What Tennessee State hopes to build with HBCU’s first hockey program

Hockey. Hockey? Not baseball? Not soccer? Hockey?!?

For a second, Howard Gentry allowed himself to be surprised upon learning that Tennessee State University would be the first Historically Black College and University to have a hockey program.

Then Gentry remembered: Being the first HBCU to do something unexpected is what allowed TSU to even be in this position at all.

“Now to see hockey come here? To some, it might be that thought of ‘Black people don’t play hockey.’ But the truth is they do. That’s where it started,” said Gentry, a former TSU athletic director. “I know the history. And even if people thought Black people didn’t play hockey, they do now. … I see us having the chance to be as successful as the other dreams and visions that were made true by those administrators from the past.”

In the two months since TSU’s announcement, the school has made what it feels is gradual progress in the next steps of its plan.

Nick Guerriero, the assistant athletic director for communications and creative content at TSU, said the school recently finished interviewing for their director of club hockey role. Initially, TSU was going to hire one person, but decided to make it a two-person job. One will be charged with handling the majority of the work on the fundraising side, while the other will manage the recruitment side of building the program. Guerriero said the goal is to have the hires in place by mid-October.

Guerriero outlined how there are several moving parts to the school’s tentative plan. Their goal is to start with a club program that will begin play in the 2024-25 season. In 2025-26, TSU will have a “hybrid season” in which it will seek to play a mix of club teams and Division I teams with the belief that TSU will be a full-fledged D-I program by the 2026-27 campaign.

Guerriero said there are still a few items that need to be sorted out. Such as who TSU will play against. He’s continuing to have discussions with club hockey entities such as the American Collegiate Hockey Association (the ACHA) along with the AAU, which recently took over what was previously known as the College Hockey Federation (CHF).

Playing against ACHA schools would give TSU a chance to follow the path taken by schools such as Arizona State before moving up to Division I. Playing against CHF schools would allow TSU the opportunity to play against club teams from schools their fans would be more familiar with such as Auburn, Georgia and Vanderbilt, which is in Nashville.

Guerriero said TSU has not petitioned the NCAA about going D-I, with the intention that TSU will do so at some point.

He said TSU plans to eventually add a women’s program as well, but creating a men’s hockey program means the school must first add another women’s team in addition to remain Title IX compliant. Currently, TSU is Title IX compliant with Guerriero explaining that even when TSU adds a women’s hockey program, it would still need to have another non-hockey women’s sport in order to remain compliant.

Guerriero said he is aware those discussions have taken place in a few closed-door meetings.

“We don’t want to rush into things, especially being the first HBCU,” Guerriero said. “You don’t want to rush into something and then if it fails, it is that, ‘I told you so.’ It has to be done right when it is going to be the first. I think that’s the other thing too. Everyone has this microscope on HBCUs. It is so tightly magnified that if they do something wrong, it gets blown up 25 times more than if a mid-major school did the same thing.”

MIKE SNEE IS the executive director of College Hockey Inc., a nonprofit that was created to grow the collegiate game. If there’s a college or university that is looking to start a hockey program, they’ve surely run across Snee.

College Hockey offers interested schools the chance to do a feasibility study. The study itself, which is paid for by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, assesses if colleges and universities are in a position to add a men’s or women’s program or both.

Snee said that TSU’s decision to do a feasibility study was “totally unique” because there were no HBCUs that offered a hockey program.

“We previously contacted different HBCUs and knew they had access to a building for club hockey and had a contact there. We became aware [of TSU] because of the Predators when it came to Tennessee State,” Snee said. “The Predators became aware that we had this idea of being deliberate about pursuing HBCUs and choosing of the schools when it came to their markets and facilities. The Predators said they worked closely with a local HBCU, Tennessee State, which is not NCAA ready but it is club hockey ready.”

Snee said TSU athletic director Dr. Mikki Allen was beyond receptive. He said Allen’s work in getting former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George as TSU’s head football coach, plus the team being the first HBCU to play Notre Dame, proved the school had a vision.

