by Teresa M. Walker —
NASHVILLE — Tennessee State University for so long has been best known in athletics as the place where Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph and the Tigerbelles made track history and produced NFL talent like Super Bowl champ Ed “Too Tall” Jones.
Now the university that’s also the alma mater of Oprah Winfrey is taking a big step as the first historically Black college and university to introduce ice hockey.
The school on Wednesday announced plans to have a men’s team playing at the club level in 2024, with a goal of fielding Division I men’s and women’s teams “in the near future.”
“It is our hope that while TSU is the first HBCU to start an ice hockey program, we certainly won’t be the last,” university president Glenda Glover said at a news conference before the NHL draft.
The Tennessee State program has been created in partnership with the National Hockey League, the National Hockey League Players’ Association and the Nashville Predators. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sat in the front row for the news conference at Bridgestone Arena, which is 4 miles from TSU.
Athletic director Mikki Allen said the program will help diversify hockey with a partnership helping embrace inclusivity and diversity. Allen noted TSU has a full complement of other sports including a football program currently coached by former NFL star Eddie George.
Now they will use TSU’s history, Nashville and this partnership to grow hockey from the ground up, and Allen believes the Tigers will be attractive to recruits nationally. The mighty Southeastern Conference has many members who field club hockey teams.
“I want the next P.K. Subban, I want the next Ryan Reaves, the next Willie O’Ree,” Allen said.
Since 2017, the NHL and the players’ union have sponsored feasibility studies for U.S. colleges and universities interested in exploring the addition of Division I men’s and women’s programs.
Sean Henry, president of the Predators, said they were talking about helping raise $1 million in scholarship funds in a month when the subject turned to ice hockey in January 2020. He said the announcement gives him goose bumps thinking of how this could change hockey.
The next step will be the women’s team, then getting to Division I for both teams. The first team will practice at one of the rinks opened and operated by the Predators in recent years around Nashville.
“And 10, 20, 30 years from now, my kids or grandkids are going to look at this and say: ‘Wow! Look what we did right here in Nashville,” Henry said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Tennessee State is following a trend of HBCUs adding sports outside their more traditional offerings of football, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s track and field. Earlier this year, The Associated Press contacted 46 Division I and D-II HBCUs and five conference offices about the trend. Twenty schools responded, saying they had added at least 42 NCAA championship or emerging sports since 2016, including at least 32 sports since 2020 alone.
In 2022-23, Fisk University became the first HBCU to offer women’s gymnastics. Morgan State will become the only HBCU offering Division I men’s wrestling this coming school year. Glover said this is part of TSU’s commitment to provide new opportunities to areas where students had limited or no access.
Anson Carter, the former NHL player announced Tuesday as a co-chair of the new Player Inclusion Coalition aimed at diversifying hockey, played collegiately at Michigan State. The Toronto native, who is Black, said he would’ve looked closely at the chance to play at an HBCU for the cultural opportunity.
“To have the ability to even open up the HBCU in the hockey space … it really is a game-changer for young kids playing hockey in the United States and Canada,” Carter said.
(AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt and Associated Press freelancer Jim Diamond contributed to this report.)