Arizona State’s announcement in the fall of 2014 that it would begin playing Division I men’s hockey as in independent in 2016 grabbed the attention of a lot people in college hockey.
Coaches around the country began to make the case that a trip to Tempe would be a nice addition to their school’s non-conference schedule. Talented high school underclassmen wondered aloud what it would be like to wear flip-flops and shorts to practice (and class).
And there were some compelling questions. Among them: where will the Sun Devils play, what conference will they join and how soon will they be competitive?
It appears we are about to get the answer to the first question, which likely will have a direct impact on the other two.
According to ASU coach Greg Powers, the university is “very close” to making an announcement regarding a new on-campus facility.
“Our administration has worked very hard in getting all the details finalized,” Powers said. “It’s going to be a heck of a building, and we’re going to have a heck of a program to run out of it.”
A request to speak with ASU senior associate athletic director and CEO Frank Ferrara on the matter was politely denied, suggesting that an announcement is indeed planned for the very near future.
The Sun Devils play the majority of their home games at Oceanside Ice Arena, which has a seating capacity of 747. They also play a handful of games at Gila River Arena, the home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. The move to Division I came with the promise of a new arena in the near future, and the process has had its ups and downs.
In November of 2016, the Coyotes announced plans for a joint venture with ASU to build an arena in Tempe. In addition to a new facility for the Coyotes, an adjacent 4,000 seat arena was to be built for the Sun Devils. But the deal fell through, with ASU turning its focus to building its own arena.
With the NHL having expanded to Las Vegas, and Seattle appearing to be next line, there is a concerted effort to grow the sport in the West. College hockey is no exception, and Powers said the eventual goal is to have the Sun Devils playing as part of the PAC-12 conference. In the meantime, the Sun Devils are not content to remain a Division I independent too much longer.
“We have had discussions with the WCHA, but we have kind of tabled all those discussions with everybody,” Powers said. “Once we announce our plans for the facility it will open up more opportunities in that regard. In hindsight, it was probably the approach we should have taken from Day 1.”
The announcement of a new facility figures to have a major impact on recruiting as well. The goal for any team opening a new stadium or arena is to pair it with a competitive team. For the Sun Devils that means continuing to make inroads in recruiting.
“We cast a pretty wide net the first year,” Powers said. “We went out and got a lot of older guys, just trying to be competitive. With each year, more talent has rolled in, and next year’s class is by far the most skilled class we’ve had.
“Kids commit early in college hockey. We announced in November of 2014 that we would be playing a hybrid season 2015-16, so we essentially had three months to go out and gather up a handful of overagers who didn’t have an opportunity [lined up]. Those guys are our upperclassmen now.
“Last year’s [recruiting] class was still an older class. So next year’s class, in our mind, is the first one where we feel we were on somewhat of a level playing field, and I think that will show with the skill level that we bring in.”
While the Sun Devils will look everywhere for talent, Powers said the focus will continue to be on Western Canada. Eight current Sun Devils are from British Columbia or Alberta. Players from that area are particularly drawn to the Arizona weather, Powers said, and there are a significant number of transplants from Western Canada in Arizona.
Those transplants surely love having the Coyotes in town, and in the Sun Devils have a team that is making strides following a 10-23-5 inaugural season.
“We’re a lot more competitive this season,” Powers said. “Last season we had eight Division I wins and we’re at seven now [7-13-4]. We’ve got a handful of one-goal losses, with only a few games that have really gotten away from us. Generally, we have bounced back strong after something like that happened.
“We can go into each game thinking we have a chance to win if we play the right way. Last year, that wasn’t always the case.”
While Powers didn’t set a goal of winning a certain number of games this season, he did give the team some things to shoot for. Among them, winning an in-season tournament trophy. The Sun Devils fell short in their first attempt, losing to Providence and Lake Superior State in the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh on Dec. 29-30. But they hit the jackpot the following weekend in Las Vegas, defeating Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech to win the Ice Vegas Invitational (pictured above).
“Being the first tournament championship in program history, it’s something these guys can hand their hats on for the rest of their lives,” Powers said.
Next on the agenda is getting the program’s first home sweep. The Sun Devils have earned a split in four of their five home weekend series, but a sweep remains elusive. They have two more changes this season to make it happen — this weekend against Quinnipiac and Jan. 26-27 against Boston University.
Powers has been pleased by the support the team has received from the students, with the unfortunate situation of having to turn students away at home games. A busload of students were on hand when the Sun Devils took home the trophy in Las Vegas.
“We had just under 4,000 at our last game at Gila River, which is over 40 miles from our campus,” Powers said. “So there is an appetite for [college hockey]. When we have a more traditional arena on campus, we feel like we are going to sell out every game.”