Where Will NCAA Hockey Start in California?

With the Anaheim Ducks hosting the SoCal Clash Saturday and Sunday, NCAA Division I hockey returned to Southern California for the first time since the 1999 Frozen Four was played at Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim (now known as the Honda Center). Though many California schools field ACHA, or “club teams,” an NCAA hockey program in Southern California still feels a long way off.

Henry Thrun skates to the blueline.
Harvard University freshman and Anaheim Ducks draft pick Henry Thrun greets Harvard teammate and fellow Ducks draft pick Jack Badini before Game 1 of the SoCal Clash (Anthony Ciardelli/THW)

However, the SoCal Clash, a two-game series between Harvard and Arizona State, sold out the Ducks’ practice facility, Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena (capacity: 2,500), for Game 1, and drew almost as strongly for Game 2. It shows that there is an audience for college hockey in Southern California. With that in mind, there are a few schools that, if they lead the way, might be the first domino to fall in the quest to bring widespread NCAA hockey to California. Let’s take a look at a few.

UC Irvine Anteaters

There have long been rumors, even before Arizona State became the first Pac-12 team to adopt an NCAA Division I ice hockey team, that the Pac-12 would be the perfect hockey conference.

However, recent developments make UC Irvine, who competes in the Big West Conference, a theoretically strong contender to be the first California team to field a varsity hockey program. It all has to do with ice access and the cost of running college hockey programs.

In an interview for The New York Times, former USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean said it outright.

“Obviously, it costs a lot of money,” he said. “That’s why you’re never going to have an explosion in the number of programs.”

(From: ‘College Hockey Has a Talent Glut, but Nowhere to Grow‘ The New York Times – 3/27/17). 

From the cost of possibly having to build and operate a hockey arena to funding a corresponding women’s program or another women’s sport as a result of Title IX, starting a hockey program is one of the costlier college sports that an athletic department undertakes.

Offsetting those costs, and even making a profit, is dependent on a lot of things, including how competitive the team is and how easy it is for students and fans to access the games.

An NHL Neighbor

That’s what gives UCI a clear advantage. Though they only recently restarted their club hockey team, UCI has a potential partnership with the newly built Great Park Ice & FivePoint arena.

The arena is a mere nine miles from the UCI campus, can hold 2,500 spectators and has technological features like a video scoreboard that would fit a college program perfectly. That would put it between Ewigleben Arena, home of the Ferris State University hockey team, and Cadet Ice Arena, home of the Air Force Academy hockey team, in terms of spectator capacity.

It is the perfect arena for college hockey.

The arena’s proximity to the campus makes it easier for students to attend games and more likely that the team will bring in ticket revenue. Even though the rink isn’t on campus, a benefit many current NCAA College programs have, it’s not prohibitively far away.

There’s also the option to retrofit the Bren Events Center, UCI’s basketball and volleyball stadium, for ice.

With either option, there’s the obvious benefit that the school does not have to build an arena, which in Southern California might save them more than a hundred million dollars (more on that in a moment).

If UCI were to field a varsity team and play at Great Park Ice, they just need to negotiate with the Ducks. They’ve already established a relationship with their club hockey team, which plays its home games there.

University of Southern California Trojans

There have been rumors that USC has flirted with starting a college hockey program for years. Those rumors appear to have been mostly unfounded. Though there are studies to measure the feasibility of starting an NCAA hockey program with schools around the nation, a USC administrator told me in 2017 that there are more likely candidate sports that that would come before ice hockey. Those include men’s soccer and men’s lacrosse. USC already has women’s varsity programs in both sports. It does not appear that USC is a participant in an ice hockey feasibility study.

Still, there are reasons to believe that USC would be the second Pac-12 school after Arizona State to start a NCAA Div. I hockey program.

For a sport that typically involves huge donations to get off the ground, the Trojans certainly have alumni with deep enough pockets.

USC would likely require an especially huge donation or group of donors to get started. The importance of playing as close to the student body as possible cannot be understated, especially in Los Angeles, where people spend hellish amounts of time in traffic.

There are a lot of competing sources of entertainment in Southern California and the ability to avoid getting in the car to get to them would be a huge advantage.

USC’s club team presently plays in Anaheim, and the long haul to games on Friday and Saturday nights (it’s a 30-mile drive) can take almost two hours at worst. That’s a non-starter if you want fans to attend games.

While the Trojans club team does play one game a season at the Staples Center, it would be unlikely that an NCAA team would be afforded prime ice times in between the Los Angeles Kings, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and the various concerts and events that are held there.

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That means the team would need to build a new arena on or near campus or retrofit its campus-adjacent basketball and volleyball arena, the Galen Center, for ice. Neither would be inexpensive propositions.

The Galen Center cost $143 million to build, which is $183 million when adjusted for today’s inflation. Perhaps if USC and UCLA both started programs, they could play before the Ducks or Kings in their next outdoor game, whenever that may be.

The Southern California Advantage

However, if USC were to start an NCAA Division I team, they would hold the same recruiting advantage that football can leverage. Theoretically rubbing elbows with celebrities and NHL players in Los Angeles would be a popular draw for 18- to 22-year-old hockey players looking to play at the next level.

There was a brief glimmer of hope when former USC athletic director Lynn Swann stepped down from his position. While hiring a new athletic director with experience at a school with a Division I hockey program wouldn’t have assured that USC would someday undertake an NCAA team, it might have helped.

The Trojans hired former Cincinnati athletic director Mike Bohn, whose only experience working at a hockey school came from 1984-1992 at the Air Force Academy at the beginning of his administrative sports career.

Long Beach State 49ers

There are no shortage of other schools in the Southern California area that could start an NCAA Division I hockey program. Long Beach State University has long had a competitive club hockey team.

It also already has Long Beach Arena, which seats 11,200 for hockey. That would make it one of the larger college hockey arenas in the nation.

Like UCI, Long Beach State is in the Big West and would form a strong rivalry with the Anteaters if both were to start a varsity hockey program. The Big West also features seven California schools. That makes it another potential entryway into Californian NCAA hockey, just don’t count on the University of Hawaii to follow them.

Henry Thrun shoots from the slot
Harvard University freshman and Ducks draft pick Henry Thrun takes a shot against Arizona State goaltender Evan DeBrouwer during Game 2 of the SoCal Clash. (Anthony Ciardelli/THW)

While all of these schools have a lot of potential to start varsity hockey programs, it still feels like a fantasy. In order for California to be an eventual home to NCAA college hockey, alumni or college hockey fans with deep pockets will have to step up. However, as this weekend’s SoCal Clash demonstrated, there is a market for college hockey in Southern California, somebody just needs to take the first step.