D-I Hockey in South Dakota?
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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."
It's a long-shot, but a decade from now, Arizona might not be
the only place where one can find hockey-playing Coyotes.