At Arizona State, a coach with executive recruiting skills sets off to build a program

Arizona State coach Greg Powers (left), with athletic director Ray Anderson, has verbal commitments for next season from eight forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender (photo: Jeremy Hawkes, Sun Devil Athletics).

Elevating a club hockey program to Division I status involves incredible dedication and planning. Doing so in less than a year is an even bigger hurdle.

That’s the challenge Arizona State faces as it prepares to become the 60th NCAA school to sponsor Division I men’s ice hockey next season.

Thanks in large part to a $32 million gift from an anonymous donor and Don Mullett, the father of a former Arizona State club hockey player, Arizona State announced on Nov. 18 its intentions to launch a varsity program at college hockey’s highest level.

Arizona State coach Greg Powers understands the demands he’s going to have to face in the coming months, but he said he has the support needed to ease the Sun Devils’ transition.

“Arizona State doesn’t do anything halfway,” Powers said. “If [athletic director] Ray Anderson and our athletic department do something, they are all in.

“Our administration is fully behind building a first-class college hockey program at the highest level, and Arizona State wouldn’t go about it any other way.”

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Arizona State announcement was the appointment of Powers as head coach. Currently in his fifth season as head coach of the club program and eighth season behind the Sun Devils’ bench overall, Powers doesn’t skirt the fact he doesn’t fit the traditional model of a head coach at the Division I level. In fact, he’s proud of his roots as an Arizona State alumnus.

Powers was a three-time ACHA Division I All-American goaltender during his time as a player for the Sun Devils’ club program. After graduation, the married father of two started his own executive search firm. Powers has since sold his business but said he believes many of the same traits that made him successful in the business industry will help him turn Arizona State into a college hockey power.

“Recruiting is in my blood — it’s what I love to do,” Powers said. “I built a very successful executive search firm and all the same principles apply. If a client has a need for a certain type of candidate, you go out and find the best one available, and you sell that candidate on the opportunity. If your roster has a need, you go out, find the best player available for that need and sell that kid on the opportunity. Everything applies; it’s all the same.”

Powers has used that edge as a recruiter to his advantage as head coach of the club team at ASU, leading the Sun Devils to the school’s first ACHA national championship last season.

Despite not playing professional hockey himself, Powers will have NHL experience on his coaching staff next season. Powers announced the hiring of former NHLer Alex Hicks, who played Division III hockey for Wisconsin-Eau Claire before embarking on a 14-year professional hockey career that included 258 games in the NHL at stops in Anaheim, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Florida.

“I hired Alex because he’s with me now on our current team and we work well together, and I can trust him,” Powers said. “But more importantly, I don’t want any kid to say to us, ‘You don’t know what it takes to get me to the next level.’ If there’s one guy that knows what it takes to get to the next level, it’s a guy that was able to develop himself to get to the National Hockey League and have a sustainable career off playing Division III hockey. He knows exactly what it takes.”

Talented hockey players are popping up all over the United States, and Powers said he realizes the advantage Arizona State can have as an elite school in a non-traditional market. Hockey in the West is growing faster than ever before, and Powers said ASU will focus first and foremost on landing local talent.

He singled out the 59 players from California playing college hockey this season as a particular area the Sun Devils must target in recruiting going forward.

“That’s going to be our focus — to keep kids close to home,” Powers said. “California, Arizona, Western Canada is where we’re going to focus right away.

“Obviously, there are kids from all over North American that are interested in Arizona State, and we’re interested in them, too, but from a proactive standpoint, that’s our approach.”

The current makeup of the Arizona State roster features seven former USHL players and a pair of NCAA Division I transfers in Connor Schmidt (Ferris State) and Ryan Belonger (Northeastern).

“We’re in a better situation than I think people care to evaluate,” Powers said. “We have some good kids — really good players. They can play [at the Division I level], had opportunities to play [at the D-I level] but believed in what we were building and decided to come become a part of it.”

Despite the talent already on board, with the Sun Devils playing a hybrid schedule next season featuring a mixture of ACHA and NCAA opponents, Powers said ASU must improve its roster to reach the level of competitiveness he demands.

