The Arizona State Sun Devils (Photo courtesy of College Hockey Inc.)
The Sun Devils are elevating their elite club team to Division 1 status and that's great news for both the grassroots game in the Southwest and the college hockey landscape as a whole.
The rumors had been out there, but now it's official: Arizona State is joining college hockey's top ranks.
The Sun Devils currently have an excellent club team, but thanks to a group of donors who have raised $32 million for the effort, that squad will start competing in Division 1 for the 2016-17 season. Current coach Greg Powers will stay on as bench boss, and why not? He led the Sun Devils to a national championship last season and currently has his team ranked second in the country with a 14-1 record.
Arizona State is the second major NCAA school to add Division 1 hockey in the past few years, joining Penn State, now in its second full season. Needless to say, the hockey world is excited.
“This is a game-changing moment for the advancement of college hockey in this country," said the NHL's Bill Daly in a press release. "ASU’s recognition and commitment to the game should have a significant positive impact on the continued development of hockey in the Southwestern United States and should lead the way for more schools to add NCAA Division I hockey programs in the future."
No kidding. I've lobbied for NCAA teams in the Sunbelt/Southwest before and the reasons are obvious: Recruiting would be incredibly easy. Arizona State will boast amazing weather all season long, which I'm sure won't hurt recruiting, but it will also be a great incentive for non-conference teams who want to schedule road trips out West. You think Notre Dame or Minnesota wouldn't mind leaving the slush of the Midwest behind for a weekend in the middle of the winter? Same goes for Boston College or Yale out East.
Students are always going to support the local squad, but bringing in schools with big names in other sports will help a lot. Keep in mind, Penn State has the benefit of playing in the new Big Ten conference with traditional rivals such as Ohio State and Michigan and the Nittany Lions are already packing in the fans, playing to more than capacity in their second full season.
Like Penn State, the Sun Devils will ease their way into Division 1, playing a mix of club teams and big schools the first year, then a full D1 slate in 2015-16. Arizona State would join a conference the next season and I've been told the NCHC (North Dakota, Denver, etc.) is a possible destination.
This all comes at a time when hockey in the Southwest is gaining steam at the grassroots level. Auston Matthews, a Scottsdale native who grew up going to Coyotes games and played for the Arizona Bobcats before heading to the U.S. National Team Development Program, is a strong candidate to go first overall in the 2016 NHL draft. The University of Denver's Zac Larraza was drafted by his hometown Coyotes back in 2011, while Arizona native Christian Cakebread is playing in the United States League. Then there's the slew of kids out in California and a growing number of players in states such as Idaho (not south, I know) and Texas.
“It is always exciting when a school announces it is going to add varsity hockey. But this is different," said College Hockey Inc. executive director Mike Snee. "Arizona State elevating its successful men’s ACHA team to NCAA Division I is a defining moment for college hockey. The tremendous growth of hockey participation in the Southwestern United States has been well documented and having an NCAA Division I school offering hockey in this part of the country is actually overdue. Hopefully Arizona State will be the first of many schools in new areas to offer the sport.”
UCLA, Stanford, Cal, Southern Cal? Consider yourselves on the clock.