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Oakland U. explores possibility of Division I hockey

Golden Grizzles would add men's and women's programs to the ranks of Division I

by Arthur J. Regner @arthurjregner /

DETROIT - Michigan has seven universities competing at the Division I level in men's ice hockey and zero women's programs, but that soon may change.

Monday at Little Caesars Arena, officials from Oakland University, the NHL, the NHLPA, and the Red Wings announced Oakland is the second university in the U.S. to be evaluated for the possibility of adding NCAA Division I hockey to their men's and women's varsity sports programs.

Oakland is part of a feasibility study funded by the Industry Growth Fund, which is a partnership between the NHL and NHLPA to help the growth of hockey and enhance the fan experience.

The feasibility study will examine many variables necessary for the Golden Grizzles to start up and maintain a hockey program, including one-time and annual expenses, funding opportunities, facilities, Title IX considerations and the support of Oakland's student body and surrounding community.

"This is quite a day for Oakland University," said Jeff Konya, Oakland's athletic director. "We're really excited about going through this process and exploring what options are available for us to potentially expand our sports offerings on our campus.

"We have a tremendous campus, one that has grown in stature and we keep trying to raise our stature in terms of brand and equity and highly visible collegiate athletic programs can certainly fit the bill.

"In terms of men's Division I ice hockey in this region, there are no Division I men's ice hockey teams in the tri-county area that comprises Metro Detroit and with Hockeytown producing so many wonderful hockey student-athletes, it makes sense to explore a potential home within the home of these potential student-athletes."

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland echoed Konya's thoughts about Metro Detroit not having a Division I hockey program. Holland also pointed out that on the up-to-date Red Wings roster, including head coach Jeff Blashill (Sault Ste. Marie) who played at Ferris State, seven Wings are from Michigan and played college hockey at Michigan universities.

"Part of our goal is we want to grow hockey in the United States and worldwide," Holland said. "Certainly partnering up (with the NHL & NHLPA) to help build the sport is a lot in grassroots, but certainly trying to help Oakland University to hopefully pursue their goal of trying to get a Division I men's and women's hockey team would be great for this area.

"The way greater Detroit is bouncing back, it would be fabulous to have a Division I program right up the road and should make my trip a little bit shorter when I'm scouting (laughs).

"There's a whole lot of our players (Red Wings) who used college hockey to springboard into the National Hockey League."

Current Red Wings from Michigan who played college hockey in the state: Dylan Larkin (Waterford) and Luke Glendening (Grand Rapids) played for Michigan, Justin Abdelkader (Muskegon) and David Booth (Detroit) played at Michigan State, while Danny DeKeyser (Detroit) and Luke Witkowski (Holland) were Western Michigan Broncos.

Michigan native Brittany Ott was not as fortunate as her male counterparts. When it was time for her to play college hockey, she chose to go out of state and attend the University of Maine.

"I grew up here and when I was growing up I played for Little Caesars, HoneyBaked and Belle Tire," Ott said. "When it came time to choosing a college, there was only one university at the time with a Division I program (Wayne State). A couple of years later unfortunately that program folded, so now we currently have zero Division I programs in the state.

"So today's announcement that Oakland University is trying to get a Division I programs for both men and women is an incredible step forward and an exciting time for the state and for the game of hockey in Michigan."

Ott, who plays goal for the Boston Pride of the NWHL, considers Michigan's women's hockey talent as deep as any state and she'd like to see it be cultivated in the Great Lakes State.

"This is a big area for hockey," she said. "I believe that eventually one day this state can compete with a Minnesota and a Massachusetts as far as number of programs in the state and the strengths of those programs.

"Today's news is exciting news and I'm proud to have Michigan as my home state."

Konya told reporters Oakland is committed equally towards fielding a men's and women's program.

"We want to try and be a trailblazer for that particular sport (women's hockey)," Konya said. "There are no Division I women's hockey programs in the state of Michigan, yet in terms of production of student-athletes that play that sport, Michigan ranks second only to Minnesota.

"So the opportunity to afford our young female student-athletes in this area to stay home; if there is a potential solution in Oakland as we go through this feasibility study is certainly an attractive prospect as well."

The study which Oakland is in the process of completing should take about two weeks. Once it is completed it will be turned over the NCAA and if a decision is made to move forward with Oakland, Konya says he hopes there will be a one to two-year timeline before the hockey programs begin to take shape.

"We're looking forward to adding high visible sports if this makes sense," Konya said. "We have several hurdles to overcome, especially when you talk about the finances and the facilities that these programs would require, but nonetheless we are excited at the prospect of moving forward, seeing what the data suggest and taking a look at this feasibility study and seeing if we have community partners who want to assist in this endeavor and try and make this dream a reality."

With the Red Wings, the NHL, and the NHLPA firmly in Oakland's corner, the odds are this "dream" is only a year or two away.

  Photo by Dave Reginek

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