TEMPE, Ariz. — After reaching the peak of club hockey, the Arizona State University Sun Devils turned their attention to a new challenge — one that seemed completely farfetched as early as a few years ago.
Eight months after winning the 2014 American Collegiate Hockey Association National Championship, the first ever for the program, ASU announced that hockey would upgrade from club level and join the university’s 22 other NCAA-sponsored sports.
ASU enters a new division on the heels of three consecutive ACHA Final Four appearances, including last season’s club-level swan song, when they fell 2-1 to Stony Brook in the semifinals.
As well as the Sun Devils played in the ACHA, moving up to Division I presents a whole new set of challenges both on and off the ice. The competition is better and ASU is forced to compete with schools that carry a heavy hockey tradition and lineage in the recruiting process.
The Sun Devils will be somewhat eased into Division I this season, playing a hybrid schedule that includes DI and ACHA opponents. ASU will play a full DI schedule in 2016, although they will not be aligned with a conference until 2017, when they plan to have full DI membership.
Expectations for the program are at an all-time high.
“We’re going to take it head on and we have very lofty expectations,” Sun Devils head coach Greg Powers said. “Just like we did when we took over the ACHA program, we told people we wanted to win a national championship — people thought we were crazy — we did. We’re going to do the same thing at this level. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but we’re going to get there.”
One way the program hopes to improve rapidly is by not shying away from top competition.
“Coach Powers is clearly of the mind that all of us in the athletic department are of that we want to play the best,” ASU athletic director Ray Anderson said at a Wednesday press conference. “We want to play the big boys anytime, anywhere because our student-athletes and our fans and our community deserves that.”
“The hockey out there will be top-tier hockey,” Anderson added. “There won’t be a couple cupcake (opponents) — we’re just not doing that.”
To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
“We expect our student-athletes to step up and enjoy that experience (of playing top competition),” Anderson said. “That’s why we came here, to be elite, to play at an elite level, which means you’ve got to play the big boys.
“So we won’t be shying away from anybody — the schedule will be exciting.”
It’s not hard to see why everyone at ASU is confident. The program is 164-27-9 in the last seven seasons under coach Powers, whose accolades include being named ACHA DI National Coach of the Year in 2013-14. But the past is just that — in the past. Heading into NCAA play, the slate is wiped clean.
“We’re just starting all over,” Powers said. “We had a great run and we accomplished so many great things at the ACHA level and now it’s time to do it all over again at the highest level.”
ASU won’t be making the journey alone, as the National Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes have offered support to the club that includes playing four games at their rink, Gila River Arena, this season. Playing at an NHL arena opens the door for the Pac-12 Network to broadcast games, allowing fans and prospective players to see ASU hockey in a whole new light.
“I think it really sets the stage for what we want to be as a team,” freshman forward Jack Rowe said. “We have a chance to come in and build the program exactly how we want it to be.”
“The stage is set. Big rink — a lot of character in that rink — and it’s just going to give us a great opportunity.”
Hockey in the desert is growing, and ASU moving up to DI may be the biggest event to keep it growing since the Coyotes found an ownership group willing to keep professional hockey in Arizona.
The Sun Devils open the 2015-16 season on Oct. 3 against the University of Arizona at Gila River Arena.