Column: Check out the boys in the desert

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The Sun Devils are rolling this season to the surprise of many in college hockey (Sun Devil Athletics)

Casually walking into Oceanside Arena in is an underwhelming experience. Trust me, I’ve been. Covered in maroon, the arena is solid but unimpressive. It seems to have good functionality, and while the capacity is small, the noise is probably of both a high caliber and a high decibel. It seemed to me an adequate barn for the greater Tempe, Arizona region. However, Agganis Arena it is not, and even Freitas Ice Forum may be a slight step up. 

As a college hockey acolyte, it is kind of a rewarding experience and one that only sports nerds will find at all fulfilling. That is because Oceanside Arena is the home arena for the fully fledged, totally legit and still surprisingly real, Division One Arizona State Men’s Ice Hockey program. I still struggle to understand how the ASU program exists. In the world of college hockey, they would best be described as a curio. 

ASU’s program faces massive geographical challenges, starting with a natural environment that is unconducive to steering youth athletes or fans to ice hockey, the fact that the nearest prospective opponent is a two-hour flight away (in a sport oriented around bus travel), and the sheer amount of problems that stem from being an independent program. 

Yet the Sun Devils are overcoming all of it and then some. Merrimack and Brown, based in hockey hot-bed New England, have been eating crow in Hockey East and the ECAC for years. ASU, in just its third year in existence, appears poised to make the NCAA tournament in a success story few saw coming. 

They originated in 2015-2016, birthed from a successful ACHA club program, and promptly went 3-22. The following year was a step forward at 10-19-3 before falling back last year to 8-21-5.  

Now, with four games left in the regular season, they sit at 19-10-1. They are ninth in the exalted and all-important PairWise Rankings (Note: 16 teams make the NCAA tournament) and No. 10 in KRACH, an analytically crafted way to rate teams. College Hockey News Pairwise Probability Matrix projects them at 100 percent odds of receiving an at-large bid. The USCHO poll, a more subjective measure, pegs them No. 12.  

How has head coach Greg Powers gotten them here? Keeping the puck out of their own net while finding the back of their opponents’. The Sun Devils are No. 8 in the country in goals scored. In net, Joey Daccord, their first draft pick to commit, and a North Andover, Massachusetts native, has gone across the country (after being passed up by several Hockey East powers) and put up a .938 save percentage this year, fifth in the nation. He has 882 saves and seven shutouts, both best in the country. 

The offense is spurred by Johnny Walker, a forward from Phoenix that came home and who is a legitimate Hobey Baker candidate, backed up by his NCAA-leading 22 goals (he is the only skater over 20). He also has eight power play goals, tied for second in the NCAA. 

In the big three of Powers, Daccord and Walker, Powers has the most eccentric background. He was an All-American club goalie at ASU in the 90s who came back to coach as an assistant in 2008. He got the head gig in 2010 and went 164-27-9 and won the 2014 ACHA National Championship as the forbearing to the establishment of a D1 team. In the interim of those two existences, he was working in medical sales—the typical breeding ground for winning coaches. 

The Sun Devils are No. 53 in total attendance, but that is what happens in such a tiny arena. They have played three games in the roughly 18,000 seat Gila River Arena in Glendale, but two were as part of the Desert Hockey Classic, which they hosted. Their average attendance of 1,049 seems meager (for comparison UConn is at 3,787) but with a listed capacity of 747, they are at 140 percent. 

Their success is pivotal not just internally, but for the landscape at large. Not only do I want you to pay attention, I am hoping other athletic directors such as Josh Whitman at Illinois are as well. The three highlighted above have done a lot for this program, but without athletic director Ray Anderson and his fellow movers and shakers bringing the program into the world, none of this would be possible. It is amazing that ASU has found this success, given its circumstances, but they have also started to prove that circumstances will not be the only factor of whether or not a new program, which “growing” sports need, will be successful. The onus is on Powers and Co. to sustain this success, but I genuinely hope they can. I’d love to see them bring some sun and thawing to the 2019 Frozen Four.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.

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