When Jonah Copre joined the Chicago Mission youth hockey club four years ago, he noticed older players committing to play for various colleges. But something seemed off.
"I realized none of them were committing to any schools in the state," said Copre, now 16. "It was always out East or other schools in the Big Ten but none in Illinois. It was kind of weird."
Copre is right. The lack of college hockey in the state is a strange absence.
Other Midwestern states are full of Division I hockey programs for men and women. Minnesota has 10 teams (five men's, five women's), Michigan seven (all men's), Ohio four (three men's, one women's), Wisconsin two (one each) and Indiana one (the Notre Dame men's team).
Nationally, Illinois produces the fourth-most college hockey players behind Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts, but it is the only state among that group without a Division I program. (Lake Forest College and Aurora University have Division III programs.)
That's why the University of Illinois' exploration into adding an NCAA men's hockey program is considered a potential landscape changer.
"If (Illinois) just gets a fraction of these players (in the state), they'll be great," said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., an organization that advocates for college hockey and has consulted with Illinois. "It will start a pipeline and some excitement. When a team is good, people are excited. When a team is good with local players, people are really excited."
That's Illinois' hope.
Athletic director Josh Whitman said a few road blocks remain to clear but he is optimistic about bringing hockey to Champaign.
"We've come a long way in the last six months," he said in mid-July. "Early in 2019, we had several key pieces fall into place over six to eight weeks. We made a bunch of progress, then slowed down a bit.
"There's really only three or four key variables left that need to get done. If they don't work, the project won't work. They're important partners and important conversations. If we were on a 100-yard field, we're in the red zone. We're driving in."
The proposal includes building a $100 million, 5,000-seat multipurpose arena in downtown Champaign, close to student housing and convenient for community use.
For top area players, it's an if-you-build-it-we-will-come scenario. For now, committing to a Division I hockey program means one thing.
"It's basically a given that you're moving out of state," Mission coach Ted Eagle said.
Many current youth players were inspired to pick up a stick as preteens by the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup wins in 2010, '13 and '15. Snee credits that fandom for the 22,410 youths playing hockey in Illinois last year.
"The state deserves at least one Division I team," said Geno McEnery, 15, who plays for the Mission and St. Francis High School in Wheaton. "I'd be interested."
Players agreed that playing for a team in its first season would be exciting but that they don't necessarily want it to feel like a first-year program.
"It all depends on the program," McEnery said. "If it has a good staff and training facilities, I'd be excited to go there and help build it. (They need) good coaches, good teammates, training staff, physical therapy, equipment managers."
Copre, a junior at Burlington Central who said he started playing hockey "late" at age 9, is committed to play at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
"Since I was 10 years old, I wanted to play hockey out east," he said. "I know some kids get homesick. For a lot, it would be great to play for a team in Illinois. That might have persuaded me if I could go to Northwestern or Illinois if they had had a D-I team. That might have convinced me."
Grayden Daul, 16, from Glenview, committed to Wisconsin because of its proximity to home and its coaching staff, headed by Tony Granato, an NHL head or assistant coach for 13 seasons.
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"A really good coaching staff would spark players to want to go there," he said of Illinois. "A lot of kids from this area would want to stay and play."
Whitman said "literally dozens" of coaches have reached out about the potential position, including some with NHL experience.
"Within the hockey community there's an understanding of the potential the state of Illinois has to be great, and by extension the University of Illinois," Whitman said. "It would be great to go out and find that pioneer to be the first one in that chair to lead the formation of the program."
But first things first.
Unlike newer Division I programs Penn State and Arizona State, Illinois hasn't had a multimillion-dollar windfall to expedite plans. It is relying on smaller donations, sponsorships and community backing.
Penn State added hockey after a $102 million donation in 2012 from Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula. The money helped build a $90 million hockey arena and create an endowment for scholarship funds.
Arizona State received money from a group led by longtime donor Don Mullett, who gave $32 million to help create a program. The school is working on building a larger arena than the small icehouse the Sun Devils use now.
In just the fourth year of the program's existence, Arizona State this season became the first independent team since 1992 to make the NCAA Tournament and finished 15th in the national rankings. Penn State made the tournament in 2017 and 2018 and finished last season ranked 17th. The Nittany Lions consistently sell out their 6,000-seat arena.
Illinois hopes to find similar quick success -- especially in a state that's more of a hockey haven than Arizona -- but it is creating its own blueprint with the smaller donations.
"We needed to think about some creative ways to approach it," Whitman said. "It's probably more difficult than perhaps some of our peer institutions have gone through ... but if it comes to pass, it will be a much more rewarding process because there will be so many people a part of it and the partnerships will really resonate and benefit not just Illinois athletics but a cross section of our community."
Experts estimate the operating budget for hockey is second only to football in college sports, requiring between $1.5 million and $2 million to implement a program, not counting the cost of an arena.
With a maximum of 18 scholarships, facility costs, maintaining ice -- plus Title IX potentially requiring a women's sport to be added if a men's sport is created -- adding hockey can be tricky. Whitman has said Illinois wouldn't face Title IX implications because its percentage of male students outnumbers female students, but he mentioned that adding women's lacrosse one day would be appealing.
UIC's hockey program, which started in 1966 and joined Division I in 1982, melted away in 1996. The program lost about $600,000 in its final season, according to a Tribune report.
Whitman said a men's hockey program would have an annual estimated operating cost of $3 million to $3.5 million.
Illinois is working toward buying land and constructing an arena instead of leasing, as it originally considered. The arena would help offset the cost by offering youth skating and other community activities. It would also house practice facilities for the volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics programs.
Playing games at the on-campus Illinois Ice Arena, an aging rink that's home to Illinois' successful club program, would be a one-year option at the most, Whitman said.
When it comes to fundraising, Whitman said: "We've tried to frame it as the opportunity to be part of something spectacular. There's a group of people who came together in the late 1910s and early 1920s to build Memorial Stadium. There was some bold vision. Same with State Farm Center. We've talked about this being the third great arena in Champaign. In 50 years, you can look back on this building being impactful."
A similar sentiment would be used to recruit the program's first wave of players.
"It would be great to have a team here," said Mission player Xander Babich, who attends Von Steuben and plans to play hockey at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. "It could shape Illinois hockey even more. It can prove Illinois players are good enough. If we had a D-I Illinois program, it would give even more opportunities to Illinois kids."
Look at what Penn State and Arizona State have done, he said.
"Who knows what Illinois could do?" Babich said "They could take that step too."