Saturday, November 18, 2017
Sports

In a desert, college hockey takes root

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The last few seconds ran off the clock in the final game of Arizona State's hockey season in disheartening surroundings two weeks ago.

The 5-2 loss to the U.S. 18-and-under national team was uninspiring. Arizona State lacked structure and discipline, skating off the ice at Gila River Arena in front of a sparse home crowd that, in all likelihood, would have been furious had more of them cared about the result.

The defeat capped a 10-22-5 season for the Sun Devils, who lost, lost and lost some more during their inaugural season in NCAA Division I hockey. Only five of their victories came against Division I competition.

At one point, Arizona State was outscored, 50-6, during an 11-game losing streak.

Finishing a season in 59th place out of 60 Division I teams would normally be a disappointment. But Arizona State's hockey program does not exist under normal circumstances.

"After the last game, I couldn't wait to wake up the next morning and go to work," Arizona State coach Greg Powers said. "I couldn't wait to get up and move towards the future and into our first full schedule of Division I-only opponents in 2016-17. We can't wait to get started and move into the future."

Disappointment would appear to be a matter of perspective.

For the Sun Devils, participating as a Division I program for the first time after years of success at the club level, a strong win-loss record was not what the season was measured on. The only Pacific-12 Conference university with a Division I program, Arizona State measured the season by steps made toward leading college hockey's inevitable westward expansion.

In that, there were many.

"The collegiate hockey world welcomed us with open arms," Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said. "The good news for us is that the hockey world out there understands now that we're real and we're serious about our program. We think this experience will put us on a quicker road to being consistently competitive."

The remaining time on the road to on-ice success seems longer than the next 12 months. The arrival next season of goaltender Joey Daccord, an Ottawa Senators draft pick in 2015, should help. The Sun Devils also have the possibility of having three NHL draft picks on next season's roster and will add promising redshirts to replace some of the outmatched players they had to promote from their club team.

But it may be unfair to expect Arizona State to even be close to a .500 record next season.

Anderson said starting a program from scratch, similar to a professional expansion team, was a process. And noticeable improvement in the win-loss column might not be part of the process yet in Year 2.

The more pertinent steps that Arizona State is looking to take are solidifying plans on a long-term arena on, or near, its Tempe campus, and identifying a conference to join.

Arizona State will remain independent next season. Under this system, the Sun Devils played a hybrid schedule of NCAA and club-level opponents this season, but they will face only NCAA competition next season.

Only seven of their 29 NCAA games last season were played at home. Five were played at the program's primary home, a tiny municipal skating rink that was more accustomed to hosting public skates. The other two were played in Glendale at Gila River Arena, the home of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes.

"Within three to four years, we will be in a permanent home for ASU hockey," Anderson said. "Gila River is a great arena, but it's too far removed from campus to consider that a permanent home. A lot of the folks that will support us are our students. Thirty-five minutes, an hour and 15 minutes, depending on traffic, is too much to ask. Temporarily, we'll play some of our bigger games up there."

"We're wide open to downtown Phoenix. That's on the table, as well as building a rink on campus."

Anderson also said a partnership with the NBA's Phoenix Suns or the Coyotes was a possibility. The Coyotes, also looking for a new home and long at odds with Glendale over leasing and operating costs with their arena, are an increasingly likely partner. The Suns, who play in the 24-year-old Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix, are also looking for a new facility. The Suns, the Coyotes and Arizona State do not reject the notion of the teams' partnering.

An arena solution is not nearly as pressing an issue for the success of the Suns or the Coyotes as it is for ASU, which may need to have its arena plans in motion to join a major conference.

Each of the six Division I conferences has expressed interest in adding Arizona State. Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Bill Robertson provided insight why.

"They're a school that our conference has a keen interest in because they bring a lot of different elements to the table as being a member of a Power Five conference," Robertson said of the WCHA, which includes four teams in Michigan, two in Minnesota and two in Alaska.

"They're part of their own network in the Pac-12 Network. I believe they have the ability to bring other schools into the mix in terms of potentially joining Division I college hockey in the future. Arizona State brings a lot of different variables to the table."

Those variables might not yet include many victories.

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