“Our main focus right away is next year,” he said. “We have to get better because we want to win. We want to be competitive right away. People might not think that’s realistic, but we do, and that’s our expectation.”

Arizona State has hit the recruiting trail running, already earning verbal commitments from eight forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender for next season. Eight of those commitments for next season were born in 1994 and the other three in 1995. It’s clear ASU is targeting older players that should be able to compete immediately.

The Sun Devils have also picked up a Division I transfer (David Norris from American International) that will be eligible in 2016 as well as a forward commit for that same season.

It remains to be seen how many players Arizona State will bring in next season, but Powers said the staff must have a plan to balance the recruiting classes over the next few years.

“We have a plan in place to build a sustainable program to where we’re not chasing ourselves and stuck with one huge class,” Powers said. “We’re going to bring in some good kids next year. Ideally, if we can use six to eight scholarships right away and then six again and then six again, then that’s how we’re going to build a program.”

With the level of talent the Sun Devils possess along with a strong, older recruiting class, Powers said Arizona State should be competitive right out of the gate next season.

“I think we’re going to have a competitive team,” Powers said. “Are we going to be a team that goes out and becomes ranked and wins a national championship? No, of course not. But, I think we can go steal some wins next year, I really do.”

Highly touted Matthews has five colleges and major juniors as options, but he’s in no hurry

Auston Matthews is projected by some to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft (photo: USA Hockey).

Much of the buildup heading into the 2014-15 season has been centered on American-born prospects Jack Eichel of Boston University, Noah Hanifin of Boston College and Zach Werenski of Michigan. And with good reason, as all three are projected to be first-round picks next June when the NHL holds its annual draft.

So, who’s next?

That honor goes to Auston Matthews from the U.S. National Team Development Program. A 17-year-old center from Scottsdale, Ariz., Matthews is projected by some talent evaluators to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft.

When asked to describe his star player, NTDP U18 head coach Don Granato needed only one word: elite.

“He’s an elite player,” Granato said. “From speed, to hand-eye coordination, to hockey sense, size, strength, work ethic, commitment — all of those are 10s. We’re talking about an impressive player.”

Unlike many high-end prospects that make college decisions years in advance of arriving on campus, Matthews has yet to make a decision on where he’ll play hockey next season.

Matthews is strongly considering his NCAA options, but he hasn’t ruled out the WHL — where the Everett Silvertips hold his rights.

“I’m just taking my time with everything,” Matthews said. “Both routes are not bad routes at all. I think if I’m going to commit to play somewhere — I’m a man of my word, I’m going to go play there.

“So, right now, I’m just going to sit back and weigh my options and make sure I find what the best fit is for me.”

Matthews said he has narrowed down his college options to five schools: Boston University, Boston College, North Dakota, Michigan and Denver. He hasn’t taken any visits, but will do so as the season goes along.

As a September birth date, Matthews wasn’t scheduled to graduate high school until 2016. He’s accelerating that timeline by taking additional classes now, and will graduate in time to play college hockey next fall — if that’s the route he chooses.

At this point it’s unclear when he’ll make a final decision, but for now Matthews is in no hurry.

“Definitely after the New Year I’ll be narrowing what I want to do,” Matthews said. “Right now it’s kind of up in the air.”

While the NHL has had mixed results with franchises in warm climates, Matthews is another example of why it’s so important to cultivate these markets for the future of American hockey. The Arizona native was introduced to the game after the Coyotes moved from Winnipeg in 1996. Matthews was born in 1997, and a few years later he started going to games with his family.

“My uncle had season tickets to Coyotes games when I was 2 or 3,” Matthews said. “He used to take my dad and me with along with him.”

Matthews’ interest in the game was sparked, and not long after he was lacing up the skates himself.

And Matthews is just one success story. The USA U18 roster this season features players from 11 different states plus the District of Columbia.

“Being in this job, where you get to see the player pool of American-born players — it’s impressive, the depth of our markets,” Granato said.

“We’re producing players all over the country. It’s not like back in the day when you had Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk, and guys from just three regions — Minnesota, Michigan and New England.”

