Sunny Days

Sun Devils Continue To Set The Stage For College Hockey To Thrive In Desert Southwest

 

As temperatures rise and the sun hangs in the sky a little longer each day, hockey tends to get pushed to the back of people’s minds. For players at Arizona State University, sunny and hot is the status quo, even in the middle of season when they head to the rink in shorts and slides. 

The NHL’s Coyotes have played in Arizona since 1996 and players like Auston Matthews call it home, but the state is mostly still considered a non-traditional market for hockey. That belief is quickly changing, and Sun Devils Hockey is a huge part of the reason why.

“We talk about being a tradition; it’s kind of our motto here,” said Johnny Walker, a junior forward from Phoenix. “It’s exciting to be able to build a program and be a part of something that is already pretty special. 

“I think it’s going to become a serious hockey school. I’m really proud more than anything of what we’ve done here so far and what we’ll continue to do.”

Early in the process the Sun Devils found the road from club hockey to a Div. I sport to be a bumpy one, putting up a meager 23-62-10 record in the growing-pains phase. Two seasons ago, the team found its footing, finishing with a 21-13-1 record and making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. 

This year ASU boasted another winning record and had secured a spot in the tournament before its cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Just to see where we started five years ago to where we are now with potentially back-to-back NCAA tournaments, without the season ending early, it’s been remarkable to be a part of the growth,” said head coach Greg Powers. “We’re only scratching the surface.”

Powers was at the helm long before the team jumped to Div. I, and he’s been a steady presence as the team navigates unfamiliar waters. His leadership not only led the team to college hockey prominence but saw him as a back-to-back finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award – awarded to the Div. I Coach of the Year – in 2019 and 2020.

“If someone would’ve told me this would happen six years ago when we were just a club, I probably would’ve laughed at them,” Powers said. “You don’t get on that list without the right people around you. It starts with the players and goes up through the staff, and it’s a huge reflection of our entire program.”

Still, despite all the success, everyone involved with the program knows they still have much more to prove.

“For me, the feeling around the team right now is that we’re trying to prove ourselves,” said defenseman Josh Maniscalco of Perkiomenville, Pa. “Being in an independent conference is always kind of hard. We can’t take a weekend off if we’re playing a non-conference team because we don’t have a conference. Every weekend matters.”

Maniscalco spent two seasons with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, although he says it wasn’t ideal since he spent time battling injuries. Still, he wouldn’t trade it for anything, especially considering how he credits his time there as showing him how to reach the next level as a defenseman. 

Now, he’s under the direction of another coach, one that Maniscalco credits with guiding the program to unrivaled success. 

“Coach [Powers] does a really good job of getting the production he needs from us in order to be successful. He gives everybody the confidence they need to remember the player they can be.”

Going into their sixth season, Powers knows that his Sun Devils have more to prove as they look to help college hockey gain a stronger foothold in the desert southwest. 

“From what I can see, we’re only getting better,” Maniscalco said. “As long as that leadership stays there and everybody follows along from what our senior class this year and last year built, I think there’s no way we don’t continue to grow as a program. 

“We’re the only ones that can stop us from continuing to grow. It’s only up from here.”

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