CHICAGO -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Friday that the League and the NHL Players' Association will sponsor feasibility studies to explore establishing future NCAA Division I college hockey programs on campuses across the United States.
The announcement was made during a press conference prior to the start of the 2017 NHL Draft presented by adidas at United Center.
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The NHL and NHLPA have agreed in this endeavor to commit funds through the industry growth fund, which is financing the initiative.
The University of Illinois will be the first to participate in the study.
"This initiative demonstrates the NHL's support of the growth of men's and women's college hockey at the Division I level and we're looking to incentivize and raise awareness to schools that may be interested in getting a Division I hockey program," Commissioner Bettman said. "By expanding our footprint of hockey at all levels for elite programs we can inspire new players and parents to join the hockey family.
"By working to expand the number of programs, we hope to grow the game at all levels and increase participation."
Commissioner Bettman was joined by NHLPA Special Assistant to the Executive Director Mathieu Schneider; USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher; University of Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman; President/CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks John McDonough; Buffalo Sabres Owner and Alumnus/Patron of Penn State University Terry Pegula.
Penn State added a Division I program for men and women in 2012-13, and the men's program was ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation during 2016-17.
The University of Illinois had a successful club hockey program that finished No. 13 in ACHA Division I last season while playing in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League. Illinois is part of the Big Ten, which began sponsoring hockey when Penn State elevated its program.
"The number of players who have played college hockey and played in the NHL is growing," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "There are a number of development paths to the NHL and college is becoming a much more prominent way to get here. We're focused on the development leagues below college hockey as well in terms of strengthening them."
According to collegehockeyinc.com, 32 percent of all NHL players have played college hockey at some point. There were 15 players on the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins who played college hockey.
"Increased participation at the very lowest level just continues to push the effort forward through college and into the NHL," Commissioner Bettman said.
Kevin Westgarth, NHL Vice President of Business Development & International Affairs, is proud of the effort made to expand hockey into more Division I colleges.
"It would be amazing to see a UCLA-USC game before a Los Angeles Kings-Anaheim Ducks game," Westgarth said. "There's certainly some big dreamers involved in this. I think the goal really is with the raising of awareness and the NHL connection and being able to use our platform to be able to announce this and explore what the cost would be at a variety of schools.
"We want to help build the interest in the local community and build college hockey, which leads to growing youth hockey in the area."