USA Hockey found Matthews playing for the Arizona Bobcats AAA program and invited him to join the NTDP. So far it’s been the best decision Matthews has made.

Auston Matthews is considering five schools and major junior for next season (photo: USA Hockey).

“It’s been awesome,” Matthews said of his time so far in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The program is second to none. Just everything about it — it’s been great. The training, everything else — it’s definitely helped. I’m progressing and getting better every day.”

Matthews experienced his first major setback in hockey last year, missing the first half of the season due to a broken femur.

“It was obviously really hard,” Matthews said of going through a major injury. “But the trainers here like Jason Hodges, they really helped me get back during the rehab. I came back earlier than expected — I give them a lot of credit.”

Matthews recovered from his broken leg and played well enough to earn a call-up to the U18 team for the World Championships last spring in Finland.

The youngest player on the team, Matthews not only held his own but excelled, finishing with five goals and seven points as Team USA brought home the gold medal. His five goals were good enough to tie for the team lead along with Eichel, which has in turn has fueled comparisons between the two young American forwards.

The two prospects squared off on Oct. 18 when the U.S. U18 team played against Boston University in an exhibition contest. The Terriers escaped with a 6-4 victory, but the real story was the show that Eichel and Matthews put on at Agganis Arena. Both players finished the game with two goals and an assist.

Is the comparison deserved?

“Absolutely,” Granato said. “They went head to head the other day. You saw the competitiveness from the drop of the puck from both players. It was an awesome hockey game.

“I had the pleasure to coach [Eichel] at the U18 World Championships a couple years ago, and he’s a potential superstar in the making. And I’d say Auston has a good role model there. I loved the way he competed against Jack the other day and I thought they pushed each other to another level.”

Eichel and Matthews may become teammates again in a few months, when the World Junior Championship takes place in Toronto and Montreal.

While he once again would be the youngest player on the U.S. roster, Matthews has proven time and time again he has the ability to play at that level. That includes a dominant performance this summer at the national junior evaluation camp, which is a tool used by USA Hockey to evaluate players for the upcoming World Junior roster.

“It’s such a big tournament and so highly watched across the world,” Matthews said. “To play in it would be a huge honor — it would be a great experience.”

While the hockey world waits for Matthews to make a decision on his future, for now he just wants to be a hockey player. Granato said the focus of his young center is on becoming the best player he can be right now, and the rest will work itself out down the road.

“He just wants to play hockey,” Granato said. “He’s not looking to be recruited. He’s 100 percent hockey. He’s like, ‘Look, I just want to play hockey, and things will work out. And when I get the feeling or urge to think about where I want to spend the next four years or two years or whatever it may be, I’ll think about it.’ I have a lot of respect for that. In this particular case, it’s obviously the right thing to do.

“He came into the [NTDP] program with that approach, and it’s worked for him. And he doesn’t feel that there’s an urgency to now all of a sudden, ‘OK, let’s figure out where I want to go or what I might want to do. I’ve got 34 games left and I want to perform at the highest level and focus on that.'”

Some coaches see recruiting until letter of intent is signed as key to slowing early commitments

Boston College coach Jerry York wants to see players commit to schools at older ages (photo: Melissa Wade).

Recruiting in college hockey is trending in the wrong direction. Once driven by players who were seniors in high school or playing junior hockey, top prospects are committing after just one or two years of high school, and in certain cases, even earlier.

In January, Maine received a verbal commitment from 13-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom, the youngest player ever known to have made such a nonbinding pledge. While the notion of a seventh-grader committing to a college drew headlines around the hockey community, some NCAA coaches have been concerned with this trend for years.

Up until this offseason, members of the college hockey coaching body have held a handshake agreement that they wouldn’t recruit players who were committed to other schools. Current NCAA rules allow recruiting until a player has signed a National Letter of Intent.

Some coaches believe eliminating that gentleman’s agreement will help slow the tide of players committing to schools at such young ages.

“What we have now in recruiting is the worst possible environment — 14- and 15-year old boys trying to select a college,” said Boston College coach Jerry York, who emphasized that the focus needs to be on what’s best for players, not what’s best for teams.

