May 1, 2003
Postcard: D-I Hockey in South Dakota?

By Jess Myers

The annual gathering of coaches and administrators at the college hockey meetings in Florida in mid April featured representatives from all of the game's big-name schools. From Clarkson to Colorado College, Alaska Anchorage to Alabama-Huntsville, Maine to Michigan Tech and St. Lawrence to South Dakota, they were all there.

Whoa, you say. South Dakota?

Well, before you starting planning a trip to a NCAA regional anywhere near Mount Rushmore, Sturgis, Wall Drug or the world's only Corn Palace, there's a lot of work to be done and many, many hurdles to, well, hurdle. But recently folks at the University of South Dakota are quietly making noise about possibly joining their neighbors Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota in the world of big-time collegiate hockey.

With an enrollment of 8,700, USD is located in Vermillion, a town of 10,000 on the Missouri River, in the southeast corner of the state. Coyotes athletic director Kelly Higgins has been at the school since 1998, when he left the A.D. job at Alaska Fairbanks. School officials admit that hockey has been a topic of some private discussion and research for two years or more. It's just recently, after returning from the meetings in Florida, that Higgins has spoken publicly about the school's possible hockey future.

"I went down to Naples to ask some questions, because I wanted to know what can be done," said Higgins. "We have no set timeline, but we're looking to see what could realistically happen three, four or ten years down the road."

The most formidable obstacle standing in the way of hockey at USD is roughly 35 miles down the road. That's the distance from the school's campus to the nearest indoor ice rink, in Sioux City, Iowa. The next-closest rink is the home of the USHL's Stampede in Sioux Falls, 55 miles up I-29.

Higgins said there are no plans in the immediate works for an arena in Vermillion or neighboring Yankton (25 miles west), and the school's main athletic facility, the DakotaDome, has no hockey in its future.

"With everything from football to women's track, there are too many things going on in there already," said Higgins. "The only way hockey would work there is if we did it like Michigan and Michigan State did, and put a hockey rink in the middle of the football field temporarily."

There is good news for those who would like to see college hockey expand to South Dakota in the fact that the school already has established rivalries in other sports with the likes of North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State, Mankato. All of those teams are members of the Division II North Central Conference for sports like football, basketball and baseball (with Minnesota-Duluth set to join the NCC in 2004).

Another optimistic sign is the success of the Stampede, who have just completed their fifth season and routinely draw 4,000 or more to games in South Dakota's largest city. One USD official pointed out that the state of South Dakota "produced" 2003 Frozen Four MVP Thomas Vanek, who played for the Stampede before enrolling at Minnesota.

But with no nearby arena for games or practices, most admit that there's an uphill battle ahead for the Coyotes. USHL commissioner Gino Gasparini knows a little something about being a college hockey coach in the Dakotas, having led North Dakota to a trio of NCAA titles in the 1980s. He wishes USD well in its quest, but says that the battle – like it was during the failed D-I hockey push at North Dakota State in 2000 – amounts to the need for a place to skate with a roof over it.

"You clearly need a building that meets the standards for D-I hockey, and it will be a real battle for them to try to secure a facility," said Gasparini. "But if what's happened in Sioux Falls is any indication of the potential fan base for D-I hockey in South Dakota, it might certainly be worth taking a look at."

When he thinks of the future, the optimistic Higgins, who went to high school in Omaha, looks two hours south to the Coyotes rivals at UNO, and marvels at how quickly that school has been able to put together a successful D-I hockey program. He also acknowledges that Omaha is more than 30 times the size of Vermillion, with several ice rinks in town, and is realistic about the chances for an immediately successful program at USD.

"We just always looking at our options," he said. "We've got some obstacles in our way, but we've also got some unique options here as well. So hockey's something we're looking at, and we're going to keep looking at it."

Who knows? It's a long-shot, but a decade from now, Arizona might not be the only place where one can find hockey-playing Coyotes.

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