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Ohio University forward Michael Harris with the puck in Bird Arena, at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. 

Could Ohio hockey play in the NCAA?

The Bobcats are at the top of their class in the club ranks, but a jump to the NCAA still appears out of reach.

Penn State’s club hockey program made history by announcing its transfer to the NCAA Division I level on September 17, 2010. Just four years later, Arizona State proudly announced the same news.

Penn State and Arizona State are former members of the American College Hockey Association and former combatants of Ohio at that level.

In fact, Ohio and Penn State shared a deep-rooted rivalry lasting 84 games in the ACHA. Both clubs experienced a great deal of success too, winning a combined 10 national championships.

But while millions of dollars in private donations have vaulted the Nittany Lions (called the “Icers” in their club days) and the Sun Devils into the lavish world of NCAA D-I — with shiny, new arenas and scholarship money to spend — the Bobcats remain inside crumbling Bird Arena, stuck wondering how they too can get to the next level.

They won’t have to wonder for too much longer.

Any NCAA hockey conversation for Ohio, or any team for that matter, begins and ends with one word that can be both mindlessly simple and utterly complex: funding.

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When it comes to getting an NCAA hockey team, money — and lots of it — buys happiness. Dominating the ACHA is not enough on its own to catalyze the jump.

Penn State was dominant in the late 90s and early 2000s, including five ACHA titles in six seasons from 1998 to 2003, but didn’t officially realize its NCAA dream until 2012.

Arizona State just recently became the top dog of the ACHA, winning the national title in 2014 and following it up with a 35-4 record in the 2014-15 season. The Sun Devils will get their first NCAA action when the 2015-16 season begins.

Ohio, on the other hand, hasn’t won an ACHA championship since 2004 but boasts a 142-44-15 record in its past five seasons.

Here are the numbers that count: Penn State received a $102 million donation from billionaire Terry Pegula, who owns Buffalo’s NHL Sabres and NFL Bills, while Arizona State received $32 million in donations from an anonymous party and Milwaukee businessman Don Mullett, whose son used to play hockey for the Sun Devils.

That type of otherworldly donating seems nearly impossible for Ohio.

“I am unaware of anyone at this point that is capable of making the size donation that (Arizona State) and Penn State received,” Ohio coach Sean Hogan said in an email. “It would take a significant amount of funding to increase our budget to a NCAA D-I level.”

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Hogan takes it upon himself to fundraise for Ohio and keep the program running as it is. Ticket sales, sponsorship support and alumni donations keep the team afloat, he said, but there is no sign that a multi-million-dollar gift is headed his way.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in the possibility of the team moving to the NCAA. In fact, Hogan said that’s the thing he’s most often asked about.

“When we are recruiting and see other coaches or parents I am asked that often,” Hogan said. “I would say I am asked the question at least once, on pretty much all recruiting trips.”

While it is nice to imagine Ohio reaching the highest level of collegiate hockey competition, current reality suggests it may never be more than a dream.

Hogan hasn’t discussed the possible move with Ohio University president, Roderick McDavis or Ohio Athletic Director, Jim Schaus, and said he doesn’t plan to do so unless he has reason to believe he could get the necessary funds from supporters.

In the meantime, the scholarship-less Bobcats will continue finishing near the top of the ACHA.



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