Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Remembering the Illinois-Chicago Flames

The NCAA Men's Division I Hockey Frozen Four is being contested at the United Center in Chicago this week, with Denver, Harvard, Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame all vying for a national championship. Chicago itself, however, hasn't had a Division I team of its own on ice in over 20 years.

The University of Illinois-Chicago eliminated its men’s hockey program in 1996 after 30 years of competition, first as a club and then a varsity team. The Flames had been a member of the equally-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association for 14 years when the axe fell due to financial woes, and other constraints that kept attendance down at the UIC Pavilion. The Flames also hadn’t recorded a winning record since 1988-89 when they went 23-14-5 overall and finished third in the CCHA, and never qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

I was finishing up my own personal two-year-stint as the hockey publicity contact at CCHA rival Michigan State when the decision to discontinue hockey at UIC was announced on March 28, 1996, two years after CCHA member Kent had done the same. Players were free to transfer to other schools, as they usually are in such situations when a program is eliminated, unlike the cursory one-year sit-out period for transfers.

Many former Flames skaters did move on, most within the conference to schools such as Lake Superior State, Miami (Ohio), MSU and Western Michigan—but hockey itself never returned to UIC, except in the form of a club program in 2004. Northern Michigan replaced UIC in the CCHA, which itself breathed its last in 2013, with its teams going on to join either the new Big Ten Conference or the more-established Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

UIC wasn't the last Division I men's hockey program to be discontinued. Over the years Fairfield, Findlay, Iona, Wayne State and nearly Alabama-Huntsville were extinguished, much like the Flames had been.

The two Alaska schools, Alaska (Fairbanks) and Alaska Anchorage, appeared to be both on very thin ice last year with new financial burdens on the state, and budgets needing to be slashed. They still may be, in the future, if academic finances in the 49th State continue to fall—and just last week, North Dakota announced it was eliminating its Division I women'shockey program due to budget shortfalls.

Current Frozen Four participant and former CCHA member Notre Dame will join the Big Ten next season from Hockey East, and speculation abounds that the Big Ten could one day add Northwestern and/or Illinois from the hockey-prolific Land of Lincoln, which continues to produce a steady stream of players for the Division I and professional ranks. Unless either university receives a major cash infusion from a well-heeled donor, as Penn State and Arizona State did, those hopes appear unlikely.

Now the sport’s biggest annual gathering on the college level is being held in Chicago—but it’s being hosted by Notre Dame, which is based almost 100 miles east in Indiana. It’s not unprecedented that an “outside” school hosts the Frozen Four. Alaska Anchorage hosted in Anaheim in 1999, and Alabama-Huntsville did the same in Tampa in 2012. Wisconsin hosted last year in Tampa, as North Dakota won its first men’s hockey NCAA title since 2000.

Chicago once had its own Division I school that could have easily played innkeeper for college hockey’s marquee event—but those UIC Flames were doused a long time ago, and will likely never be rekindled.

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