In less than a week, the buzzer sounds on MSUM’s effort to raise money for a Division I hockey program.
Athletics officials and well-connected local hockey enthusiasts are pushing to secure $30 million in private donations by March 1, the latest in a series of fundraising deadlines. If the university lines up the pledges – 80 percent of the $37 million needed to launch self-sustaining men’s and women’s teams – the puck will likely drop next fall at Fargo’s 5,000-seat Scheels Arena.
“We will have some good news within the first week of March. It’s that close,” said Bernie Burggraf, whose friendships with nationally renowned hockey figures have opened doors to potential donors. “Don’t panic. It’s coming. It’s coming.”
Burggraf, host of a weekly radio show devoted to hockey, said one local businessman has pledged $5 million if the university can find someone to match that figure. Right now, an MSUM consultant is “living out of a suitcase” in Arizona, trying to snag donations from wealthy snowbirds.
When MSUM announced the fundraising drive in March, officials said they had locked in $15 million in donations. Since then, “we’ve visited with literally hundreds of people,” said athletic director Doug Peters last week. He declined to reveal how much money has been raised at this point.
Peters is out of the office this week. Athletics department spokesman Jon Wepking said Tuesday he didn’t know where Peters went or why, only that he sent back a photo with a palm tree in it.
If the six-month fundraising drive falls short, university administrators said it’s game over – at least for now.
“We won’t extend the deadline,” President Edna Szymanski said Tuesday. “But if we don’t do (hockey) now, it doesn’t mean we’ll never do it.”
Starting a program requires obtaining conference affiliation, approval from MnSCU’s Board of Trustees and NCAA consent. For those reasons and the reality that the program should hire coaches sooner rather than later, there’s no more time for delay, said Jan Mahoney, MSUM vice president for finance and administration.
Burggraf said ending the effort when fundraising goals are in sight would be “way off base.”
“You don’t just walk in and pick (donors) pockets for millions,” he said. “It takes time. We dance to their tune. It’s their money.”
A long-term effort
In 2009, MSUM first announced its intentions to create Dragon hockey. It seemed like a logical time because at that point, the WCHA conference’s odd number of teams made scheduling difficult. But then the conference decided to add another team. With conference affiliation – crucial to consistent scheduling – Dragon hockey went on the backburner for more than a year.
Last year, another opportunity emerged when the Big 10 started a conference and other WCHA schools started a new league. The realignment again left the smaller WCHA with an odd number of teams.
Peters said last week that the conference, which includes fellow D-II schools Bemidji State and Minnesota State University-Mankato, is still the preferred home for the proposed program based on geography.
Conversations with league officials “have been positive,” Peters said. In order to gain admission, seven out of nine league schools would need to approve.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said the conference is looking to add a tenth institution, but support from the community and the institution is paramount.
“There will be good days and bad days with programs,” he said Monday. “You really, really need a commitment of the institution and the resources of the institution to carry it through the more difficult days.”
According to a consultant report released late July, hockey in the Fargo-Moorhead area should work out.
“If MSUM can successfully raise the funds needed as part of the planned hockey campaign, it is well positioned to secure conference membership,” and the region “would support the programs,” the report said.
A conservative plan
Mahoney, the vice president, said she revised the hockey business plan after receiving the consultant’s report and after meeting with D-II MnSCU schools with D-I hockey programs.
“The revenue is conservative, the expenses are realistic,” she said. “So I believe it’s a solid business plan.”
From the beginning, officials have insisted no tuition or fees would go to starting the hockey program. Instead, it would be funded with private donations – a $35 million endowment and another $2 million for start-up costs.
The fundraising consultant has been paid about $10,000 since October through a university innovation fund used for exploring new programs. That money, Mahoney said, comes from a variety of revenue streams, including tuition, general fund interest earnings and administrative fees, that all goes into one account.
“We don’t label (the money),” Mahoney said. “It’s all the same color.”
Kim Ehrlich, president of MSUM student senate, said she wasn’t aware of the money paid to the consultant, but would ask the president about it when she comes to a student senate meeting next month.
“The hockey thing is something we probably don’t keep as much of an eye on as we probably should,” Ehrlich said.
MSUM students react
A majority of MSUM students interviewed expressed support for adding a hockey program, especially when they learned it wouldn’t put tuition or fees dollars at risk. Two student athletes selling T-shirts for the American Heart Association Tuesday in MacLean said a successful hockey program would benefit all MSUM athletics.
“It would be a great source of revenue,” said Spanish education sophomore Kaitlin McNary, a tennis player.
Uchenna Ogbonnaya, a physics senior and track athlete said it’s only appropriate since “this is kind of hockey central for the world.”
“It needs to happen because the athletics department is really underfunded,” he said.
Mahoney said if her projections are correct, money would start flowing to other MSUM sports by 2017.
In an unscientific online Advocate poll, conducted from Feb. 13 – 20, 67 percent of students who responded indicated they would support D-I hockey paid for privately.
“This will bring people here who have never even thought about coming here,” wrote one respondent, while another opined, “I think it would be good for the economy of Fargo-Moorhead and the enrollment growth of MSUM.”
But support wasn’t unanimous.
“It’s utterly ridiculous that the school should be focusing on athletics when there is so much that needs fixing in the academic structure,” one opponent wrote.
Community support abounds
In the broader F-M area, every hockey coach and player interviewed said they hope MSUM succeeds in its D-I push.
For Rebekah Hakk, a Moorhead High School sophomore who aspires to play D-I hockey, whether the school starts a program might play a role in her college choice.
“I probably wouldn’t go there if they didn’t have one,” said Hakk, a three-year varsity player.
Olympic gold medalist and 16-year NHL veteran Dave Christian has a nephew who plays for the Moorhead High School boy’s team. A local D-I program would benefit Moorhead’s large youth program and the region’s junior league team, the Fargo Force.
“I’m confident that they’ll be able to get it done,” he said. “It’s long overdue.”
Moorhead High School head coach Dave Morinville said he’s also optimistic.
Morinville coached at St. Cloud State University in the late eighties when its program was just starting up. He said he’s seen first hand how much a D-I program can put a town on the map and increase revenue.
“It would be a big win for MSUM as well as for hockey people in this area,” said Morinville, who coached NDSU’s club hockey team to four national titles before Herb Brooks hired him at St. Cloud.
Morinville remembers Brooks – the legendary coach to lead Christian and the 1980 Olympic team to victory over the Soviets – saying, “D-I hockey is a no-brainer in the F-M area.”
Nearly a quarter century later, it might finally be on its way.
BY BRYCE HAUGEN