“I strongly feel we should follow the NCAA rule on [National Letters of Intent]. If you look at [Chris Heisenberg’s recruiting list] from three years ago, it’s a radically different list now. What we have now is not working. [Recruiting to] the NLI will bring sanity back. Older players will make better, more informed decisions.”

In an informal poll of Division I men’s head coaches taken by USCHO, schools in favor of eliminating the agreement were in the significant minority. But those who responded they were in favor of dropping the agreement were power schools from major conferences.

“The schools that aren’t going to honor the agreement are the glamorous schools that are coming from a position of power,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “There are valid reasons why they don’t want to honor it. Some of the teams are committing players at such a young age that other programs don’t have the chance to recruit them. Second, some schools are stockpiling recruits.”

While some schools aren’t planning on following the agreement, that doesn’t necessarily mean their coaches are planning to pick off committed recruits on a regular basis.

Michigan coach Red Berenson reiterated he had no plan to recruit committed players, but he is hoping to slow the trend of early recruiting.

“Our intent is really to do the right thing,” Berenson said. “It’s not to steal other teams’ recruits. It’s to slow down recruiting.

“I have no intentions of calling other teams’ recruits. If it happens we may even call the school and tell them first. We hope we never have to, but if we slow the recruiting with the younger players and have more of a commitment to the players we’ve recruited, we’ll all be better off.”

While slowing early recruiting is a worthy cause, many of the same schools looking to stop the trend are some of the same programs who started recruiting players early, and continue to do so.

Minnesota, a school that spoke in favor of dropping the agreement at this offseason’s American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Naples, Fla., has committed two prospects born in 1999 — one 14-year-old and one recently turned 15-year-old — since the conclusion of the college season.

“The schools that aren’t going to honor the gentleman’s agreement are the ones who said they needed to commit players before they got to major junior,” Serratore said. “It wasn’t the non-BCS schools that were committing 14- and 15-year-olds.”

While slowing early recruiting is one of the major arguments for dropping the agreement, stockpiling recruits early with no intention of bringing everyone to campus is another reason schools are looking to move away from the current system.

“Part of the problem is teams load up on recruits early and they make decisions down the road on which ones they want to bring to campus,” Berenson said. “In the meantime, [the player] could have gone somewhere else.

“I think this is going to force schools to make sure they have a serious commitment with the player. I’m going to reach out to all our recruits and make sure we’re solid.”

Rochester Institute of Technology coach Wayne Wilson said he feels schools should live up to their end of the bargain if they’ve committed to a recruit.

“If we’re going to protect and respect the verbal agreement and other teams won’t recruit your verbal commitments, then teams need to also stay committed to those players and not decommit them if they don’t work out as planned,” Wilson said. “It can’t be a one-way commitment.”

There may not be a perfect course of action for college hockey when it comes to the agreement — what’s best for one school isn’t going to be best for another. In a sport like college hockey with a significant disparity in operating budgets and school sizes, there may not be a correct answer.

At the end of the day, looking out for the best interest of the players should be the No. 1 priority.

“We’d just like to see kids make more of an informed decision,” Berenson said.

College hockey coaches see recruiting rule change as chance to better develop relationships


Editor’s note: This is the first entry in an occasional series on the major issues and big names in college hockey recruiting.

The ongoing battle for talent between college hockey and the Canadian Hockey League continues to intensify on a yearly basis. While it doesn’t appear that will change any time soon, the NCAA has taken steps recently to level the playing field in terms of recruiting and retaining elite talent.

The NCAA Board of Directors last month approved legislation that will allow NCAA schools to reach out to prospective players beginning Jan. 1 of their sophomore year. Previously, coaches weren’t allowed to contact recruits until June 15 of a prospect’s grade 10 year.

The change is significant because it moves the contact date for prospective student-athletes up 5½ months, giving college coaches the ability to form relationships with recruits before the OHL and QMJHL drafts.

Like many schools, Michigan State finds itself directly in the crosshairs of the recruiting battle, with not only seven Division I schools to compete with in-state but two OHL clubs as well. For Spartans coach Tom Anastos, the rule changes make practical sense.

