State of Hockey: MSUM still considering D-I program?

by Thor Thompson

University of North Dakota hockey brought viewers from across the nation and a sea of green jerseys to Fargo for the NCAA Regional Tournament. North Dakota came out victorious, advancing to the Frozen Four in Boston, only to fall short in their first game in Massachusetts against Boston University.

The season may not have met their championship expectations, but the excitement of Division I hockey in Fargo lived up to the hype. Die-hard fans camping out for tickets and a packed house for the UND games signaled one thing: Fargo-Moorhead loves its hockey.

“You can tell by the environment, the tournament being held here is absolutely fantastic for Fargo, and we’ve really wanted a D-I team locally for quite awhile,” said UND supporter and Fargo native Jeff Falgatter.

And it’s not just a one-time thing for many North Dakota fans either.

“Fargo really supports the Sioux; they always have. In fact, I think more than 40 percent of the season tickets at the Ralph have Fargo addresses,” said North Dakota supporter Mike McIntee.

But despite a clear craving for Division I hockey in the F-M area, no university has stepped up to tackle the complicated task.

The last serious effort was MSUM’s bid in 2012, which fell through due to a shortage of private funding. Consultants hired by the school came up with a $37 million price tag to add Division I hockey to MSUM’s athletic program.

However, the timing to hit the ice with a major conference couldn’t have been better.

“There were shifts happening in the conferences that meant there were openings available and it wasn’t out of the question for us to think about moving quickly enough to take one of those spots,” said MSUM President Anne Blackhurst.

Blackhurst, an avid runner and supporter of athletics, said she understands why people see MSUM as a perfect fit for a top-level hockey program.

“The idea of adding Division I hockey makes sense from several directions. This is a hockey community, you know, Moorhead is a hockey town, and the fact that NDSU doesn’t have hockey means that there’s a potential opportunity to own that niche,” she said.

It seems to be a perfect fit, but one problem remains. Who is going to pay for it?

“Division I hockey is expensive and it’s challenging to run a university these days in terms of making the finances work. We want to keep tuition as low as possible. It’s really challenging to think about how to make that work financially,” she continued.

Blackhurst also believes that a record-breaking year of donations to the university is a sign of things to come.

“I think the great thing about the Scheels gift and the Paseka gift, in addition to their generosity and what we’ll be able to do with those gifts, is that they were from high-profile community and business leaders who basically signaled that they believe MSUM is worth the investment,” she said. “I think that does have an effect on how we’re seen in the community and other people’s willingness to give.”

She said new community and business partnerships will hopefully be the foundation that can build not only a hockey program in Moorhead, but also an energizing force to propel the university forward.

“You need things that build that momentum for a university, and having winning athletic teams can really do that. I understand there are some folks on campus or maybe even in the community who feel like the focus should really be on academics. My argument is that there’s a potential for athletics to raise everything at the university to another level,” Blackhurst said.

As MSUM celebrates a banner year of donations, both academically and athletically, the question is still raised about where the first Division I hockey program in the F-M area will surface.

Blackhurst recognizes the potential it has, but also sees the challenges present in the current climate of budget cuts and financial difficulties. The fate of hockey may be on thin ice, but with MSUM’s reputation on the rise it’s something to keep an eye on in the future.

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