Watch now: Illinois State hockey thriving as club sport | Hockey

BLOOMINGTON – While professional and junior level hockey teams have arrived at and departed from the Bloomington-Normal sports landscape in recent years, the Illinois State Hockey Club has been a consistent presence.

“We’re the oldest continually run club program at ISU,” said Michael Hernbrott, who coaches ISU’s Division II team. “We’ve been around since 1969, and we have a strong alumni association.”

Being a club program and not a varsity sport, it does not receive direct funding from ISU but is allowed to use the nickname Redbirds as part of the university’s clubs and recreation department and has a faculty advisor.

ISU has approximately 80 players spread across three teams that could loosely be compared to varsity, junior varsity and freshman levels.

While the NCAA has hockey at the Divisions I, II and III levels, ISU is part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

“Division I programs would beat a lot of NCAA Division III programs.” Hernbrott said. “At the Division I level, a lot of those players have gone to junior hockey so they don’t come to school until they’re 20 years old.”

ISU moved its top team from Division II to I for the 2014-15 season, shifted its D3 team to D2 and added a new D3 exhibition squad.

“We were at the top of the food chain in Division II. It was hard to find good, competitive games in the Central Region, ”said Hernbrott. “This year is technically the first year our Division III team has competed and they won their conference championship.”

Hernbrott’s D2 team was ranked 13th in the Central Region and competed in the regional tournament in late February in Onalaska, Wisconsin. The Redbirds defeated Bradley 7-6 in overtime before being eliminated as a top 10 team in the region.

Coached by Chris Prewitt, the Division I squad advanced to the Midwest College Hockey League championship game before being ousted. Rick Nagorski’s D3 group won the Bronze championship in the Mid American Collegiate Hockey Association and will move up a level to Silver next season.

While players tend to stay with the same team throughout the season to foster unity, if a player shows the ability to help a higher level team he might be promoted.

ISU has a dedicated locker room at Grossinger Motors Arena in downtown Bloomington. The team plays mostly in the main arena but could hold games at the adjacent Bloomington Ice Center if another event was scheduled.

“After the schedule is done for ISU hockey, that allows game ice for youth hockey teams,” said Hernbrott, who is also the manager of the Bloomington Ice Center. “ISU hockey is important to the community and our youth hockey groups.”

ISU hockey’s recruiting benefits from the longevity and reputation of its program.

“The school is our No. 1 recruiting tool. We have an excellent school, ”Hernbrott said. “We do focus mainly on the Chicago area. The last few years St. Louis has been a big area for us as well, and we have some kids from Wisconsin. “

ISU’s connections throughout the Midwest lead coaches to “reach out with kids they think are the right fit for us. We’ve been around for a long time. Most of the people in the hockey community are very well aware of our organization. “

Now that its season is completed, ISU will hold prospect camps later in March to allow potential recruits to get acquainted with the program and skate with current players.

ISU hockey does have revenue sources in ticket sales and merchandise, but primary funding comes from the pay to play nature of club hockey.

Redbird Division I players pay $ 3,500 a year with Division II at $ 3,000 and the Division III fee $ 2,800.

“They were probably paying a lot more money at youth hockey programs,” Hernbrott said. “That can be up to $ 10,000.”

Hernbrott believes ISU hockey will continue to flourish.

“We’ve grown to three teams, and they are all very competitive at their level,” he said. “We would like to add a women’s team in the next few years.”

Illini program stalled

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois was set on announcing a varsity hockey program. Then the COVID pandemic hit.

It upended the economy, and therefore a lot of funding and operations to build the team and the downtown stadium central to the team’s invention, so plans had to be put on pause in March of 2020.

“We were two weeks away from announcing that we were going to add varsity hockey and move forward with the downtown facility and then COVID hit,” Associate director of athletics Kent Brown said. “And so everything was put on hold and just recently, within the last few months, discussions have again kind of started with the different parties that were involved with that to indicate where everybody was at from a funding standpoint, from a programmatic standpoint, from a property and development standpoint. And so there’s really no changes to that. At this point, other than, you know, we’ve started those discussions to kind of reset. “

Last June, athletic director Josh Whitman announced those efforts were put back into motion but there is still a ways to go. The athletic department is reopening conversations with local officials and entities to start the stadium as well as the addition of the varsity team, but there is no specific timetable attached to the status of the project.

Since the process is in the beginning stages, a timeline for decision making or next steps is also a work in progress.

“I think it’s too early,” Brown said “That’s one of the things that when we were going through this before, Josh, many times said that we hope to have a decision by the end of the school year, and it was by the end of the calendar year, then it was by the end of the school year and we kept pushing that. So I think it’s probably more prudent right now, just to say that we’re exploring it and we don’t really have a firm timeline in place right now. “

The recruiting base would help Illinois be competitive if it decides to introduce a team, with the state producing 16 active NHL players which is fifth in the country. In a 2020 study by College Hockey Inc, Illinois produced the fifth-most Division I players with 76. A lot of those players come from the Chicago metro area and nearby suburbs, which is in the Illini’s backyard.

Illinois would join six other Big Ten schools in having hockey programs. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Minnesota each have varsity teams. Notre Dame also competes in the Big Ten exclusively in hockey.

The downtown arena is one of the most important elements of starting the team, and the project is viewed as going hand-in-hand with introducing the varsity team. The arena would also host volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics events as well. Those teams currently compete at Huff Hall.

“I think it’s pretty clear they need to be tied together,” Brown said.

The idea of ​​an Illini hockey team is popular among local hockey fans, according to Ross Bareksten, hockey director of the Decatur Youth Hockey Association

“I think it would be great for the region and I know the people around Decatur would support it to see DI hockey around the region,” he said. “I think it would do tremendous things for the area and help develop kids and keep them on the ice.”

The financial piece of the venue becomes one of the most important steps to that going through. There are a lot of public entities like the local transit authority and developers involved with a parking structure near the new arena as well as the building of the arena itself.

That also would include donations and some private funding. With the economic impact of COVID, there is still a feeling out period to see if the same kind of donations and funds would be available from the same places. That will go a long way in deciding the status and timetable of the project.

“Things will continue to need to clarify themselves, obviously, on the financial side for us, but I expect for many of our partners as well,” Whitman said at his latest media roundtable in June. “So we’ll come back to it.”

Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: pg_reinhardt

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