The initial success of a major college hockey tournament in the desert may be not as challenging as establishing a solid Division I program. Going forward, that’s the challenge facing a fledgling Arizona State University hockey program
After the commitment to reach the highest level of collegiate athletics in the United States and compete at the Division I level, the task ahead seems daunting. First, there’s the issue of money to fund the program and travel, recruiting and building a fan base. The push to Division I commenced this past summer. That’s when Ray Anderson, the Sun Devils athletic director, announced the move from the WCHL.
When Penn State received a generous gift from billionaire Terry Pegula, a reported $100 million, to commence a Division I program at State College, the result was like a domino effect. The Big Ten then formed a six-team conference and when $32 million was pledged to the Arizona State program and movement to D1 status, that raised to 60 the number of schools playing hockey at the Division I level.
If the Sun Devils want to make a quantum leap into Division I play, they encountered two “firsts” during the first week of January. On Jan. 5, the hosted the UConn Huskies in their first Division I game at home. To increase visibility and image, their game against Yale in the Desert Hockey Classic on Jan 8 was televised by the PAC-12 network. The contest was the first hockey game ever televised nationally in the history of the network. Plus, the tournament, featuring Michigan Tech, UConn, Yale and Arizona State, was held in the Gila River Arena, home of the Coyotes, and a step the Sun Devils athletic administrations hopes is the start of fruitful relationship to schedule additional games in the NHL-housed building.
All of which may help the image and possibly aid in recruiting, but this edition of the Sun Devils is young and playing a difficult schedule. That’s way coach Greg Powers wants this, and constructed a schedule designed to raise the caliber of his team.
“Right now, we’re focusing on the process,” Powers said Arizona State after dropped a 4-0 decision to Yale in the opening round of the Desert Classic. “I decided to schedule good, tough teams, because that’s the only way we’ll grow. We’ll having a tough time stretching together three solid periods of play, and we knew this would be a challenging year.”
On the current Arizona State roster, Powers carries 12 freshmen and said after the Yale defeat, “we made several freshmen mistakes and Yale played like the 12th ranked team in the country.”
While this may be a painful way to commence play at the Division I level, Powers says he’s ready to build on his current stock of players.
“Look, no one likes to lose, and our team is going through a tough period,” he said. “Yet, give these players two, three, four years’ experience and by the time many are seniors, this will be a competitive program. I’m an impatient guy, but have no choice but to be patient.”
With acceleration to Division I, Anderson hopes to broadened the horizon. With the Frozen Four slated for Amalie Arena, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning this coming April 7 and 9, the attraction of staging the NCAA championship in a warm weather venue is contagious. In the recent past, Anderson made it clear that he is going after the Frozen Four, and hopes to host this NCAA championship in the Gila River Arena.
That may be on a long-range goal, but the immediate quest is to make this program competitive. Coming into the Desert Classic Friday night, the Sun Devils dropped 15 of their first 20 games and lost eight straight. Still, that did not curb the enthusiasm and drive of his program.
“We knew we had to have patience this year,” Powers added. “The start of the season has been frustrating, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a process.”
The first move in the Sun Devils’ evolution to a higher level was renovation of their existing “home” facility. Calling Oceanside Ice rink in Tempe home for 11 games this season, the Sun Devils and Oceanside management combined for $250,000 in improvements, which include new bleachers and locker rooms. The long-range plan calls for Arizona State to play in its own facility on or near campus. At this point, the cost is prohibitive and options, such as playing in the Talking Stick Arena (current home of the NBA Phoenix Suns) as well as a few games in the Gila River Arena, home of the NHL Coyotes, remain possibilities.
For now, the Sun Devils seems to be treading water. If their effort against Yale is any indication, Powers has a monstrous task. Against Yale, in which the Sun Devils were shut out for the fourth time this season, they managed only 10 shots on net through the opening two periods, a mere 12 for the game, and showed a decisive lack of team speed.
In this regard, Powers and his staff face an enormous challenge of recruiting for skill and speed. A consistently winning program will likely draw strong players than the delights of year-round sunshine and wearing shorts on campus in the middle of January.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.