“We’re in one of the most demanding markets there is with a huge CHL presence in the state,” Anastos said in a phone interview with USCHO. “It really wasn’t all that logical the way we had to go about communicating before.”

The new rule changes also remove limits on the number of phone calls, emails, text messages and Twitter direct messages that coaches can send.

Previously, NCAA schools were allowed only one phone call per month to prospective student-athletes from June 15 at the end of their grade 10 year until grade 12. Coaches were allowed unlimited email and social media contact after June 15 of a recruit’s grade 10 year, but no text messages were allowed for hockey under previous NCAA rules.

Meanwhile, CHL teams had unlimited access to these players, creating an uphill fight for many NCAA programs to “show love” to prospective recruits. The rule changes give NCAA coaches the ability to send a text message to a prospect congratulating him on a good game, or to simply keep the line of communication open.

“One of the nice parts of the changes is that you can begin to form a relationship with, or learn about a person that was very difficult before,” Anastos said. “It’s one thing if it was only seniors in high school we were going after, but some are committing at a very young age. This will help allow a normal sequence of communication.”

Not only will it allow college coaches more access to prospective student-athletes, but it will give those prospects the ability to make a more informed choice when they are going through one of the most important decisions they will ever make.

“It’s a benefit for the prospects and the colleges,” Anastos said. “Now, we can actually reach out more readily and more accessibly communicate with kids. It will be welcomed by the prospects as well so they can learn about us.

“You want to be able to have kids make an informed decision, and the rule change makes that possible.”

Recently committed impact recruits

Player: Tyler Nanne

Team: Edina (Minn.) High School

Position: Defense

Size: 5-foot-10, 180 pounds

Date of birth: March 17, 1996

College commitment: Ohio State

The impact: The grandson of hockey legend Lou Nanne, Tyler, like his brother Louie — who is committed to Rensselaer — is looking to forge his own path in the hockey world. A smooth-skating defenseman, Tyler committed to Steve Rohlik and Ohio State on Jan. 7.

Nanne, a senior at Edina, has the special ability to change the game from anywhere on the ice with his legs. Scouts love the way he can skate out of trouble with the puck in his defensive zone, and he also has the ability to create offense from the back end that should make him an effective two-way player for the Buckeyes down the road.

While he’s not a big guy, Nanne’s quickness allows him to be effective in one-on-one situations. He’ll have to continue getting stronger, and likely will do so next season in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede, who recently traded for his rights.

Player: Ryan Donato

Team: Dexter School (Mass.)

Position: Center

Size: 6-foot, 174 pounds

Date of birth: April 9, 1996

College commitment: Harvard

The impact: Another name that should sound familiar to college hockey fans, Donato is the son of Harvard coach Ted Donato. Donato was one of the most sought-after players in New England this season, choosing the Crimson over Boston College and Boston University on Jan. 30.

The fact Donato is the son of a coach isn’t a surprise to anyone who has watched him play. He always seems to find himself in good spots on the ice and has the ability to process the game at breakneck speed. Donato has next-level hockey sense and the ability to slow things down and make the correct play.

While just a junior at Dexter, Donato is eligible for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. As his game continues to grow, so does his draft stock. NHL Central Scouting recently ranked Donato as the No. 54 North American skater.

Player: Denis Smirnov

Team: Indiana Ice (USHL)

Position: Forward

Size: 5-foot-7, 171 pounds

Date of birth: Aug. 12, 1997

College commitment: Penn State

The impact: Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky landed arguably his most heralded recruit Jan. 14, when Smirnov gave a verbal commitment to play collegiate hockey for the Nittany Lions.

Originally from Russia, Smirnov came over to the United States a little over two years ago to play Bantam hockey for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights. The Pennsylvania-based AAA team won the 2012 USA Hockey national championship, led by in part by the play of Smirnov.

A wizard with the puck on his stick, Smirnov signed a tender to play in the USHL with the Indiana Ice and has been one of the brightest young stars in the league this season. Smirnov is second on the Ice in scoring behind only fellow Penn State recruit Scott Conway, and is the only 1997-born player among the top-20 scoring leaders in the league.