Snee said in discussions with other HBCUs, the schools were not dismissive but they presented reasons why it might not work.

The feasibility study mainly focuses on the financial impact of adding hockey. Questions such as can schools account for adding internal scholarships? Or how much would it cost their athletic department to hire a full coaching and support staff? The study also examines a school’s realistic chances to join a conference, a factor that has become an even greater priority within the current collegiate landscape.

According to Snee, the only question Allen asked about adding hockey at TSU was: “Why not?”

“In a literal sense, [TSU] is a Division I athletics program,” Snee said. “Therefore, they can add any sport that they want that Division I sponsors. … Arizona State is a good comparable for what we are talking about. They decided to add hockey. They are a D-I program. Tennessee State can play D-I hockey when they decide they’re ready.”

Snee has previously said any school that wants to add hockey must first figure out how to clear the facilities hurdle. Even then, it’s something of a nuanced process. Snee said the objective is to build an arena that holds between 3,000 and 4,000 people while also having the necessary locker room space for both the home and away teams.

There are behind-the-scenes items that can help in recruiting, such as a player lounge, a team space and a weight training area. There’s also what Snee described as the “front of house” amenities, such as in-game production, scoreboards and having an overall look that could work toward the path of joining a conference.

Snee said the price tag to build that type of facility is around $75 million.

Not every college hockey program, however, plays at a venue of that size. There are currently more than a combined 30 active men’s and women’s programs playing at the D-I level that play their home games in buildings that hold less than 3,000 fans. Programs such as Lindenwood University and Long Island University play games at community rinks that are owned and operated by NHL teams.

What does all this mean for TSU?

College hockey teams typically have a Friday/Saturday schedule with the rare Thursday or Sunday game. Snee said Bridgestone Arena, home of the Predators, would not work because of the NHL schedule, live entertainment acts, plus the venue being too large as it seats more than 17,000 for hockey.

“Maybe they play one game a year there and bring in a big opponent where they make a big deal out of it,” Snee said. “But all the sheets of ice in Nashville are in a community where there are 800 seats on one side or it is where the Preds play, which is [just under] 18,000 seats.”

Guerriero said TSU administrators have talked about building an arena as part of the school’s 10-year plan. It’s possible it could be a multipurpose complex that would be the home for TSU’s football program, men’s and women’s basketball programs and hockey programs.

In the interim, the plan would be for TSU to play at least its first season in different rinks around the Nashville market. Guerriero said there are city-owned rinks such as Centennial Iceplex and the three Ford Ice Centers in the metro area that are owned by the Predators. He also mentioned the newly built F&M Bank Arena in Clarksville, which is a nearly hourlong drive from TSU’s campus.

Snee estimated some of the local Nashville rinks may hold around 800 fans while the F&M Bank Arena website says it holds 5,000 for hockey.

“We may be utilizing that as well on top of the potential of Bridgestone,” Guerriero said. “I hate to say we are going to be the traveling circus to build a fanbase. But we feel it could be important toward getting more fans rather than being at one facility.”

THE IDEA OF TSU adding hockey had been talked about before. It was known they had done a feasibility study in 2021.

Almost two years had passed when news of an announcement broke the night before the NHL draft in Nashville. Guerriero said that only four people at TSU knew about the announcement with the rest of the athletic department finding out just before the news broke on social media.

Keeping a secret was not the issue for Guerriero. His concerns stemmed from the fear of what could come from TSU’s announcement. He was worried that the news might not be welcomed by current students and/or alumni who might have wanted the school to add a different sport. He thought about those outside of TSU who might have been inclined to voice that hockey didn’t belong at a HBCU.

“I kept sitting there before bed thinking this is going to get bad and then when the news broke about our announcement, it was the greatest thing in the world,” Guerriero said. “You think this could be bad because you’re going to get blown up on social media with people saying how dumb they think this is. Then you see the reaction. It was great and it was awesome. … That day, it was ‘The Land of Golden Sunshine’ as we call it here at Tennessee State.”

