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Illinois Underwood Basketball (copy)

University of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman greets basketball coach Brad Underwood during a news conference at the State Farm Center in March 2017. Whitman has an ambitious agenda this year. 

CHAMPAIGN — Most of the time, Josh Whitman has to deal in reality. But this week the Illini director of athletics let us know he’s not averse to fantasizing about the “what if” possibilities that could blossom if the university can officially announce men’s hockey as the university’s 22nd intercollegiate sport.

Much as he would like to make that announcement today, Whitman and the Illini aren’t quite there yet.

“There are a couple of key partnerships to lock in,” he said. “If not, it won’t happen.”

Whitman isn’t showing his cards in the poker game going on behind the scenes. On the table is a downtown Champaign facility that is being promoted as a boon for both the university and the Champaign-Urbana community. The land would be donated. The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics would own the building. But constructing it and maintaining it come with a big price tag.

“By far the biggest challenge is the facility,” Whitman said. “We’re talking $100 million or more.”

Whitman gets asked about hockey all the time these days. There has been repeated conjecture that he’s on the brink of making an announcement, but until Whitman is satisfied that the civic and private partnerships needed to pull this off are in place, he has maintained his quiet patience.

“We hit the pause button,” he said regarding any announcements.

At his annual media roundtable this week, he announced that men’s basketball would at least temporarily suspend playing an annual game at the United Center in Chicago.

That got me thinking, and I floated my idea at Whitman.

“How about an Illini hockey game at the United Center?”

Turns out Whitman dreams bigger than that, and he quickly shot back his own ice hockey fantasy.

“How about the St. Louis Blues playing the Chicago Blackhawks in a preseason game at our new facility?”

Wow! Talk about the perfect way to introduce Downstate Illinois to big-time hockey.

The Illini athletic administration has studied the viability of hockey up and down. They’ve been strongly encouraged by the Blackhawks and the National Hockey League, who believe the University of Illinois would quickly strike a collegiate hockey bonanza as the only Division I school in the state to field a team.

Given all the time and energy Whitman and his staff have poured into this project, and the fact that there are donors anxious to participate, pulling up short of the finish line at this point would be extremely disappointing. I don’t think Whitman will let that happen.

Youth and high school hockey are big in the Chicago area, fueled by the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015. And now, with the Blues winning the Cup this season, interest in the sport is bound to explode in St. Louis. That’s two ripe recruiting areas a new Illini head coach could start mining as soon as Whitman drops the puck.

Whitman: Illinois football has "every right to expect success"

So when might this happen?

Assuming the partnerships that he speaks of come together to his satisfaction, Whitman mentioned later this summer or early in the fall as times when an announcement could come. He said the hiring of a head coach could happen this spring.

Volleyball, wrestling and men’s and women’s gymnastics would also use the new facility and a building this expensive can’t sit empty 26 weeks a year. So booking other events anxious to utilize a facility with nearby hotels, restaurants and bars would be an important part of the plan.

There are a lot of moving parts but Whitman is the kind of juggler who can pull it off.

We’re talking about building the third dynamic sports facility in the Champaign-Urbana area, joining Memorial Stadium and the State Farm Center.

Some will say a project this size is a big gamble. But I’m willing to gamble that the Illini AD doesn’t daydream about the Blues vs. Blackhawks in his city unless he believes he’s very close to making this official.

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Mark Tupper is the retired executive sports editor of the Herald & Review. He can be reached at marktupper@barbeckbb.com

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