TEMPE, ARIZ. – There’s something cool about showing up to college hockey practice sporting shades, a tank top, mesh shorts and flip-flops.
It’s something that can’t be done at universities on the shores of Lake Superior, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or New England in the dog days of a snowy, frosty winter.
“It’s unbelievable getting to play hockey and then going outside after and it’s 75 degrees and sunny every day,” said Arizona State redshirt freshman Jake Montgomery, an Oakdale native and the lone Minnesotan on the Sun Devils’ Division I hockey roster. “It’s everything you want for hockey and you don’t have to be in the freezing cold the whole time to do it. I love it here.”
After practice last week, Montgomery, 21, wearing a Wild T-shirt, talked about how excited he is to be part of a program’s inception while he stood inside the Sun Devils’ 1974-built makeshift home rink called Oceanside Ice Arena. After making $250,000 in renovations to build locker-room space, offices, a workout room and seating that allows for 800 fans, the Sun Devils share the local rink with kids, figure skaters and beer leaguers.
In its first year of NCAA Division I hockey, Arizona State is transitioning from the American Collegiate Hockey Association (club hockey) and already has earned a reputation for being a hardworking team that can beat Alaska-Fairbanks, sweep Lake Superior State and go toe-to-toe with Wisconsin and Clarkson.
In a few weeks, the Sun Devils, whose roster consists of 15 freshmen and half the club team, will leave their bathing suits at home, grab their winter jackets and fly to Minnesota for back-to-back games Jan. 1 and 2 at St. Cloud State. After hosting a tournament at the Coyotes’ Gila River Arena with UConn, Michigan Tech and Yale, the Sun Devils will return to Minnesota a few weeks later for Jan. 15 and 16 games at Bemidji State.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Sun Devils coach Greg Powers, whose staff includes former NHLer Alex Hicks. “We’ve done a lot in a short period of time putting together a staff, roster and schedule. It’s been awesome.”
Powers, one heck of an ACHA goalie back in the 1990s, guided the ACHA Sun Devils for seven years, had a record of 164-27-9 and led them to an ACHA Division I national championship in 2013-14.
Now he may be the most wooed man in college hockey. Three hockey conferences — the WCHA, NCHC and Big Ten — are beating down his door in an attempt to get the program to join.
The Sun Devils are playing a 38-game schedule this season, a mix of ACHA and NCAA games with only 11 games (one Division I) at their temporary home in Tempe.
Next year, Arizona State will play a complete Division I independent schedule. While the Sun Devils were planning to join a conference in 2017-18, they might hold off until 2018-19 because scheduling is going so well.
As an example, they have multiyear agreements with St. Cloud State and Bemidji State, scheduled Minnesota Duluth in 2017-18 and are working to get Minnesota State Mankato on the schedule.
Whether they join a conference for 2017 or 2018, Powers is confident they will be established, competitive and have a bona fide, state-of-the-art arena of their own by then.
“To have a school with the reputation as a Power Five conference school would be wonderful for our future success,” WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson said. “They want to compete at the highest levels as quickly as possible, and we know they have lots of options to decide where they want to go.
“But I believe we are in the running to bring them to our conference. I don’t want to be boastful, but I believe we made a compelling presentation.”
Arizona State has met with the WCHA and NCHC and soon will meet with the Big Ten. A decision wasn’t expected until the spring, but Powers indicated that will be accelerated because recruits deserve to know where they will be playing.
“It’s nice to be wanted and pursued,” said Powers, 39. “They’re all great options. The WCHA has a great, rich history and they’ve been aggressive. You want to go really where you’re wanted. The NCHC is arguably the best conference in college hockey right now and there’s an advantage going to the best conference. Ideally, you’d have a leg up on getting the best players.
“And the Big Ten is full of like-minded universities like us, big state schools with brand recognition, so you can make a case for any one of the three.”
More and more players come from the West. The Wild’s Jason Zucker was born in California and raised in Las Vegas. Auston Matthews, born in California and raised in Scottsdale, Ariz., is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NHL draft.
Robertson believes the real growth in college hockey will occur in the western United States. Many Pac-12 schools have successful club hockey teams and UNLV is the next school reportedly exploring the possibility of elevating its program to NCAA Division I.
Powers hopes the Sun Devils become a trend-setter.
“Hopefully in 10 years we have Pac-12 hockey and expose college hockey to the many hockey fans out west,” he said.
Montgomery, whose cousin Mike Montgomery captained Minnesota-Duluth to a 2011 national championship, already has seen hockey grow on campus. Students don’t just wear football, basketball and Wake Devils — Arizona State has a mean wakeboarding team — apparel around school. They now wear Sun Devils hockey garb and pack Oceanside for games.
“Not many guys can say they built something special with teammates and a foundation for the future,” said Montgomery, a Shattuck- St. Mary’s grad.
Montgomery, who transferred from Nebraska Omaha and has three years of eligibility left, fits right into the mold of the Sun Devils.
“He’s a hard-nosed kid, real gritty, but he’s got touch,” Powers said. “We don’t have high-end skill, we don’t have any superstars here yet. We will get them. But we basically had to build a team in six months. What we do is work. If we get outworked in any game, we don’t have a lick of a chance to win.”
Powers is excited to build this program from infancy, and he is not worried about luring hockey players who might be also enticed by fun in the sun.
“Our team GPA is 3.7. They’re student-athletes first,” Powers said. “We use our weather and campus to our advantage. It’s an attraction. It’s one of many reasons we want a kid to come here, but it can’t be the only reason.
“People think that the weather and the palm trees and all the stuff that comes with Arizona State is this huge distraction and it’s not. Kids have fun no matter where they go to school, whether it’s in Bemidji, Potsdam, New York, or Tempe, Arizona.
“I think it’s just elevated in a place like this because it’s always sunny outside and you can do it at a pool instead of inside a house.”