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Postcard from Tempe: College hockey blooms in the desert

Arizona State sophomore Johnny Walker leads the nation in goals with 17 at the holiday break. He returned to his native Arizona after three seasons of junior hockey with the Minot Minotauros and is a fan favorite at Oceanside Ice Arena, the Sun Devils' temporary home rink. Arizona State Athletics.1 / 2
Greg Powers played club hockey at Arizona State and coached the Sun Devils to a club hockey national title in 2014 before shepherding them to the Division I ranks in 2014. Arizona State Athletics.2 / 2

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Before you even enter the rink, you know you’re in for a different kind of college hockey experience at Arizona State. The first clue is the fans playing a game of cornhole set up next to a towering saguaro cactus. They’re wearing shorts, flip flops and Sun Devils jerseys, in mid-December.

Such is the new world of college hockey in the desert. Once considered an oddity and an easy win, the Sun Devils are turning heads in their fourth season of Division I play since the program was elevated from club status in 2015.

Oceanside Ice Arena, the oddly named current home of top-level college hockey’s newest program is nowhere near an ocean, and would barely pass for a high school practice rink in Minnesota or the Dakotas. At full capacity, as it was Saturday night when the Sun Devils hosted Colorado College, it has bleacher seating for maybe 800, and standing room for roughly 100 more.

But in a region where many locals have never seen college hockey in person, the intimate setting means an up-close look at the speed and physical play of the game at this level. And there’s a new on-campus home rink on the way.

“The future is great. We have a new facility that will be completed sometime in 2020 and it’s going to be incredible. But we’re embracing this,” said Sun Devils coach Greg Powers, of a new 5,000-seat arena that will be built adjacent to the school’s football stadium. “That’s what I think our guys have done really well. It’s not the best facility, obviously, but we’ve embraced it.

"Our guys have fun playing here. It’s an intimate atmosphere where the fans are right on top of you. So we’ve embraced it and we’ll continue to as long as we play here.”

Program on the rise

Powers was a goalie for the Sun Devils as a student, and coached their club team to the 2014 national title. Just 18 months later, thanks to a donation of more than $30 million by a group of donors -- chiefly Don Mullet, whose son Chris had played for the ASU club team -- they were playing as a D-I independent.

The Sun Devils drew immediate national attention, as the southernmost entrant among the 60 teams competing at the D-I level, including a column in Sports Illustrated mocking places like Mankato and Grand Forks for their winter weather, while ASU students wear shorts and golf shirts to class on 75-degree days in January.

Powers, from Day 1, was committed to not letting his program become a place where players came for the sunshine first and the hockey second.

“A lot of kids would want to come play here, but you’ve got to get the right kids, and we have the right kids,” he said. “You’ve got to get kids that still hold the game in a really high regard and don’t come to Arizona State just because of the weather and the palm trees and all that stuff. They want to be hockey players and they want to build this program the right way.

"We feel like we have a room full of kids who believe in that and they’re making that into a reality.”

The first three seasons were rough, with ASU winning less than 30 percent of its games (23-62-10). That has changed this season.

On Friday, Colorado College jumped out to a 2-0 lead and would not score again on the weekend, with the Sun Devils scoring four goals on Friday and four more on Saturday for their second sweep of an NCHC team and a 14-6-0 record.

The Sun Devils' record has them sitting at No. 9 in the PairWise Rankings, which try to mimic the criteria used by the NCAA to determine its 16-team national tournament field. The nation’s only D-I independent has also swept Big Ten, WCHA and ECAC Hockey teams this season.

“It’s a real team. It’s a good club. They’ve got skill, they can skate, they’ve got, I think, an NHL goaltender,” said Colorado College coach Mike Haviland, after ASU junior Joey Daccord, a Senators draft pick, recorded his fifth shutout of the season. “When you’ve got a guy like that who can bail you out at times, you look at the games they’ve won and teams they’ve beat this year, they’re a good team.”

Desert hockey in bloom

Powers’ roster features players from throughout the U.S. and Europe, but he’s perhaps most excited about the talent that’s come out of the desert. Phoenix native Johnny Walker has 17 goals at the holiday break and is likely to be the program’s first Hobey Baker finalist in March.

Walker returned to Arizona for college after junior hockey stops in Chicago, Kansas, and parts of three seasons in Minot.

“He’s just too smart. He knows where to go to get the puck. He finds quiet areas or soft areas better than anyone in the country and that’s why he’s leading the country in goals,” Powers said after Walker had four goals in the series against Colorado College. “What he’s doing and his nature of being a flashy kid with a lot of personality adds to it. He knows how to score.

"He’s a special player and we’re happy he’s a Sun Devil.”

Arizona State closes the regular season on March 1-2 against the Minnesota Gophers in Minneapolis and expect to be battling for an at-large invite to the NCAA tournament.

But in the nearer future is the Desert Classic, played Dec. 28-29 at the home rink of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, where ASU will face Clarkson in the first round and then either Minnesota State-Mankato or Minnesota Duluth on the second day.

It’s an opportunity for the Sun Devils to add to their NCAA tournament credentials, since they’re the only team in D-I that cannot get in by winning its conference tournament.

Powers wants his team focused on the ice, not a computer algorithm, but admits that they take a peek at the PairWise from time to time.

“I’d be lying if I said we don’t look at it. We certainly don’t discuss it or focus on it, but it’s there for the guys to see and for me to see and I’m sure there’s not a guy in the room who doesn’t know where we’re at with it,” he said. “But we’re not going to change our focus or what we’ve been doing. All we’ve been focusing on is what’s right in front of us.”

With that, Powers headed out into the December night after another Sun Devils win. He had no need to put a coat on.