At Arizona State, the quest for a conference home is the next hurdle to clear
The Sun Devils haven't exactly been wandering in the desert for years, but with a competitive program and a state-of-the-art new rink, a permanent conference affiliation is the next logical focus.
TEMPE, Ariz. — Amid all of the changes college hockey has seen in the past decade, one thing that has stayed stubbornly the same is a map of the United States. The majority of the game’s “blue blood” programs still reside in the “three Ms” — Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. And the drive to Arizona State’s ridiculously scenic campus in suburban Phoenix is going to take you three full days, or more, of windshield time.
But this year, for the first time, Arizona State coach Greg Powers finds himself recruiting head-to-head versus some of those blue blood programs, with five high-level prospects making their official visits to the land of the Sun Devils over the past few months. And he got commitments from all but one of them.
“Because of where we are, kids can’t get in a car and drive two hours (to visit),” Powers said after a recent Sun Devils practice. “We have to get them on a plane and it’s much tougher logistically, but we’re four for five … So it’s happening.”
The Devils’ dance hall
This winter, for the first time, there’s is an addition to the official recruiting visit to Arizona State that wasn’t there before. When the team played a few miles off campus at the bewilderingly-named Oceanside Ice Arena — which was akin to a practice rink by Minnesota high school hockey standards — seeing the actual home of the Sun Devils was not part of the tour.
We’re at a place right now, in my opinion, that we’ve done everything we could to prove to college hockey that we’re legit.
“We would bring kids in here in the summer and show them everything but the place we played,” Power admitted. “Kids would say, ‘Let’s go see the rink,’ and we’d say, ‘No, you don’t need to see it. It’s not important.’ Well, it is kind of important. Smoke and mirrors.”
Since it opened last fall, Mullett Arena has become a selling point for potential future Sun Devils, as if the palm tree-filled campus and the nearby mountains and the year-round sunshine weren’t enough. The rink — which seats 5,000 and is also the current home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes — is a reason that after six mostly nomadic years traveling around the college hockey world, picking up games where and when they could, suddenly everyone wants to visit Tempe in the winter, and not just to play golf in January.
Powers spoke to a handful of media following the team’s final practice prior to making the long trip to Fairbanks for a two-game set with fellow-independent program Alaska, and actually seemed excited to get away from the Valley of the Sun for a few days.
“It seems like we’ve been here forever,” he said. “We’ve had 10 straight home games, so it’s going to be good to get out on the road with the guys and re-set a little bit, away from home.”
There will be even more home cooking next season. College hockey teams typically play 34 regular season games. Because of all that travel the Sun Devils have done over the past half-decade or so, many, many teams owe them a trip. And seemingly all of them are coming to visit in 2023-24. Powers notes that the Sun Devils will play 26 home games next season, with lots of visiting fans and lots more potential recruits set to get a taste of desert hockey, which is no longer a novelty.
“We’re in our seventh full season as a program and our first in this building,” Powers said. “Recruiting is going unbelievably well. We now have access and conversations with kids that we’ve never had access to, and it’s because of this place.”
Craving a conference
A year or more ago, Powers might have downplayed the program’s need to find a conference home, and would talk up the advantages of being an independent. But while most of the college hockey world is gearing up for the playoffs at this time of the season, the Sun Devils are 35th in the Pairwise with a 13-16-0 record, and realize that there is no realistic way to play themselves into the NCAA tournament. He freely admits that keeping his team engaged over the final month of the season will be a challenge when there’s no chance they will be playing in the middle of March.
“We have a good team, we’re getting healthier, we’ve had some huge wins, so we would love to have the opportunity to play in a conference tournament,” Power said, rattling off a season resume that includes beating North Dakota in Las Vegas and beating top-ranked Minnesota in overtime at home. They had swept St. Thomas in Tempe prior to heading to Alaska.
“It is hard. One of the hardest parts of our job as a coaching staff, last year and this year, is finding ways to keep our kids engaged when they don’t have a postseason to play for. All these teams we’re playing are ramping into playoff mode and they have a second life coming their way and we don’t,” he said.
On a more hopeful note, Powers said that the school has had “serious conversations with multiple conferences” in the past month. So a conference home, starting as soon as the 2024-25 season, seems possible. Two years ago, when COVID-19 limited teams to conference-only schedules for the 2020-21 season, the Sun Devils worked out a temporary agreement with the Big Ten, and played 26 road games, making two weekend trips to each of the conference’s seven hockey schools. They won seven of them, including a sweep of Big Ten champion Wisconsin in Madison.
In retrospect, Powers admits that spending what amounted to an entire season on the road was sometimes brutally hard, but they enjoyed the conference and the competition. While he is not naming any one conference that they would prefer, there has been much discussion by others that a Power 5 school like ASU would be a most natural fit among the seven schools that currently make up Big Ten hockey, and an eighth team in that league would eliminate the weekly need for a bye week in the conference. All Powers will say is that this season, more than in the past, conference affiliation has become a priority for the program.
“We’re at a place right now, in my opinion, that we’ve done everything we could to prove to college hockey that we’re legit,” he said. “We made the NCAA tournament as an independent out of a 700-seat rink. We’ve built arguably the best facility in college hockey. We get great crowds. There are experiences that visiting teams get when they come here, it’s a tremendous trip for them. We’re incredibly competitive, obviously. We’ve done all the right things.”
Having been around college hockey a long time, Powers clearly understands a community that can be cutthroat on the rink is often supportive of one another off the ice, for the good of the game.
“Hopefully college hockey reciprocates and takes care of us,” he said.