Starting a college hockey program from scratch: Arizona State is trying to build a DI powerhouse
Joey Daccord remembers the text from three years ago.
One of his hockey buddies took a screenshot of a tweet and sent it Daccord’s way, bearing breaking news: Arizona State had announced it was adding a Division I hockey program.
Arizona State announces the addition of an NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey program: http://t.co/gqZOEBBiHY— USA Hockey (@usahockey) November 18, 2014
Daccord, then just another high school hockey player from North Andover, Massachusetts thought it was a neat idea. Who wouldn’t at least want to give hockey in the desert a try? He thought to himself, ‘Anyone who goes out there is gonna to have a good time.’ Simultaneously, he had no intention of going to Tempe.
“I was pretty dead-set on staying in the New England area,” Daccord says. It’s hard to blame him. College hockey began in the northeastern United States in the late 19th century, in the Ivy League and surrounding schools in the New York and Boston areas. And unlike football, which was also born in the northeast but has since spread to the south and the west coast, hockey hasn’t been overtaken by other regions of the country. A strong contingent of hockey schools exists in the Michigan and Minnesota area, but the northeast remains the belly of the college hockey world. ‘The Beanpot’ is sacred verbiage.
But after a high school tournament in January 2015 — just three months after Arizona State announced its Division I expansion — a man named Greg Powers came calling after Daccord, who was a goalie at Cushing Academy. Powers was Arizona State’s head coach. He said he liked Daccord’s game and hoped Daccord could come down to Tempe to visit the school. Daccord was still hesitant, but he figured it couldn’t hurt.
“Once I met coach Powers, and saw the campus and the area, I just loved it,” Daccord says. He was walking around a sunny, 75-degree campus in January. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
“About a week later,” he says, “I just said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Daccord knows choosing Arizona State was a big risk, for plenty of reasons. He left home far behind, for one.
He was also deciding to put his faith in the youngest hockey program in the nation, one without the legacy of the northeast schools or the pedigree of the Minnesota region; one without any reasonable chance of competing for national championships in its first years; one without its own home arena.
“We know this isn’t for everybody,” Powers says. “There’s kids in the northeast, kids up north in Minnesota and North Dakota right now that grow up wanting to play for those good traditional programs, and we get that. That’s the differentiator for us right now. We don’t have a rink, we don’t have a conference, we don’t have NCAA tradition. The one thing we do have is the ability to tell a kid, ‘You have endless opportunity to come here and set standards.’”
Powers graduated from Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in 1999 and was inducted into the ASU Hockey Player Hall of Fame in in 2009; he was a three-time AHCA All-American during some of the Sun Devils’ halcyon days, and was behind the bench in 2014 when they won an AHCA national championship, the team’s first.
So when it was time to make the leap to DI status, the school’s athletic director Ray Anderson turned to Powers and asked him to keep climbing as they started building the program.
Powers says he’s spent the last three years not taking that for granted.
“It would’ve been easy for [Anderson] to say, ‘Hey, great job. You’ll always be an alumni, you did a heck of a job. Now we’re going to hire some guy with more pedigree.’ But he didn’t do that.”
Instead, Anderson rewarded Powers’ passion for Arizona State hockey — Powers says he cares about the program more than anything in the world, outside of his family — with the ultimate task: convince the hockey world the Sun Devils can be in this thing for the long haul.
Some might call that kind of leap of faith daunting.
Powers calls it the most unique experience in college hockey.
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Johnny Walker, an ASU freshman, grew up 15 minutes from Arizona State’s campus. He started playing hockey when he was two; his father played at Boston College, so he continued the natural progression, but he wasn’t a typical Phoenix-area kid. He guesses there were maybe four or five youth hockey teams per age group in the entire state when he grew up. The NHL’s Coyotes had moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix just two years before he was born. The southwest spent the mid-90s and early 2000s as a footnote in the hockey hotbed landscape.
But the Coyotes stayed in the area, and a few Shane Doan-led teams made noise in the playoffs, and an area kid named Auston Matthews (heard of him?) made even more noise around the hockey world. During the Coyotes’ first season in 1996, the state of Arizona had just under 2,400 USA Hockey registered players. By the 2016-17 season, that number had grown by more than 200 percent, to 8,361.
