Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Arizona State

Well, here's a Know Your Enemy we'd have never expected to be presenting a year ago at this time. That's because this team wasn't even on the NCAA Division I radar at that time, to say nothing of expecting to have a basically full varsity schedule for the 2015-16 season. A lot can change in five months, though. Last October, there was some buzz about the idea that Michigan would be the first Power Five conference school to visit RPI in several years. There was no way to know at that time that they'd be preceded by Boston College, and that the wait to see another Power Five school following the Wolverines would be less than two months. This December, the new kids on the block are also coming to town.

Arizona State
Nickname: Sun Devils
Location: Tempe, AZ
Founded: 1885
Conference: Independent (Pac-12)
National Championships: None
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Greg Powers (6th season)
2014-15 Record: 33-4-1 (14-2-0 WCHL, 1st place)
Series: First meeting

2015-16 games: December 11-12, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Liam Norris, sr.; D Jordan Young, sr.; F Ryan Belonger, jr.; F Sean Murphy, jr.; D Brock Krygier, jr.; G Robert Levin, jr.; F Eric Rivard, jr.; D Connor Schmidt, jr.; D Ed McGovern, so.; D Drew Newmayer, so.; F Brett Gruber, fr.; D Nicholas Gushue, fr.; F Matt Kennedy, fr.; F Joe Lappin, fr.; F Jordan Masters, fr.; F Louie Rowe, fr.; F Charlie Zuccarini, fr.

Hockey in the Valley of the Sun has a fairly recent genesis, as you can probably imagine. While most of the attention focuses on the arrival of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996 as the new Phoenix (and now Arizona) Coyotes, and the troubles that the franchise has had in the desert over the last 20 or so years, Arizona State was actually one of the original focal points of the growth of the sport in a region that doesn't have an awful lot of water, to say nothing of temperatures low enough to make ice.

In the early 1980s, Arizona State students trekked north from Tempe to the growing city of Phoenix's only full-service ice arena, Tower Ice Plaza, for open skating opportunities. Those interested in playing hockey often engaged in small pickup games among each other, and this turned into a small intramural league. The growing popularity of that league coincided with the rise of club hockey on college campuses around the nation, and by the late 1980s, ASU had its own club team, participating in the Division II level of club hockey.

Varsity hockey had been tried in the Grand Canyon State, and it had failed miserably. The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks in Flagstaff were a varsity program for just five seasons in the early 80s, but the cost of the program, along with Title IX concerns, saw the team scuttled. Club hockey then, as it is now, was highly regionalized - the vast bulk of programs are found in schools in the north and in the east - so Arizona State out of the southwest was an odd bird indeed, but the size of the school and the lack of other nearby programs helped it stand out in the region. The Sun Devils began drawing local talent from a growing hockey region, especially in Southern California, taking in players who wanted to play the game in college but weren't quite good enough for big-time varsity play.

Before long, the Sun Devils were one of the more dominant club teams in Division II. Looking to emulate the growing community support from their rivals to the south at the University of Arizona, the Sun Devils moved to Division I play in 1993. Just two seasons later, ASU was playing in the Division I national tournament, their first of three consecutive appearances there in the mid-1990s. By the year 2000, ASU was certainly a force to be reckoned with nationally in club hockey, regularly making appearances in the national tournament but never quite getting over the hump until 2014, when the Sun Devils not only qualified for their very first national championship game, but won it all for their first national title.

Over time, with the growth of hockey in the southwest thanks to the arrival of the NHL in teams like the Coyotes, Arizona State not only became attractive for budding local players, but it also became a place where stronger players from Canada and the American Northeast sought to play as an alternative to playing in Division III. The rationale was simple: ASU was a name-brand school playing a higher level of hockey than most club teams and doing it in a place where you could leave practice in the middle of January wearing just a t-shirt and shorts.

ASU's ascent into the ranks of varsity hockey began innocently in July 2014, with a student reporter asking the school's athletic director and head coach Greg Powers - who had played goalie for the Sun Devils club team in the late 1990s - what it would take for the national club champions to play at the varsity level. The AD had a one word answer: money. Powers had the specifics: between $30 and $40 million.

The story went online. Most comments left on the page scoffed at the idea. But one person who read the story - a team benefactor with means - found the idea irresistible. Within hours, Don Mullett, a businessman in Wisconsin whose son had played for the Sun Devils, inquired about making a donation. Four months and $32 million later, Arizona State was announcing a varsity program, ready to begin play the following season and playing in a conference by 2017.

Unlike the donation made by Terry Pegula at Penn State, which fully funds the team, Mullett's donation merely provides the startup capital, leaving ASU on the hook for ongoing support. But all indications are that Arizona State is all systems go for a full commitment to the future of varsity hockey at the school.

Arizona State's entry into the NCAA has opened a new frontier in college hockey - aside from the Alaska schools, college hockey hasn't extended farther west than Colorado since the demise of the Great West Hockey Conference in the 1980s. But ASU is coming out of Division I club's WCHL, a conference which also includes Arizona and Colorado from the Pac-12, and every other Pac-12 school has a club program competing in the Division II Pac-8, with the exception of Stanford (playing Division III club) and Oregon State (which has no team).

But for now, it's just ASU holding down the varsity fort in the southwest, and they're already reaping the same benefits they did as a club outpost, only now they're drawing Division I level talent. The Sun Devils already boast a fairly impressive recruiting class, especially for an independent team. Masters, out of Rochester, played for Seth Appert and with Lou Nanne on the 2011 Ivan Hlinka team. Zuccarini was one of the top scorers in the BCHL this past season.

ASU's 29-man roster will include 12 players who were involved with the Sun Devils' club program. Two transfers from Nebraska-Omaha and American International will have to sit out the season, but Krygier, a transfer from Michigan State, will be eligible immediately. Belonger (Northeastern) and Schmidt (Ferris State) also have previous NCAA D-I experience.

For the most part, the older players on the squad are guys who played club hockey, while the core of the Sun Devils' talent will be in younger players, especially the freshmen. ASU's prospects may be fairly bright in the long-term, but for a program leaping directly into the fire of a Division I season less than a year after announcing their move to the varsity, next year could be a very difficult struggle. Especially playing at home, the Engineers should be favored to win both games against the Sun Devils, but Arizona State certainly has enough potential in its underclassmen to keep things from getting too embarrassing. These aren't going to be games a team like RPI is going to be able to sleepwalk through - not that this program has really proven to have any games they could just sleepwalk through in the last several years.

RPI will be neither ASU's first varsity trip to the east, nor the first ECAC team they face off with. Those honors both go to Clarkson in November. And yes, since you're all asking the question like giddy schoolchildren - RPI is expected to return the favor with a trip to Arizona, either in 2016-17 or 2017-18, more than likely the former. Pack your bags.

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