Shining in the Sun

Arizona State Building Tradition in the Desert

The earth has made four trips around the sun since Arizona State University brought men’s Div. I college hockey to the desert.

 

The one consistent during the team’s tenure has been the presence of head coach Greg Powers, who has seen its hockey program quickly grow in magnitude, expectations and validity. Powers played as a goalie for Arizona State’s club team from 1995-99 and began coaching the club team in 2010.

 

When ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson began looking for someone to lead college hockey’s second sun belt team, Powers’ motivation and passion for the program were unmatched compared to outside sources.

 

Powers has lived up to the billing and has the Sun Devils looking to accomplish a feat similar to when he led the club team to a 2014 ACHA National Championship.

 

“He’s driven. He’s a very motivated person, and a huge motivator for us to be the best hockey player and the best person that we can be,” said graduating senior Anthony Croston in describing his coach. 

 

“There’s always a learning curve, especially with new programs. He’s done everything he can to put us in the best position possible. He’s definitely grown as a coach and I was really lucky to have him as my head coach.”

 

To be a part of the Sun Devils family is to join the most unique college hockey experience in the country. Powers doesn’t have the luxury of leaning on the same traditions or championship heritage of a North Dakota or a Boston College, but he still has something these northern schools don’t have with 75-degree days in January, glistening palm trees and outdoor swimming pools scattered around the sprawling campus. 

 

That doesn’t mean that he and his staff haven’t planted the seeds of a winning tradition in the Arizona desert. The Sun Devils run on the mantra of “Be The Tradition,” creating a resonating culture in an area not known as a hockey hotbed, but growing in the southwest.

 Head coach Greg Powers has had a hand in everything for the Sun Devils' hockey program. From playing goaltender on the club team while in school, to coaching the ACHA program to leading Arizona State to the NCAA Tournament this past spring.Head coach Greg Powers has had a hand in everything for the Sun Devils' hockey program. From playing goaltender on the club team while in school, to coaching the ACHA program to leading Arizona State to the NCAA Tournament this past spring.

“We wanted kids that more than anything wanted to come to Arizona State and be a part of something special,” Powers said. “Where in 20 years, when they look back at their careers and know that they built this and started it. That’s what be the tradition is all about. To come here and establish the culture and really paint a blank canvas.”

 

Croston is one of those early recruits and one of four players from Arizona to play on the team this past season. One of five founding Sun Devils to play all four years at the Div. I level, Croston and the team strung together seasons of five, 10 and eight wins from 2015-18, while staying competitive.

 

Two of the eight wins in 2017-18 helped change the fortunes of the program, elevating expectations and creating a foundation to build on. The Sun Devils won back-to-back games against Northern Michigan, 7-3, and Michigan Tech, 3-2, to win the Ice Vegas Invitational. The next weekend, Arizona State beat a ranked UMass Lowell team at home, 4-0.

 

“The Vegas tournament was a really big turning point for us,” Croston said. “To win our first tournament was really special, a positive for us and something for us to build off of. Once our senior year came around, that freshman group came in and they were leaders right off the bat. They knew exactly what they were coming here for, to grow this program and make it into a championship program.”

 

The precedence was forming, the belief was set. The next year, the Sun Devils made the NCAA tournament after compiling a 21-12-1 record.

 

Goaltender Joey Daccord, a native of North Andover, Mass., played a pivotal roles in lifting the Sun Devils to their first tournament appearance. Daccord would go on to earn a spot as a Mike Richter Award finalist before signing with the Ottawa Senators. On the offensive front, Johnny Walker, a Phoenix native, led the team in points with 34 and his goal total of 23 tied for 2ndin the Nation.

 

The Sun Devils climbed to as high as No. 10 in the USA Hockey Magazine/USA Today poll in a season that provided a glimpse of what’s to come.

 

“It’s just the day-to-day of being strong and confident in your own abilities, on and off the ice,” Walker said of the team’s mantra. “Just showing up to the rink and being ready to go, aware and growing together as a team.”

 

The record-setting season ended with a 2-1 loss to No. 2 Quinnipiac in the Midwest regional, but the opportunity to play on the big stage is something that will resonate with the players and coaches as they look to the future.

 Croston believes that having a Division I program in the Grand Canyon State will help grow the sport even more.Croston believes that having a Division I program in the Grand Canyon State will help grow the sport even more.

“It was awesome, really special and exciting,” Croston said. “I think it’s definitely huge for the program and shows that we’re legit and down the road we’re going to be winning a few championships here and there.”

 

The loss was Croston’s last game at Arizona State. After graduating with a Master’s degree in legal studies, the alternate captain is looking to continue playing professionally.

 

Walker is seeking to continue to make an impact on the campus he grew up 15 minutes away from. Entering his junior year, Walker is thinking beyond his goal-scoring totals to every way he can contribute, wanting to shore up his defensive awareness.

 

The winger compared himself to Boston’s Brad Marchand, revered for his skillful ability to score, but also the tenacity to get under an opponent’s skin. 

 

Marchand and the Bruins spent a share of the 2018 preseason in China, taking on the Calgary Flames in a pair of exhibition contests. A year later, Walker will follow in his footsteps as the Sun Devils play a series of exhibition games in China in the beginning of August.

 

Arizona State will play the Kontinental Hockey League’s Kunlun Red Star, the Chinese Olympic Team, as well as a third game, all while experiencing a different culture and offering a great chance at team-bonding before classes begin for the 2019-20 school year.

 

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Walker said. “It’ll be exciting to get a sense of their culture and learn along the way.”

 Walker went through the hand shake line 23 times his sophomore season, tied for 2nd most in the nation. The Phoenix native has embraced the aspect of building their own standard of tradition at Arizona State, with eyes on returning to the NCAA Tournament again next year.Walker went through the hand shake line 23 times his sophomore season, tied for 2nd most in the nation. The Phoenix native has embraced the aspect of building their own standard of tradition at Arizona State, with eyes on returning to the NCAA Tournament again next year.

With nine incoming players, that team-bonding experience could be huge boost heading into the season. While the winning tradition is still only being stoked, the recruits and current student-athletes are laying down a legacy that players following in their footsteps 5-10 years from now will have grown up watching.

 

What better way to continue the ascent of Arizona State than to make the NCAA tournament again and pick up a win, or four, next season?

 

It won’t be easy, but neither is making the jump from ACHA non-varsity hockey to the Div. I level. If Powers and his players have anything to say about, they are ready to stick a pitch fork in any doubts that may arise.

 

“We think we’ll take another step forward,” Powers said. “We believe in everything that we have returning, we really believe that our recruiting class has the chance to be the most impactful that we’ve had to date. And we believe in our goaltending. Joey [Daccord] is a big loss, our seniors moving on, but we’ve prepared for it.

 

“The foundation that those guys helped us lay is really strong and we have no doubt that we’ll take another step forward this season.”

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