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Photo Courtesy of Arizona State University

For more than four decades, Arizona State University men’s collegiate ice hockey was completely under the radar in the desert.  Lacking the ability to attract the sport’s top athletes, who wanted to play for a Division I program, ASU was forced to the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), which offers schools the opportunity to build a hockey program even when struggling with budget and Title IX issues.  Things began to shift in 2014, when ASU won the ACHA Tournament, as many in the collegiate hockey community noticed what the school was building – especially the NCAA.  Just two seasons after winning the tournament, ASU announced it would launch a Division I hockey program, having spent the previous season in a hybrid schedule featuring Division I and Division III schools.  

The university became the 60th program to join Division I and just the second to come from the sun belt – the University of Alabama-Huntsville joined in 1998.  It was a major achievement in beginning to build a hockey tradition for the school but there was still a lot of work to be done.  To be taken seriously, and placed in the same regard as powerhouses like Ohio State University, University of Notre Dame and University of Minnesota, the Sun Devils had to bring in talent and create a winning culture.  In the 2015-2016 campaign, the first season as a member of the NCAA, when the program played the aforementioned hybrid schedule, the end result was an abysmal, finishing with a record of 5-22-2.  The next two seasons would prove to labor significant growing pains for coach Greg Powers, with a combined record of 18-40-8 but, more importantly than that, the team was doing heavy recruiting and making headway on signing top level collegiate talent – the kind of talent the team had been unable to attract for decades.  What culminated was an ASU team that has now become the most talked about story of the college hockey season.

And that spotlight is as much because of the young talent as it is the coaching.

Perhaps the most interesting acquisition for this Sun Devils team came early last year, when it announced that the son of hockey royalty had committed to the program.  Austin Lemieux, son of National Hockey League Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, had the skill set to go to several high profile programs but, instead, the 22-year-old sports management major – who led the United States Premier Hockey League in scoring with 74 points in 45 games back in 2015-2016 – shocked the hockey world and announced he’d play for the Sun Devils.  And it appears the red shirt freshman is already learning a ton this season – it’s tough not to when you’re playing behind one of the best players in the country, right winger Johnny Walker.  Walker, a 6-foot-1 sophomore from Phoenix, leads the country in goals (11) and points (17) and earned the title of ‘best player in the world of the week’ earlier in the month by ESPN writer and noted hockey guru Greg Wyshynski.  But no team is successful without a netminder between the pipes and junior Joey Daccord has been money for the Sun Devils thus far this season, thanks to a .930 save percentage which is third among the nation’s goaltenders who have played at least 10 games.

These pieces, and many others, have helped ASU jump out to a staggering 9-3 record.  Those three losses were all against ranked teams, one of which was a one-goal regulation loss to the No. 1 Ohio State, the second was a 3-0 to the Buckeyes and the other was an overtime thriller against No. 6 Penn State University.  Penn State did suffer a loss to ASU as well, which was the program’s first-ever victory over a ranked program.  But this Monday, ASU’s legitimacy finally came to fruition when the program earned its first-ever national ranking, as the No. 18 team in the country.  It’s a humongous step in proving the Sun Devils, and warm weather climate schools in general, can build successful hockey programs in non-traditional markets.  So how is the school rewarded, with plans to build a hockey arena adjacent to Wells Fargo Arena, which will be renovated in the coming years.

The hockey arena, planned to be completed in early 2021, will be 5,000 seats as well as the home to the school’s gymnastics and wrestling programs.  The cost of the arena, and the renovation to Wells Fargo Arena, will cost the school an estimated $160 million.  The team currently plays at Oceanside Arena, which seats just under 1,000, with a couple of select games taking place at Gila River Arena, home to the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes.

If the Sun Devils can sustain a winning environment and remain a competitive fun-to-watch hockey program for the next several seasons, just in time for the new arena, ASU could prove to the rest of the nation that it belongs in Division I and slowly work towards being a powerhouse.  There’s still a long way to go for that, however.  Right now, dropping the independent title and earning a spot in the Big Ten, college hockey’s dominant conference, would go a long way in taking the next step.  Expect to see other non-traditional hockey programs follow ASU’s footsteps in building a legit D-I team.