Arizona State assistant coach Alex Hicks, who spent more than a decade in the NHL, helped coach youth hockey in the area before he was hired by Powers when the Sun Devils made the DI leap. He’s seen plenty of guys he played with (and against) land in the southwest when their professional careers were over.
“The southwest lifestyle is so good for the players, away from the rink, that they all retire around here,” Hicks said. “So when their kids get to the age where they start playing hockey, skating, those ex-players will start coaching their kids, helping out, getting them on the ice. I think that helps develop these players. Arizona’s really producing some high-end players at a really good rate without a ton of kids who play hockey. Everyone kind of gets it through osmosis, I guess.”
From the time Walker was getting his skating legs under him and Hicks was playing in the league, to the time Walker was ready to look for a college hockey destination and Hicks a coaching job, Arizona’s hockey scene had undergone a complete transformation.
This is what makes the timing of the Sun Devils’ push ideal.
What was once a forgotten region is pushing toward the forefront of hockey players’ imaginations. How else do you explain how Powers was able to convince players like Massachusetts’ Daccord, or Dylan Hollman, who hails from Deer Lake, Alberta, Canada and left UMass-Lowell to transfer to Arizona State, that Tempe was the perfect college hockey destination?
Hollman and Daccord say their friends text them from time to time, asking about the program, and also about the weather.
“The attendance has been getting better and better, and from the students I talk to and people in the community who attend the games, they have a lot of fun,” Hollman says. “Hockey’s a fun sport to watch. I know a lot of them don’t like coming to the cold rink, but our games have been really well-attended.”
Walker says his friends who left Phoenix for different hockey pastures look back to Phoenix and Tempe and envy him. It’s a good feeling, he says, when your peers show a little interest and jealousy in what you’re doing.
It’s also a good sign for Powers’ program.
Arizona State’s foray onto the ice has come at a crucial moment for hockey in the area. The southwest is producing more kids interested in the sport than ever, and now the state of Arizona has its own DI college hockey program.
The first generation of Sun Devils players committed to helping build the program because they were eager for the opportunity to build; the next generation will arrive ready to carry on a legacy they grew up watching.
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That first generation, of course, is still taking shape.
Part of Powers’ realistic pitch to bring players to Tempe is that, while the school has had club hockey for years, Arizona State doesn’t have DI tradition the way other schools do. It’s a double-edged sword, but it’s proven potent for him so far.
As the team prepared to jump into the DI melee, Powers himself came up with the Sun Devils’ slogan: ‘Be The Tradition.’ Team-building rituals are starting to crop up a few years into the journey, including the awarding of a gigantic trident to each player of the game, which is followed by the singing of the ASU fight song.
— Sun Devil Hockey (@SunDevilHockey) November 25, 2017
Powers also relishes the value of being an independent school as Arizona State searches for a conference home. He knows playing great legacy schools will result in losses. For now, he’s not focused on wins and losses. Right now, it’s about learning.
“We’ve been out east against all these schools, ECAC schools, and Sioux St. Marie, and played Lake State, and we go out to Bemidji, and Omaha. We’ve been everywhere. We’ve exposed our brand to every market in college hockey, and that’s what we want to do. Right now we’re going out, seeing what these programs do so successfully, on and off the ice, absorbing it, learning from it, and making it into our own.”
The history books in Tempe are just being cracked open, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, is exactly what some students are looking for.
“I think being part of something new, and coming into a program where you don’t have 70 years of history, is great,” Walker says. “It’s been two years, and now you’re the first team ever that’s really starting to compete for a winning season, and hopefully eventually national tournaments. I think starting something new and putting your stamp on it, it’s something special.”
And, yes, ASU didn’t have a hockey program, but it had a storied athletics program already in place. When Daccord came to visit, he walked around Sun Devil Stadium with Powers, and he toured the school’s athletic hall of fame. He saw names like Phil Mickelson and Barry Bonds. If this school was going to do hockey, he thought to himself, it was going to do it right.
Powers thinks, so far, the program has done just that. They’ve stuck to the plan they established when the decision was made, despite not having a buffer year between playing club hockey and fielding a DI-level squad. He’s excited about the pending stadium announcement, once everything is squared away. He’s excited to keep chipping away at the sport’s established hierarchy.
Most of all, he’s excited because he sees progress.
“People ask what the blueprint was,” Powers says. “‘How’d you turn a club hockey program into a DI program?’ There was no blueprint. We’re just doing what we think makes sense.”