Tennessee State hopes its new hockey program inspires other Black colleges to follow suit — Andscape
When athletic director Mikki Allen announced in late June that Tennessee State would become the first historically Black college and university to create a Division I hockey program, he hoped TSU wouldn’t be alone.
“That’d be pretty cool if you had all the HBCUs that have a neighboring NHL hockey team that, you know, adopted this model that we’re going to create,” Allen told Andscape. “That was the wind behind this [decision] to advance the puck through Tennessee State, and we hope that other HBCUs will join us in this effort to have HBCU hockey teams all across the country.”
After successful expansion within the NHL over the last 30 years, advocacy organization College Hockey Inc., partnered with the NHL and NHL Players Association to lobby for collegiate hockey to undergo a similar expansion.
Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., has advocated for HBCUs to add hockey programs and views Tennessee State as an important first step.
“Tennessee State is offering hockey as a chance to celebrate that diversity, increase the diversity, and our goal here at Tennessee State isn’t just a cool story,” Snee said. “Hopefully that becomes the first of eventually many other HBCUs to at least add club hockey, and then maybe that’s a step in the process toward eventually adding NCAA hockey. … Who knows who’s next, but that’s what we need to do to keep the momentum for the sport going.”
Adding hockey at Tennessee State started with a feasibility study in 2021.
After three years of strategic planning, the national response to TSU’s announcement has been worth it, said Kevin Westgarth, vice president of business development and strategic collaboration for the NHL.
“It has kind of validated a lot of the folks that may have had question marks as to whether this was something that can be done [at an HBCU] or something that was worth doing. I think the response in and of itself has kind of eliminated a lot of questions,” Westgarth said.
There are currently 62 active Division I men’s programs and 37 active Division I women’s hockey programs. Tennessee State’s men’s team initially will operate as a club-level program in the 2024-25 season with the goal of elevating to NCAA Division I status within three to four years. Tennessee State also plans to add women’s hockey with the same goal.
Following the blueprint set by Tennessee State’s partnership with the Nashville Predators, who have provided the university with financial support and resources throughout the process, cities and states with existing NHL franchises such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and North Carolina have been mentioned by College Hockey Inc. as potential options for further HBCU collegiate hockey expansion. Howard, North Carolina Central and Morehouse universities have been loosely mentioned as potential destinations for hockey programs, but none of the three schools has contacted College Hockey Inc. or the NHL for a feasibility study, and there are no definite plans for the universities to add the sport.
Hockey is an equal opportunity sport for schools, Snee said, describing how the University of Minnesota Duluth, a Division II program for most of its athletic programs, has found success competing in Division I hockey, winning two championships in the last five years.
“The number of schools that have [hockey] are Division I, II, III schools, [but they] all played Division I hockey, which is very unique to hockey. There’s a blend of schools that play it with mammoth budgets, like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, and then schools with budgets that aren’t mammoth, yet they all compete with each other,” Snee said.
One aspect in particular will distinguish Tennessee State from other teams, though: Allen expects hockey games to showcase the pageantry and entertainment value of HBCU bands.
“What a traditional hockey game looks like in terms of the [predominantly white institution] space versus HBCU space will be different, but I think it’ll be celebrated,” Allen said. “That’s gonna be one of the things that will separate us from some of our competitors.”
Allen understands a major barrier in getting minority players into hockey is the costs associated with the sport. The university is looking to partner with grassroots organizations to host camps and clinics that would make hockey more affordable.
“We want the game to be for all who want to play the game [and] to not be a hindrance to get people to adopt it at an early age,” Allen said. “When you look at the hockey space, we want to be that conduit, we want to be that bridge, and we feel that, you know, in doing so opened up a lot of doors. I want the next P.K. [Subban] to come from Tennessee State University’s pipeline, and I really feel the NHL wants that as well.”
Former Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban is co-chair of the new NHL Player Inclusion Coalition, which aims to advance equality and inclusion in hockey. After spending three seasons with the Predators, Subban has witnessed the rise of hockey in the Nashville community and believes the city is ready to embrace its first collegiate hockey program.
“Tennessee is such a great state, but Nashville specifically … it’s such a big sports town and people are so passionate about sports, but there’s opportunity there,” Subban said.
That’s why Tennessee State’s hockey program holds such promise, he added.
“People are very open-minded, people are very accepting of cultures. … I really believe that there’s a ton of potential at Tennessee State being in Nashville, which is pretty much the hub whether it’s sports, business, or entertainment. It all comes through there,” Subban said. “The people are great, supportive, they know how to put on a show and they love their sports.
“The sky’s the limit for hockey in Nashville. You know, we’ve already seen so many kids … take to the game and want to be a part of the game.”
Subban, who has been vocal about embracing diversity in hockey, is excited to see the progression of the sport.
“The needle is going to move in hockey and everybody wants to see it move. Nobody wants to see it move faster than me in terms of the growth of the game and in different ways. But you also have to enjoy the process of getting there, and you have to enjoy those steps,” Subban said. “Ten years ago, if somebody would have brought up the idea of hockey at an HBCU school, nobody would have even considered that. So, to think that we’re talking about that today says where the game is going and it’s definitely exciting.”
Allen said that within days of the announcement, potential recruits and people asking about the director of hockey position flooded his email inbox. TSU’s athletic department, which is currently evaluating inquiries for a director of club hockey operations who will handle fundraising and recruitment, hopes to fill the position by late fall.
Tennessee State is still trying to find a temporary facility for the club program and is currently deciding between the Predators’ Ford Ice Center locations in Bellevue, Tennessee, and Antioch, Tennessee, as a practice and venue for their home games. The goal is for the university to build a facility on campus.
“We’re all going to make sure that we put this team and these kids in the best position to succeed in their first season and obviously with an eye on continuing to improve those things as we build this,” Westgarth said.
The university’s decision to add a hockey program adds them to a list of HBCUs offering nontraditional sports.
Less than an hour away from the Tigers’ campus, Fisk University launched the first artistic gymnastics program at an HBCU a year ago. Morgan State University became the first HBCU to offer Division I varsity wrestling after reigniting a program it dropped in 1997. The Bears will begin their first season this upcoming school year.
“You look at so many HBCUs, we’re just getting in spaces where we’re showing a commitment to provide students with new opportunities and to broaden new interests in areas where typically they haven’t been traditional, and brown people have had limited access or no access,” Allen said.
“We want to take this game vertically in terms of making sure that it’s a game that’s for all young people, young minorities, people of color. [If they] want to attend an HBCU, they can go through [Tennessee State] to do that and not only have a great educational experience but still play the game they love at a high level, a competitive level.”