GLENDALE, Ariz. — Saturday night hockey at Gila River Arena is a common occurrence this time of year, but there was nothing ordinary about Arizona State’s season opener. In front of a legion of Sun Devil fans decked out in gold, ASU played its first-ever game as a D1 program at the home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
The big stage was fitting for a program with lofty goals. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of playing NCAA-sanctioned hockey in the desert seemed completely farfetched. The last NCAA hockey game in the state of Arizona was back in 1985 (Northern Arizona University).
Even against a non-varsity, ACHA team like the Arizona Wildcats, there was a little more glitz and glamour involved in playing top-level college hockey.
On a night of firsts for the Sun Devils, one thing remained the same — the beat down they typically hand down to their in-state rival in what is dubbed the Cactus Cup. ASU’s 8-1 victory was the program’s 48th in the last 49 games against the team from Tucson. Arizona State has outscored Arizona 45-8 in their last nine meetings dating back to last season.
“It’s a dream come true. It really is,” Sun Devils head coach Greg Powers said about beating Arizona in an NHL environment. “For me and for so many people who have supported and ran this program for years, to have an atmosphere like that tonight and a win like that in front of a lot of fans in a great arena — it really is a dream come true.”
Coming into the game, only eight Sun Devils had prior experience playing D1 hockey at other schools. One was defenseman Connor Schmidt, who will go down in the record books as the man who opened the scoring in the ASU D1 hockey era. His unassisted goal knuckled past Arizona goaltender Garrett Patrick for his first NCAA goal since 2012 as a member of Ferris State.
“It really hasn’t set in yet,” Schmidt said of his accomplishment. “It’s an honor. It’s like something I can tell my grandkids.”
The Sun Devils piled on from there with goals by Jordan Young, Jack Rowe, Jordan Masters (2), Matt Kennedy, Ryan Stevens and Edward McGovern. Robbie Wilkinson was Arizona’s lone goal-scorer.
Starting goaltender Robert Levin stopped two of the three shots he faced in his first game back from an ACL injury before being replaced mid-way through the second period. Freshman Ryland Pashovitz stopped all six shots he faced in relief.
Arizona State will spend most of October on the road, starting with back-to-back games against Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks, two D1 opponents, on Oct. 9 and 10. The Sun Devils will play three more games this season at Gila River Arena, including a two-game tournament in January and against the U.S. National Under-18 Team in the season finale.
Saturday’s victory was just the start, Arizona State will face much tougher competition in the games ahead.
“If we stick to our systems and we believe in each other and we believe in our team and we do the little things then we’ll compete at the collegiate level,” Schmidt said.
The Sun Devils play a hybrid schedule that includes D1 and ACHA opponents this season. ASU will transition to a full D1 schedule in 2016 and hope to align with a conference the following year.