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How NHL owners can help grow the NCAA game

Officials gather after the groundbreaking for the $172 million HARBORcenter. Standing (L-R) are Sabres chief development officer Cliff Benson, Buffalo mayor Byron Brown, Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, and Sabres president Theodore Black.(Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Officials gather after the groundbreaking for the $172 million HARBORcenter. Standing (L-R) are Sabres chief development officer Cliff Benson, Buffalo mayor Byron Brown, Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, and Sabres president Theodore Black.(Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

There will come a time when Terry Pegula will stop making other NHL owners look bad, but this is not that day. The lord of the Buffalo Sabres has used his considerable financial resources to fund a new downtown facility and on Tuesday, it was announced that Canisius College would call the new building home, starting in 2014-15.

The HARBORcenter will house the Golden Griffins hockey team for both games and practices, seating up to 1,800 fans in a $172 million barn right across from where the Sabres play at First Niagara Center.

This is big for the Griffins, who won their first conference championship this past season and had their first alumnus play in the NHL, thanks to Tampa/Ottawa rookie Cory Conacher, whose brother Shane is set to kick off his Canisius career in the fall.

Sure, the Griffs are playing in the least-known of Division I conferences, but Atlantic Hockey has enjoyed success lately thanks to a recent Frozen Four run by RIT (The Tigers have their own NHLer in Vancouver’s Chris Tanev) and getting two teams – Canisius and Niagara – into this year’s edition.

The news of this partnership comes at a coincidental time, as Twitter was abuzz on the weekend with rumors of the University of Illinois joining the new Big Ten hockey conference in the future. As it turned out, the “big announcement” revolved around new uniforms for the school’s club team, but bringing Division I hockey back to Illinois is long overdue.

Given that the Chicago Blackhawks are coming off their second Stanley Cup in four years and that the ensuing parade and party attracted what looked like half the city, it’s fair to say Illinois is as hockey-mad as ever. The last NCAA team in the state was the Illinois-Chicago Flames, who played in the CCHA from 1982-96. The state of Illinois ranks fifth in the nation in terms of USA Hockey player registration with 27,638 skaters in 2012-13, behind only Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Massachusetts – all of which have multiple NCAA teams.

The University of Illinois main campus is in Champaign, not Chicago, but that’s only about two hours away, meaning a couple games at the United Center would be pretty cool. At the least, it would be nice to see the Hawks partner up with the Illini in some way to make NCAA hockey feasible again. They don’t have to go “full Pegula” and fund a building (though that would be nice), but helping with some financial resources and marketing would be great to see. A doubleheader NCAA outdoor game at Soldier Field drew more than 50,000 fans this winter and that counted on out-of-state schools Miami, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Notre Dame, though the Fighting Irish have a lot of supporters in Chicago.

Another Big Ten school that would benefit from a hockey benefactor is Maryland. The Terrapins are set to join the conference in 2014 for major sports such as football and basketball, but how cool would it be to see the turtles on ice, too? Ted Leonsis has been a great steward for the Washington Capitals and though the grassroots game in the D.C. area is a lot smaller, there’s also less NCAA competition. In fact, Maryland would have a huge swath of turf interrupted only by schools such as Penn State and Princeton, which are hours to the north – everyone in D.C., Virginia and of course, Maryland, is up for grabs. The area is starting to produce talent (Montreal Canadiens youngster Jarred Tinordi, for example) and a link with college hockey can only help the Capitals, who have dropped in the NHL attendance rankings three straight seasons.

Hockey is beginning to ride another wave of popularity that will gain momentum thanks to the Olympics and more outdoor games. If teams can capitalize by supporting appropriate college programs, everybody wins. Just ask Canisius College.

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Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.

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