He said the positive response to the announcement has created even more optimism around the program. Guerriero did not have specifics about how much TSU has generated in its first round of fundraising, but he said the school’s goal is to raise between $10 million and $20 million.

With the school having its homecoming this weekend, Guerriero said there have been discussions about the potential of TSU having a home hockey game as part of next year’s homecoming plans. Guerriero also shared how a handful of prospective parents and players traveled to TSU for this year’s homecoming so they could see the campus while also experiencing everything that comes with homecoming weekend.

Gentry, who was TSU’s AD for three years, said fundraising requires numerous investors and that it must be sustained over several decades to have long-term success. This led Gentry to joke that he would also not be mad if a certain TSU alum were to get involved.

The TSU alum in question? Oprah Winfrey.

“We have to have many big investments for this to be successful and sustainable,” Gentry said. “That being said — Oprah, if you are listening, we could still use the help!”

Overseeing TSU’s fundraising efforts is one of the responsibilities the school’s director of club hockey will handle. The person hired will also be in charge of items such as community partnerships, managing day-to-day operations and student-athlete recruitment.

Guerriero said it is possible that whomever is hired to be the director of club hockey operations could also be the first coach in TSU’s history. He somewhat joked about how he’s trying to hire what would be the contemporary version of Lou Lamoriello, now the general manager of the New York Islanders, when he served in numerous roles at Providence College.

“I’ve already got seven to eight people on volunteer contracts who are helping us,” Guerriero said. “That’s the great part. People just want to be involved. Nobody has come to me and said, ‘I need this’ to get involved. The hockey community and professional hockey community have been tremendous with giving their time and their brains to talk through some of these things.”

Speaking about items such as potential venues, the director of club hockey operations opening and fundraising makes it clear TSU’s venture into hockey is real. It also prompts those talking about TSU to get into why they feel this must work.

Hockey at all levels has struggled to make itself more inviting when compared to other sports. While visible but not openly discussed, the conversation around race and racism in hockey started becoming more common over the past few years.

Not that TSU adding a college hockey program is expected to solve all of the sport’s challenges when it comes to race and racism. But the visibility of a HBCU that was initially named the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State Normal School for Negroes in a city that is more than 27% Black having a hockey program represents something that’s never been seen before.

“Everybody’s got these great stories and histories and nobody knows it,” Gentry said. “But when this hockey program starts making its mark, people are going to start paying attention. It’s a chance to understand that HBCUs are able to and have always been to provide the same quality programming in athletics and academics as any other school can provide.”

Gentry has an affinity for TSU’s history because it is so personal. His father, Howard C. Gentry Sr., was once the athletic director, coach and a professor at TSU whose name is on the building where the men’s and women’s basketball teams play.

Understanding why there is a strong sense of optimism about hockey succeeding at TSU requires looking back at some of that history. Gentry shares stories of how Walter S. Davis, who was the second president in TSU history, told Gentry’s father upon hiring him that he wanted to see TSU win not just Black national championships in football, but national championships against predominantly white institutions — PWIs — when the United States was segregated.

That vision gave the world the Tigerbelles — the all-Black female track team that represented the United States at the 1956 Olympics. They won bronze that year, only to return in 1960 and win several gold medals. Three of them belonged to Wilma Rudolph at a time when women, let alone Black women, were not encouraged to participate in sports.

It set the stage for TSU to be the first HBCU to play in a PWI conference, the Ohio Valley Conference. The school would eventually win conference titles in numerous sports while having a football program that produced Ed “Too Tall” Jones, who became the first player from a HBCU program to be the No. 1 pick of an NFL draft.

Snee shares that optimism while also remaining cautious. He’s caught in the place between not wanting TSU to feel pressure while also understanding that what they do could lead to more HBCUs starting programs, whether they be club or D-I.

“If we check back and there are four HBCUs and they are offering club hockey, that’s a cool thing,” Snee said. “But within that, what can turn a solid base knock up the middle into a grand slam? What if we check back in 10 years and 13 HBCUs are offering hockey. Seven of them are offering various club programs, four are offering D-I and there’s two more that are considering transitioning. That is better than a single.”

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