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.”