The college hockey landscape in the future could include a team in South Dakota, with Sioux Falls-based Augustana University on Wednesday announcing it plans to add a Division I men's program.
Though details of when the program would begin play are to be determined, the school is in the midst of planning for all of its athletic programs to move from the NCAA Division II level to Division I by 2030. In May of 2020, the Summit League rejected Augustana's bid to join the conference in most sports (it does not offer hockey), with St. Thomas instead receiving an invitation. The Vikings have yet to secure an invitation to a Division I conference, and its hockey home would be determined later.
Momentum for a Division I men's hockey program at Augustana received a boost with Sioux Falls businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford putting his support behind the venture. "Augustana is grateful to T. Denny Sanford for the lead gift to facilitate this extraordinary opportunity,'' the school said in a statement. Details of Sanford's financial gift were not revealed.
Hockey is a growing sport in the Sioux Falls metro area, which has a population of 265,000. The Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League have been in business since 1999, and Gophers men's coach Bob Motzko served as the team's coach and general manager before joining Don Lucia's Minnesota staff in 2001-02. Motzko helped recruit one of his former Stampede standouts, Thomas Vanek, who led the Gophers to their second of back-to-back NCAA championships in 2003.
The Stampede plays at the Sanford Premier Center, which seats 10,678 for hockey, was host to the 2018 NCAA West Regional and will be host to another regional in 2024. Augustana, a private school with an enrollment of roughly 2,100, likely would pursue an on-campus hockey arena of roughly 3,000. Sioux Falls also has a 1,000-seat venue at the Scheels IcePlex.
Augustana's announcement comes at a tumultuous time for college hockey. Seven members of the WCHA men's league are leaving to begin play in the new CCHA this fall. Two of the three leftover WCHA members – Alabama Huntsville and Alaska Anchorage – have suspended operations, and Alaska Anchorage coach Matt Curley on Tuesday resigned as boosters seek grassroots funding. Like Anchorage, Alaska (Fairbanks) did not play in the 2020-21 season because of fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The Nanooks will return to play in 2021-22 as an independent.
In May, Robert Morris, based in the Pittsburgh area, abruptly announced it was discontinuing its men's and women's hockey programs, citing a change in the university's strategic mission.
There are other schools that are considering adding Division I men's hockey. Illinois was nearing an announcement to become the eighth Big Ten team before COVID-19 struck in 2020 and put things on hold. Lindenwood (Mo.) and Navy also are exploring adding a program.
Tennessee State, based in Nashville, announced in May that it is participating in a feasibility study to add hockey, with help from the NHL and College Hockey Inc. If it adds the sport, Tennessee State would become the first Historically Black College and University to have a Division I hockey program.