Excitement abounds as Augustana makes D-I hockey plans official with arena groundbreaking
With shovels in the ground and a 24-month countdown underway, there is a buzz around the hockey community in Sioux Falls and throughout South Dakota, as the state's first NCAA college hockey program at Augustana is looking for a conference and plans to be on the ice in 2023.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Talking about new hockey arenas, and showing off cool artist renderings of what they might look like, is easy. Putting shovels in the ground and actually building a new hockey arena is the real challenge.
Before finally breaking ground on their new hockey home, Arizona State folks spent years talking about how great their rink would be. At Illinois, we’ve seen mock-ups of the proposed arena and renderings of the Illini jerseys and lots of other pretty pictures, but no shovels in the ground. In his meeting with the media before the start of Ohio State’s hockey season, the Buckeyes coach talked glowingly about the idea of a new hockey rink and how the concept is long overdue, but again, there have been no shovels in the ground in Columbus.
At Augustana there has been plenty of talk in the past few months about the addition of Division I hockey. This week, the folks at South Dakota’s largest private college did the hard part, putting shovels in the ground and getting to work on a new 3,000-seat rink, set to open in two years.
Midco Arena is a $40 million project. It will be built by the same people who just did Robson Arena on the Colorado College campus, and it is funded in part by a sizable lead donation from billionaire health care executive T. Denny Sanford. He was one of the dignitaries wielding a ceremonial shovel on Tuesday, Oct. 5, at the corner of 33rd and Grange, in the heart of the Augustana campus. The plan at “Augie,” which is a Lutheran school with around 2,000 students, is to have a D-I program on the ice two years from now, giving South Dakota its first NCAA college hockey team.
“It was just incredibly energizing to have the people gathered on-site of where the building is going to be and to be able to talk publicly for the first time about program development,” said Josh Morton, the Augustana athletic director. “It was just an incredibly energizing day on campus.”
Sioux Falls, which has close to 200,000 residents and is the largest city in the state best known for Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug, the Corn Palace and, more recently, its much-publicized banking industry, has long had a successful USHL team. Still, people in the local hockey community feel that college hockey is a huge step in a positive direction.
"“The college hockey community is so embracing. They’re hungry for expansion of the sport, so to see a school like us that’s going to do it, and do it right with an on-campus facility, they appreciate that.”
- Josh Morton, Augustana AD
“Our youth program has really been thriving over the past few years, but I think this is going to take it to the next level,” said Dr. Adam Gorra, who has been president of the Sioux Falls Youth Hockey Association for the past four years. “We’ve had junior hockey with the USHL for many years but having a college program connected to the premiere private university in South Dakota, with a lot of alumni in town, I think will only further solidify Sioux Falls as a hockey town.”
Morton went to school at North Dakota, and worked both there and at Michigan State before taking over Augustana athletics in 2018, so he has a background with two notable college hockey schools. He said the response throughout the game has been nothing but positive.
“The college hockey community is so embracing,” Morton said. “They’re hungry for expansion of the sport, so to see a school like us that’s going to do it, and do it right with an on-campus facility, they appreciate that.”
The move comes at a time when the Alabama Huntsville program has ceased operations, and the future is uncertain at best for Alaska Anchorage and Robert Morris, so some college hockey good news was welcomed. College Hockey Inc. executive director Mike Snee said Augustana’s decision to add men’s hockey and invest significantly in the sport, “is a powerful statement about the appeal of college hockey and the positive impact it can make on a school, its students and alumni.”
It has been said in the past that for a school to add college hockey, it needs three things: money, an arena and a conference. Augustana has two of the three, and while Morton kept his conversations with conferences confidential, the new CCHA seems to be a logical home for the Vikings. People in Sioux Falls like to point out that in the college hockey world, Augustana is perfectly positioned between the Colorado schools to the west, the Minnesota schools to the east, North Dakota to the north and Omaha to the south.
“For any conference, it’s all about value, and what value you bring,” Morton said. “I think this is a great example of the value we’d bring to a conference because our community is so excited about this, the on-campus facility is huge and let’s face it, Sioux Falls is in a great geographic location for college hockey.”
Gorra noted that throughout the pandemic, Sioux Falls youth hockey stayed on the ice and their numbers even grew by 10% over last year, so there is a hunger for the game in this part of South Dakota.
“Augustana having a college program provides more awareness and more exposure to the sport for people throughout the state,” said Gorra, a pediatric surgeon who grew up playing hockey in Connecticut and moved to Sioux Falls five years ago. “It’s something to do and something to travel to, to see a game.”