Michigan studying feasibility of launching women’s hockey program


The University of Michigan took the first step toward addressing a major in-state void on Thursday by launching a feasibility study to consider establishing a women’s varsity hockey program.

The study has the backing of school President Santa Ono, and was brought forward at a Michigan regents’ meeting by member Denise Ilitch, the daughter of Detroit Red Wings owner Marian Ilitch.

The push to launch a varsity program — though costly and likely to involve the school having to build a second rink facility — was prompted by a growing call for the state’s top institutions to address the absence of a Division I program in Michigan that forces young women to leave the state to pursue the sport beyond high school.

“Other colleges are creating women’s hockey teams and we’re losing great talent in Michigan. We’re a Big Ten school. There’s no reason why our women can’t be on the ice,” Ilitch told The Associated Press by phone.

“We need to step up as an institution now and be a leader here for the state of Michigan,” she added. “There’s a desire. There’s an appetite here for it. And we need to meet the need.”

Michigan has had a club-level women’s hockey team since the mid-1990s. Previously, Detroit-based Wayne State was the only state school to feature a varsity women’s hockey program before it was disbanded in 2011.

Illitch outlined to the regents how the Red Wings have led to Detroit being labeled “HockeyTown,” while Michigan lags behind other states including New York with 10 women’s varsity programs, Massachusetts with eight and Minnesota with six. She also noted how Michigan-born Kristen Simms led women’s college hockey players in scoring this season while playing for Wisconsin.

“There is currently a broken cycle of elite women’s hockey players leaving our state,” Ilitch said. “Equality is not just about numbers. It is about respect. Women belong on the same ice as men.”

Ilitch said it was her desire to speak up based on her family’s history in supporting hockey, including the Little Caesars youth program that caters to boys and girls.

Ilitch was also inspired by the newly launched Professional Women’s Hockey League playing a neutral site game at the Red Wings home that drew a crowd of 13,700 two weeks ago. The turnout firmly placed Detroit on the map for a potential PWHL expansion teamand the game prompted PWHL players to hope it spurs Michigan colleges to consider launching varsity teams.

PWHL Minnesota defenseman Mellissa Channell, who is from Michigan and coached Simms in the Little Caesars program, praised Ilitch for her support.

“To have somebody with that caliber of name recognize it and bring it to the attention of the university and all the individuals on that board, I think is a huge step in the right direction,” Channell said. “We can only do so much and get so much exposure, but when somebody with a big name like that advocates for you, I think it definitely helps.”

Cost will be an issue, with one challenge being infrastructure. The Wolverine men play at the 101-year-old Yost Arena, and there’s no room to expand the venue to accommodate a woman’s varsity team due to the building’s configuration.

Michigan’s club team currently has an operating budget of between $150,000 and $200,000, while players are also required to pay a $3,000 annual fee.

Regent Paul Brown backed Ilitch in saying: “Women’s ice hockey is long overdue and should be the next sport to achieve varsity status.”

Regent Michael Behm said he found it “somewhat galling” to see Big Ten rivals Ohio State and Wisconsin play for the women’s hockey national championship last weekend. “I do think we do have the money. We do have the resources. We have the resolve to get this done,” Behm said.

Ilitch understands it might take time for her proposal to become a reality, but was encouraged by the support voiced during the meeting.

“It will move much quicker if we have complete unity on the project, and I believe that we do, certainly, to take this first step now,” Ilitch said. “It obviously is a process. But, I think that we have to just keep our foot on the pedal.”

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