendlandt said he encountered tough standards at the conference level, where league officials told him RMU would need to spend more than a decade competing in the NCAA before it would be allowed to join its college hockey neighbors Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Spending a large chunk of its schedule traveling beyond the Midwest by joining another conference just wasn’t a viable option.
“You’re either going to need to play independent, or you’re going to have to play in a league with Mercyhurst and Niagara and your travel expenses are going to be outrageous,” Wendlandt said.
Meanwhile, RMU’s American Collegiate Hockey Association squad competes outside of the NCAA, in the same league that helped vault Penn State and ASU into the national spotlight, and where it has found substantial success.
A 17-year veteran of the RMU hockey scene, Wendlandt is tired of seeing his teams misrepresented due to their lack of NCAA credentials.
“Club is a four-letter word as far as I’m concerned,” Wendlandt said. “The ACHA has spent a good deal of time working to build its own brand.”
Established in 1991 as an alternative to the NCAA game, the organization included nearly 400 men’s programs spread across three divisions in last season, as well as 36 women’s programs.
“We have our own national governing body. We’re affiliated with USA Hockey,” he said. “We send an all-star team to the World University Games that wear the USA sweater.”
However, the Illinois hockey scene continues to produce a large contingent of college hockey players, and NCAA schools like Miami, post-season bound at 13-13-1 with six Illinois players on the roster, continue to put them to good use.
“I couldn’t say a single bad thing about [Miami],” Belpedio said. “I don’t think that I could have made a better choice.