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Augustana University will attempt to add D-I men's hockey

The Vikings' athletic director is Josh Morton, a UND graduate and former associate athletic director in Grand Forks.

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Josh Morton, athletic director of Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., announced that his school is making the move from the NCAA Division II level to Division I. Jurgens Photography / Augustana Athletics
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Josh Morton went to college at the University of North Dakota, where he played quarterback on the football team.

He later returned to the university as an associate athletic director for development and as the executive director of the Champion's Club.

With that experience, Morton knows firsthand the impact a successful Division-I hockey program can have on an athletic department and school.

Now, he'll try to replicate that, to some degree, at Augustana University, the Sioux Falls-based college where Morton serves as the athletic director.

Augustana confirmed a report by ESPN's John Buccigross that the school will attempt to add a Division-I men's hockey program in the near future. Augustana did not give a targeted date for the launch of men's hockey as part of the school's push to elevate its athletic programs from Division II to Division I.

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"The university plans to add a men's hockey program that would compete at the NCAA Division I level," the school said in a news release. "The addition of such a program will be the first of its kind in the state, and will be game-changing for Augustana and Sioux Falls as one of just over 60 schools in the country offering Division I men's hockey."

Augustana also indicated the push is being funded by billionaire businessman and philanthropist Denny Sanford, but it did not say how much money he is contributing.

"Augustana is grateful to T. Denny Sanford for the lead gift to facilitate this extraordinary opportunity," the announcement said.

Sanford has been a significant patron of Augustana University. He also is close friends with former Sanford Health President and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft, a longtime leading booster in pushing Augustana University to Division I sports.

Fueled by their friendship, Sanford's philanthropy transformed the former Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System into a regional health system powerhouse, which was renamed Sanford Health in the billionaire's honor.

Augustana's move comes at a time when college hockey's landscape is shifting.

The University of Alaska Anchorage and Robert Morris University have announced the elimination of their men's hockey programs this year, while Alabama Huntsville has suspended its program. Meanwhile, the University of St. Thomas will begin D-I play this fall, while Lindenwood University in Missouri has announced its intention to add D-I hockey.

This fall also will be the revival of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which features three teams in Minnesota -- Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Thomas. It would presumably be the future target for Augustana's conference affiliation.

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Augustana does not currently have any hockey programs, even at the club level. The announcement did not make any reference to the addition of a D-I women's program.

Buccigross reported that an on-campus arena is part of the plan for Augustana.

The city of Sioux Falls does have a strong hockey presence.

The Sioux Falls Stampede are a junior hockey team, playing in the United States Hockey League. The Stampede play in the Denny Sanford Premier Center, which opened in 2014. It seats a little more than 10,500 for hockey. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the Stampede led the USHL in attendance every year since the opening of the building.

The Denny Sanford Premier Center also hosted an NCAA men's hockey regional in 2018 and is scheduled to host future regionals in 2024 and 2026.

In late 2018, a report said the school was seeking to move to Division I. It hit a speed bump last year, though, when the Summit League rejected its bid to join the conference for its other sports teams. The school's strategic plan still calls for its athletic programs to be Division I by 2030.

Reporter Jeremy Fugleberg contributed to this report.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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