Oakland explores adding DI men’s, women’s hockey

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

With the weight of the NHL and Detroit Red Wings behind them, Oakland University has begun the process of exploring adding Division I men’s and women’s hockey programs.

An announcement was set for Monday night at Little Caesars Arena, featuring Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, Oakland athletic director Jeff Konya, and executive director of College Hockey Inc. Mike Snee.

From left: Jeff Konya, Oakland University director of athletics; Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings general manager, Brittany Ott, goalie for the Boston Pride of the NWHL and a Little Caesars hockey alumnus; and Chris Campoli, NHLPA Divisional Player Representative, participate in an announcement that Oakland University is looking to create Division 1 men's and women's hockey teams during a news conference Monday at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Many hurdles remain — namely funding, for the programs and an arena, plus choosing a conference —but Oakland is hopeful of adding the programs to its athletics roster in the coming few years. A specific timetable hasn’t yet been established.

“I think it makes a lot of sense on a number of different levels,” Konya said. “At the same time, it has to make sense for the university.

“All those questions have to line up in a positive way. And hopefully, it will make sense to move forward with this process.”

The NHL in late August visited Oakland’s campus to talk with officials, in administration and athletics, and conduct and pay for a feasibility study, the results of which should be finished in the next few months — and will determine if Oakland should move forward.

Among the dignitaries on the Rochester campus was Kevin Westgarth, a former NHL enforcer who is the NHL’s vice president of business development and international affairs. He’s been helping lead a program aimed at promoting and boosting amateur hockey in North America.

The University of Illinois was the first athletic program to benefit from the NHL’s support, with the Chicago Blackhawks also playing a role there. The announcement of that feasibility study came in June.

Konya saw that and approached the NHL about participating, and so Oakland is the second program. At least three more schools, yet undetermined, will join the program.

“It’s kind of announcing not just the study, but the interest and excitement and seriousness that Oakland has for pursuing this,” Westgarth told The News in an interview last week.

“Oakland’s been incredible in just making everybody kind of buy into this vision and what the positive impact can be by adding Division I men’s and women’s hockey.”

Oakland has seven men’s programs and 10 women’s programs. It last added programs 10 years ago, the men’s and women’s outdoor track and field teams.

Hockey would become the program’s second marquee sport, behind a men’s basketball team that has a rapidly growing fan base as one of the nation’s mid-major darlings.

The addition of women’s hockey also would make Oakland the lone Division I women’s program in the state of Michigan. Wayne State discontinued Division I women’s hockey in 2011.

St. Clair Shores native Brittany Ott, who played collegiately at Maine and professionally in Boston, was to attend the announcement at Little Caesars Arena on Monday night, lending her support behind the movement.

Besides helping fund the feasibility study — also with the aid of the NHL Players Association — the NHL’s and Red Wings’ contributions would come in the form of their brand. As Oakland goes searching for funding — for scholarships, potentially a new arena, and many other factors — the support of the NHL figures to make it easier for Oakland officials to get phone calls returned and meetings set up with high-powered donors.

“There’s still a couple hurdles to overcome,” Westgarth said. “Finding funding for expensive programs is huge. But with the amount of passionate hockey people at Oakland, people in Michigan, hockey people, we think this has a very high probability of happening.”

The state of Michigan has seven Division I men’s programs, at Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan and Western Michigan. The programs are spread out over three conferences.

Oakland currently has men’s club hockey teams, one competing at a Division I level and the other at a Division III level.

Westgarth, who played for the Los Angeles Kings, Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames in an NHL career that ended after the 2013-14, said college hockey is close to his heart, having played four years at Princeton. He also pointed out the added importance of adding Division I hockey to a region — the youth interest and programs that eventually crop up over time, leading to the next generation of players.

Westgarth used players such as the Kings’ Nic Dowd as an example. He grew up in Huntsville, Ala., and was about 9 years old when Alabama-Huntsville went Division I in hockey. When Dowd scored a goal in this past playoffs on former Alabama-Huntsville goalie Cam Talbot, with the Edmonton Oilers, it was like seeing the circle complete.

“Generally, when you add elite hockey,” said Westgarth, “youth-hockey development is close behind. There’s certainly a huge benefit there.”

If Oakland moves forward, ideally it would prefer an on-campus arena, which can be a serious moneymaker — as there’s always much more demand than supply for youth-hockey ice time.

Other dignitaries expected to help as Oakland continues this pursuit include Shawn Horcoff, Red Wings director of player development; and Kim Durka, executive vice president of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.