Arizona State University accomplished an impressive feat: the school transformed a highly successful ACHA men’s ice hockey team into a competitive Division I NCAA program, attracting top talent from across North America. In their fifth year, the Sun Devils have established themselves as perennial National Championship contenders. During the 2019-20 season, ASU earned an impressive 22-11-3 record, positioning them as 13th in the nation. All signs pointed to the Sun Devils entering the tournament to compete for a National Championship.
Then, on March 12, the NCAA canceled the remainder of the hockey season, dramatically ending ASU’s quest for the team’s first championship. Unlike the NHL, where the possibility of resuming play remains, college hockey players now face the stark reality of no more games, practices, or school. For teams like the closely-knit, confident Sun Devils, overcoming this unprecedented situation presents challenges that not only affect this season but also next year. I spoke with ASU assistant captain Dominic Garcia to discover how a D-I hockey player and program are forced to adapt in these difficult and unique times.
Dominic Garcia: A Short Background
First, a short introduction to Dominic Garcia, now a junior in his third year at ASU. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, he did not start playing ice hockey until he was nine, two years after he began playing roller. Garcia said that he “just wasn’t really into other sports” but loved hockey “right away.” Even though he loved the game, he did not always have aspirations to play college hockey. “I don’t think I began to take [hockey] seriously probably until late Pee-Wees, probably after my first two years of hockey.”
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After that though, he was all in. Garcia soon left Las Vegas to play for more competitive teams.“I started taking it more and more seriously. I spent a year in [California] playing for the SoCal Titans,” a Tier I AAA program that allowed Garcia to skate with better players. After finishing his first year of high school in Las Vegas, he packed his bags and travelled halfway across the country to rural Indiana, joining Culver Military Academy, a preparatory boarding school, for his final three years.
Garcia earned the captaincy in his final year at Culver, helping the team clinch their first national championship tournament berth since becoming a AAA program. He then played two years for the Aston Rebels in the NAHL where he also sewed the “C” onto his sweater. If you are noticing a pattern, you would not be the first. His leadership qualities made him an appealing recruit for the fledgling Sun Devils who saw a player who would bring experience and maturity. He committed to ASU following his final season with the Rebels and credits his time at Culver for developing his leadership skills.
Garcia: “[Culver] made it easy to stay disciplined and be responsible, just because if you weren’t doing the right thing, you were out of the norm. When I was pursuing Arizona State, and they were pursuing me, [ASU] I was able to use my leadership capabilities, and they saw that, and that is what a new program really wanted, someone who was going to do things the right way. I’m not going to be the flashiest player, or anything like that. I’ll do the job you need me to do, and I’ll hold people accountable, and that’s what any new program wants.”
Garcia joined the Sun Devils in 2017-18, the school’s third full year in the NCAA, and since then, the team has only improved.
ASU’s Quick Rise to National Success
The transition from the ACHA to the NCAA was not entirely smooth for the Sun Devils. The team went 5-22-2 during the 2015-16 season, the organization’s first in the NCAA. The second season fared better, as ASU doubled their wins, finishing 10-19-3. The Sun Devil secured an 8-21-5 mark in the team’s third season. Garcia reflected upon his first year of college hockey, recalling the heightened pace of the game and the attitude the team carried.
Garcia: “The first year was tough, just because…I wasn’t used to the speed of college hockey. It took a little time to get acclimated. I think we knew it was going to be a process, so you try to stay positive. But you are able to see you’re close when you are playing really well, but you’re still not able to beat those teams. We kind of kept the mantra that it was us against everybody. Nobody wanted a new school like ASU to come in and beat storied programs like Boston. We ran with that motto, just us against everybody, and it kind of took off and really transformed our program.”
This confidence paid off during the Sun Devil’s fourth season, as the team won an impressive 21 out of 34 games and earned a bid to the National Championship Tournament. ASU would end up losing 2-1 to the Quinnipiac Bobcats in the Regional Semifinal. Nevertheless, for a team in its fourth NCAA season, 2018-19 was a success, and the Sun Devils’ impressive run positioned them for more the following year.
An Abrupt End to the Season
This season, ASU proved that last year was not a fluke. Before the season ended, the Sun Devils were 21-11-3, sitting 13th in the national rankings. They defeated top teams like Quinnipiac, Denver, and Clarkson. ASU had a five-game and six-game winning streak during the season, demonstrating the team’s consistency. Now, in his second season as assistant captain, Garcia spoke to the Sun Devil’s approach and expectations heading into the season.
Garcia: “[In] my sophomore season, we upset some teams. Our expectations were really high. Overall, we felt our team was better than the year before. Our goal never deviated from winning 20 or more games. What helps us is that we know…every game counts for us to stay in the top 16, really in the top 13 if we want to be more comfortable.”
Unfortunately, ASU will not have the chance to capitalize on the hard work invested this season. Like the rest of the country, Garcia said he and his team were monitoring the news concerning COVID-19, unsure how it would affect them. In the first week after the regular season, preparing for the tournament, the Sun Devils finally learned that the NCAA canceled the season. The impact this decision had on morale, especially for seniors, was palpable.
Garcia: “We are definitely one of the closer teams. So once you realize it is worse for our seniors [since] their last game was just ripped away from them, that helps us bond more, and they know we are supporting them and we are there for them.”
Quarantine for a D1 Hockey Player
Now, alongside losing a chance at a National Championship, the Sun Devils have lost precious time at the end of the year to build camaraderie and prepare for the next season. Quarantine for a D-I athlete poses obstacles when trying to maintain physical health and the emotional connection with teammates crucial to any championship team.
Garcia: “After the season, you finally get time with guys away from the rink, away from the pressure, and that was all taken. It’s thrown everyone off. Now you talk to people here and there, but you are not spending all your time with them. It happened so fast, you are kind of numb to it.”
When it comes to working out, Garcia stressed how ASU has done an excellent job providing players the guidance needed to stay in shape. Of course, no off-ice work can emulate skating, but the players only have so many options with gyms across the country closed.
Garcia: “We have a [workout] plan that our trainer [organized] depending on what weights we have. Everything is by yourself. With the limited resources that every college player has, maintaining your diet is crucial, because you can’t go to the gym and work it off. There are things that you are in the gym for that you can get instructed on if you are doing it improperly. So there is coaching from the offseason standpoint that we don’t get right now. Also, the accountability [is] with yourself. When you are by yourself, you have to always keep yourself accountable if you want the results.”
A Bright Future for Sun Devil Hockey
For ASU, the sudden end to the 2019-20 season prevented the team from achieving their full potential. If one silver lining can be found, though, it is that these circumstances have given even more motivation to an already talented and dedicated team. Under Coach of the Year finalist Greg Powers, the Sun Devils will be a dangerous contender next season.
Garcia: “We focus on controlling what we can. This year was about surpassing our goals from [my] second year. And we felt like we were ready to do that. Last year, we lost in the first game of the regional qualifier, and this year, obviously, we wanted to go further and thought we could, regardless of who we played. Every year, we play for the ‘founding fathers’ the players who started this program. Now, we owe it to the seniors this year who got their last game stripped from them. That will be something we will keep with us, making it as far as we can for them.”