TEMPE, Ariz. — Guy Gadowsky was impressed with Penn State’s level of planning as it prepared to launch a Division I hockey program after a lengthy and successful run as a club program. The Nittany Lions had scholarship and recruiting plans in place, they had all the necessary resources from a well-versed, major college athletic department and they had secured what would eventually become a $102 million donation from alumnus Terry Pegula to build an arena.
“We never talked about starting a program as a challenge because it was all so much fun,” said Gadowsky, the Nittany Lions coach for the past four seasons.
If Gadowsky has one piece of advice for the Arizona State men’s hockey program as it hits the road for the first time as a Division I team this weekend at Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks, it is this: Expect the unexpected.
“It never works out as you plan,” Gadowsky said, laughing. “There are always surprises.”
ASU Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson sent shock waves through the North American hockey community when he announced in November that the Sun Devils would elevate their national champion club men’s team to NCAA Division I status over the next three seasons — a move made by possible by a donation of $32 million by Don Mullett and another booster.
The move came at a time when many university athletic departments were cutting costs and teams amidst impending budget concerns.
“This is in line with (ASU) President (Michael) Crow’s vision,” Anderson said at the time. “Let’s step out there. Let’s do some things that others maybe aren’t comfortable doing so long as you can make the business case for it and a financial case for it. We’re going to be entrepreneurial.”
Arizona State is the first power-five conference school to add men’s ice hockey since the Big Ten’s Penn State added the sport in 2012, but the Nittany Lions aren’t the only example ASU can look to as it constructs a program nearly 800 miles from its closest Division I competitor (Colorado College).
The University of Alabama-Huntsville is a clear example of a program launched in a non-traditional market. The Chargers have been a Division I program consistently since the 1998-99 season (they had an earlier Division I stint). Nebraska-Omaha is another. The Mavericks have been a Division program since the 1997-98 season.
“When you start something from scratch, the first issue you face is to gain credibility and gain recognition on an international basis,” said UNO associate athletic director Mike Kemp, who was the Mavericks coach when they began Division I play. “Initially, when we went out to recruit, it was a case of people not even knowing where we were or who we were.”
Kemp had spent the previous fourteen years as an assistant and head recruiter for the University of Wisconsin, helping the Badgers to nine NCAA tournament appearances and a national championship in 1990. He had the resume, but his new program simply didn’t have the street cred.
“We couldn’t go to the traditional places for recruiting –the hockey rich states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts or Michigan. Those players have preconceived ideas of where they’re going to go. They wanted established programs with traditions,” Kemp said. “A lot our recruiting was focused across Canada but also in Europe where we could go in on equal footing because nobody knew the difference between Omaha and Wisconsin.”
Kemp spent a lot of time on the recruiting trail early in the process, along with assistant coach David Quinn, who is not the head coach at Boston University. The Mavs went a respectable 12-18-3 in their first season, dipped to 11-24 the following year and improved to 24-15-3 by their fourth season. Last season, under coach Dean Blais, UNO advanced to the Frozen Four where it lost to eventual champ Providence, 4-1.
Kemp said ASU’s road will be littered with other unforeseen obstacles including NCAA compliance issues that force previously involved boosters to alter their roles in the program.
“Consistency is going to be very difficult until you’re a program that reloads instead of rebuilding,” he added. “Initially, you might have success, but what happens in year 3, 4 or 5? You have to retain student-athletes because those things drastically affect your APR (Academic Progress Rate) score, but you also have to out-recruit the players you’ve got.
“It’s a balancing act. Next year to improve, you might need to replace eight guys in your lineup but what do those eight returning guys do when they have been replaced?”
Both Kemp and Gadowsky cited the enormous importance of community support and a suitable arena to the success of a program. UNO has regularly averaged some of the best attendance figures in Division I hockey and Penn State is also among the top 10 in annual attendance.
“You just can’t overstate how much that impacts a program when you have a big, full building of energetic fans,” said Gadowsky, whose team went 18-15-4 last season. “When players are considering where they want to play, that plays a major role.”
ASU will play the majority of its home games at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, which will have a capacity of approximately 1,200, but the team will also play four games at Gila River Arena. Anderson has acknowledged the importance of having an on-campus arena in place soon to attract fans, attract recruits and increase revenue potential. His goal is to have that facility completed by 2018 but that timeline could change depending on fund-raising and planning variables.
“If it’s only a stopgap measure and you have a facility on the horizon, you can survive and attract kids, knowing they’re going to be playing somewhere else,” Kemp said. “I think playing in the Coyotes arena also helps. Every kid wants to play in an NHL building so that’s a pretty unique selling point.”
The Sun Devils will take 10 road trips this season, and none of them are short since there are no nearby programs, but coach Greg Powers doesn’t bat an eye over the schedule.
“It won’t be an excuse and we won’t use it as an excuse,” he said. “We were used to, as a club team, flying places seven to eight times a year. We have 10 road trips so it’s really not much more and with the added resources we get at the NCAA level, we travel first class and the guys are really well taken care of.”
Neither Kemp nor Gadowsky believes ASU’s obstacles are insurmountable.
“You’ve got to sell the advantages that you have and it’s very clear that ASU, as a major athletic department, has some major advantages,” Kemp said. “It may be a non-traditional market, but they’ve had an NHL team there for a while and they have a good partnership with that team. The population there is huge and youth hockey is growing faster there than almost any place you’ll find.
“They do have that weather, too. When it comes to hockey players, you can bet that will be attractive to some.”
Powers recognizes the challenges the Sun Devils face, but he believes the program has planned well for the future so he is taking an optimistic approach to this landmark season.
“What we’re focused on right now is being the most successful start-up Division I hockey program ever,” he said. “Penn State set a really good bar… We want to be better.”