The courtship of Arizona State hockey in full bloom
And nobody knows the game better than ASU hockey coach Greg Powers, which is why the coach of the first-year Division I program — and former headhunter for major corporations — plans to select a suitor as early as this spring.
“It’s only fair the players we’re recruiting know the league they’ll be playing in,” Powers said. “We’ve got three great options.”
Those options are the Big Ten, NCHC and WCHA. All would love to bring in a program where tank tops, board shorts and flip flops are the norm on a typically warm and sunny Tempe, Az., campus. A place with more than 82,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a strong alumni base spread across the country.
Hockey in the desert is soaring these days, thanks in no small part to Powers, himself an ASU club hockey alum who guided the Sun Devils to a national club title and a 164-27-9 career record.
Powers coached eight ACHA Division I All-Americans and 15 ACHA Academic All-Americans before this season, and while he doesn’t have the coaching pedigree of many of his peers in men’s Division I, he’s proving to be the right person at the right time for ASU.
Powers’ desire to build the Sun Devils into a national contender led him to sell his own head-hunter recruiting business before the start of this season so he could focus on ASU hockey. His first Division I recruiting class last April brought 15 freshmen into the fold. The first-year team has been baptized by fire with a schedule filled with some of the top teams in the country.
Before the holiday break the Sun Devils were swept at fifth-ranked Omaha (3-1 and 6-0 losses) and they lost both games at No. 4 St. Cloud State over the weekend. They also have Bemidji State, Merrimack and UMass Lowell ahead, but the Sun Devils have swept Lake Superior State and beat Alaska Fairbanks and are 5-14-0 on the season.
Because the Sun Devils play in an arena that seats only about 1,000, next season they’ll play home game in the Gila Arena, home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. It’s also where they’ll host the Desert Hockey Class Jan. 8 with Michigan Tech, Yale and UConn. ASU has already flown 26,000 miles to get to games this season, and by late January’s trip to Boston they will have logged 34,770 miles.
“We’re really happy with where we are but not content,” Powers said. “We’re trending in the right direction. The kids are getting used to the pace they need to play at this level. With 15 freshmen we are all about building a strong foundation. That’s what it is all about: continuing to focus on the process and create a nice, strong base. We’re getting there.”
Freshman Jordan Masters leads the Sun Devils with 8 goals and 13 assists, and Powers redshirted five players to load up for next season.
Power believes the school has all the ingredients to quickly become a college hockey power. The school’s rink woes are temporary. The coaching staff and school officials have traveled across the country to check out new arenas in places such as Penn State, Notre Dame and Omaha to get ideas on how to build their own. The goal, Powers said, is a state of the art arena that will seat 5,000-6,000 fans.
They’ve also gained confidence in watching Penn State’s quick ascent in Division I (11-2-3, ranked 15th in the country after joining during the 2012-2013 season).
“The blue print has been to focus on what’s right in front of us,” Powers said. “That’s all you can do.”
Because of the school’s size and Division I history in other sports it would seem the Big Ten would be the front runner with like-minded programs such as Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
But Powers, while acknowledging the obvious Big Ten fit, isn’t tipping ASU’s hand just yet. In an interview before the holiday break he said both the NCHC and WCHA have made strong cases and ASU will go with the conference it feels will be the best fit for its hockey program.
“The WCHA has such a rich history and although the teams have changed it’s still a solid conference,” Powers said. “The NCHC is new but it’s already regarded as if not the top conference, one of the top two conferences in college hockey right now. We’ve got a lot to think about but we would love to make a decision sometime this spring.”
There is no real timetable for ASU to declare a conference, but the relatively quick decision fits the pedal-to-the-metal mode ASU has crafted in trying to accelerate its D-I rise.
Powers believes recruits will be more apt to sign if they know what the future holds. He’s probably right, too. Before this season Powers owned his own headhunting company in Tempe and ran it while coaching the club team. However, when the opportunity was offered to coach the team at a Division I level, he sold his business to focus on college coaching at the highest level.
“There are similarities in all recruiting,” Powers said. “My business was doing well, but I know this is a rare opportunity.”
The Sun Devils already have blue chip recruits for next season and beyond. USHL goalie Joey Daccord of the Muskegon Lumberjacks has committed to ASU for next season and is a seventh-round pick of the Ottawa Senators.
Another early signee is Gage Mackie, 6-3 center from Alaska who is the youngest player to commit to ASU. Only 17 and NHL Draft Central’s 178th-ranked North American player, he plans to play juniors before joining ASU most likely for the 2017-2018 season.
As for which conference ASU will compete in, Powers said the following about each conference:
NCHC: “Obviously it’s regarded as one of the two top conferences in college hockey and to go there with all the unbelievable programs and play them on a weekly basis would be compelling.”
WCHA: “The league has such a rich and stories tradition and even though it was built with different programs, they’ve treated us really well and said all the right things.”
Big Ten: “Very likeminded, big-brand universities. They’re more likeminded for how ASU does things because we’re all big schools.”
Overall: “Sometime this spring we will make a choice. The recruits deserve to know where they will play. We get the question ‘what conference will we play in’ a lot and all I can say is we don’t know yet. But we will.”
Above: Freshman Jordan Masters leads ASU with eight goals and 13 assists. (Courtesy Sun Devil Athletics)
Middle: Head coach Greg Powers sold his business to devote more time to the Sun Devil hockey team. (Courtesy Sun Devil Athletics)