Boston College, University of Minnesota, UND, Wisconsin: these schools are traditional college hockey powerhouses. But Arizona State University plans to shake up the NCAA by joining their ranks in 2017. At present, the Sun Devils compete at the collegiate club level and will transition to Division 1 over the course of three years through playing a mixture of varsity and D1 hockey. Penn State, now a member of hockey’s Big Ten conference, employed a similar approach.
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) November 18, 2014
Located throughout Phoenix, Arizona, ASU is known best for its football and basketball programs–a vast majority of the D1 men’s teams are based in traditional hockey markets. Like the University of Alabama-Huntsville, ASU will contend with grueling travel schedules. CBS Sports’ Chris Peters noted three potential rivals, based solely on geography:
None of the school’s natural rivals play hockey, either. There are two Division I schools in Alaska, while Arizona’s closest opponents geographically would be the three teams that call Colorado home: the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado College and University of Denver. -Chris Peters
Travel will no doubt be costly. The program’s funding comes from a generous $32 million donation, made by Don Mullet, father of a former ASU player. In accordance with Title IX, ASU will add a women’s sport. (Whether it’s hockey remains to be seen.) ASU’s transition to D1 suggests that hockey’s popularity in Arizona has grown, despite rumors suggesting the Arizona Coyotes will relocate due to low attendance. The Sun Devils are one of the country’s top club teams and posted a 38-2-0 record last season before capturing their first ACHA championship.
Success at the college level is imperative to growing hockey in nontraditional markets. The move is not without its risks, but the Sun Devils’ D1 move could help grow the game, particularly among Arizona’s youth. While the program is in its early stages and a number of issues remain unresolved, the transition speaks volumes about hockey’s viability–and might do some good for the Coyotes, too.