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Should Kansas Add Division One Ice Hockey?

Kansas obviously has tremendous basketball tradition. Forget the national and conference championships, forget the All-Americans, forget having one of the best arenas in all of sports; the inventor of the sport coached here. Even without all of the other stuff, that cinches Kansas as one of the most tradition rich schools in America. Add in the rest and it's gravy.

While it's obviously not as rich as the basketball tradition, this area has quite a rich tradition in hockey as well. Various semipro teams from the Kansas City Pla-Mors (1927-1933) to today's Wichita Thunder, who play in the CHL.

While professional and semiprofessional ice hockey is great, there is a version of hockey that is even better: college hockey. As an alum of the University of North Dakota, which, to make a simplistic comparison, is sort of like the Kansas of college hockey, I am obviously biased. But I also have been exposed to the best that college hockey has to offer, seeing guys like Jonathan Toews before he became an Olympic gold medalist and Stanley Cup winner, and I think division one hockey would be a fantastic addition to Kansas.

There are, of course, a number of hurdles in doing so. The first is Title IX, which, to provide a simplistic explanation, requires proportional athletic representation between men and women. Kansas does offer three sports only for women (soccer, swimming & diving, tennis) but without looking up the exact financials I'm not sure whether KU would have to add another women's program (e.g. hockey) or perhaps cut a men's program, but regardless that hurdle is there.

The second is that of funding. There is currently no hockey facility on campus (or even in Lawrence as far as I am aware), and those facilities are obviously very expensive. The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) recently announced plans to build a new arena, a project that will require about $25 million, and Penn State recently announced plans to add the sport altogether, a project that was undertaken with the help of an $88 million donationfrom alum and Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula. Both arenas will feature a maximum of 6,000 seats, with RIT's probably closer to 4,000. Even though Kansas is a far bigger school than RIT, it likewise should keep its arena small. It not only would lower the price tag, but would improve the atmosphere. Only four schools (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota) have arenas with a capacity of more than 10,000, and only North Dakota's is used almost exclusively for hockey. I would set the capacity at 5,000 and even that may be an overestimation.

If the $88 million that Penn State got to start the program is the price tag for KU's as well, it is a tough hurdle, but hardly impossible to overcome. The 2009 Allen Fieldhouse renovations (which weren't that extensive) cost around $8 million, and were part of a $42 million project that included a practice facility, and TCU recently announced a renovation plan for its football stadium that would surpass the $100 million mark.

Once that arena was built (and I think 25 million or so is very doable) there is of course the cost of upkeep. Hockey facilities can run in the six figures for upkeep each year, but the upkeep of an Olympic sized swimming pool can cost $250,000 in upkeep as well. Robinson Natatorium doesn't have an Olympic sized pool, but it does have to separate pools of nearly the same area (one is 25 meters, one is 25 yards), so the upkeep costs are, I imagine, relatively similar.

Kansas likely wouldn't be making that money back from ticket sales, at least at first: the average program loses about $350,000 a year, but that pales in comparison to baseball, where the average program loses over $500,000 a year. With Kansas being one of the weaker programs in the nation, that number is probably much higher. And it's important to note that it is not permanently a non-revenue sport: at several schools, such as the aforementioned North Dakota and Colorado College, hockey revenues are the main source of funding for the athletic department. But that is not confined to the small schools: Michigan's hockey ticket revenue recently outpaced its basketball revenue by about $1 million.

The unsettled nature of college hockey right now provides the perfect backdrop for a big school such as Kansas to add a program. With Penn State's announcement of going Division 1, it and the other five hockey playing schools in the Big 10 (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State) broke off from their respective conferences (WCHA, CCHA) to form the Big 10 hockey conference, which will begin play in the 2013-14 season. In response to that, eight former WCHA and CCHA schools (Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan) formed the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The result is that the WCHA and CCHA had to scramble, and now the WCHA will feature nine schools starting that season. The largest school of that bunch is Bowling Green, and adding Kansas not only gives the WCHA a 10th member it is probably looking for, but also legitimacy as well.

The problem here is travel: It is roughly 750 miles to Bowling Green, and that is (I believe) the shortest trip. The trip to Houghton, Michigan, where Michigan Tech is located, is 814 miles (and it is a notoriously tough place to get to). And don't even get me started on the trips to Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Which leads me to another idea, and perhaps a shot in the dark one: What about the NCHC? While it has two of the biggest hockey powers in the country in North Dakota and Denver, they lack the big name schools that the Big 10 and Hockey East (Boston College as well as Notre Dame, who will be joining the conference in 2013) have. While Kansas lacks the name recognition of a Michigan or Ohio State, it would still be the largest school in the conference, and while it would be a bit of a logistics problem with nine teams, Hockey East operated with nine teams for many years, and the travel is far easier. (to Omaha it is just over 200 miles, and to Denver it is just over 550 miles).

Being the first Big 12 school to add hockey would get Kansas ahead of the curve. With the addition of NHL teams in Texas and Arizona, youth hockey is exploding in participation. Texas alone has gone from about 6,500 players registered with USA Hockey in 2002-03, to over 11,000 last year. And that is just officially registered players. If Kansas is the first Big 12 school to offer hockey, and the second in the region (Alabama-Huntsville has Division 1 hockey but they are currently set to be reclassified back to club hockey, so Kansas would be the only D1 program South of Nebraska), they will be in the minds of each player growing up in that region. While the best of the best, such as Plano's Seth Jones, son of former NBAer Popeye and possible 2013 #1 overall pick, will still likely pursue either major junior hockey in Canada or more elite NCAA programs, the emerging stable of perhaps not elite but capable division 1 hockey players will grow up with Kansas being the only school in their area offering hockey. Once Texas adds the sport, which I believe is coming sooner rather than later, they will obviously be a big player, but if they wait even 5 years after Kansas adds hockey a generation of players will grow up with Kansas being the biggest show in town, and probably their best route to a college degree as well as possibly a professional career.

Just for fun, my dream coach (realistically) is Providence Head Coach Nate Leaman. Leaman built Union, a Division 3 school that doesn't even offer athletic scholarships, from virtually nothing into one of the best programs in their conference. Last year, with a team built by Leaman, Union won their conference for the first time ever and advanced to the NCAA tournament. At Providence, Leaman has the Friars currently in 6th in the 10 team Hockey East, and their 10 conference wins are already more than double what they had all of last year, and double what they had in 09-10, when they finished last.

Regardless of who they would pick to run the program, adding ice hockey would be a positive step for the school. While the atmosphere won't be Allen Fieldhouse like, it will be a great atmosphere and I have never met someone who said they didn't like hockey or at least have a better opinion of it after going to their first game. Hockey would be a fantastic addition to the school as well as the community, and if we act quickly we can benefit both on and off the ice.