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Is Greg Powers the right coach to lead Sun Devil hockey into the future?

Craig Morgan Avatar
December 5, 2022

Rick Zombo and his Lindenwood University hockey staff have been leaning on Greg Powers for advice over the past couple of seasons. The Lions, who joined the NCAA Division I ranks this season, are walking the same path that the Sun Devils walked eight seasons ago when ASU made the leap from club team to Division I.

Zombo has something that Powers did not, however. Zombo played three seasons at North Dakota, a college hockey blue blood. He also played 12 NHL seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins, and he coached in the NAHL, the only Tier II junior league sanctioned by USA Hockey.

Some members of the college and NHL community believe those attributes weigh heavily in the building, management and coaching of a college program. Zombo has a different take on the importance of his pedigree to coaching success.

“It’s a bunch of crap,” he said. “Coaching is an art. The science of coaching is on the internet. You can find whatever drill or whatever play you’re trying to find on the internet. You can go to coaching conferences or clinics to learn. You can pick up your phone and talk to someone to learn about anything and you’ve got all week to pre-scout teams in college so there’s no surprises. 

“The most important thing about coaching is the art of getting your players to do what you want them to do. It doesn’t matter if you put in 25 hours a day and have the best coaches meetings. If the players don’t want to do it, you won’t have success. The art is connecting with the players. The art is proving that there’s value in what they’re doing. The art is making them care because they know you care.”

Doubt in Powers’ ability to do so is not widespread. There are many in the NHL and college circles who marvel at what he has been able to accomplish under adverse conditions. But there are some who question whether a guy who had only played and coached at the club level is the right guy to turn the Sun Devils into a national power. They have been raising those questions for nearly a decade.

“I’ve heard it since day one, but it’s way less today than it was when we started because anyone that’s paid close attention should know better than to question what we’ve been able to accomplish here,” Powers said. “Would the logical thing have been for [ASU athletic director] Ray [Anderson] to go out and find some guy with NHL coaching experience or NHL playing experience or longtime college experience? Some people think yes, but that’s not what the program needed. The program needed passion, it needed knowledge of areas that have nothing to do with hockey and it needed the right human fit to get it through those initial phases to where we are now.” 

ASU took its lumps in its first three seasons of Division I from 2015-18. The Sun Devils went a combined 23-62-10. In its fourth season (2018-19), however, ASU went 21-13-1 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

The Sun Devils were a lock for the 2020 NCAA Tournament as well, but COVID-19 shut down sports across North America, robbing ASU’s most successful team to date of the opportunity to prove itself on the national stage.

Covid stalled ASU’s momentum. The Devils had to play the entire 2020-21 season on the road in the Big Ten, and last season’s team never got over the hump, finishing 17-17-1.

Still, the program has recorded landmark wins each of the past four seasons, including beating North Dakota at the US Hockey Hall of Fame Game earlier this season in Las Vegas, beating No. 2 ranked Minnesota on Nov. 26, and nearly pushing top-ranked and defending national champion Denver to overtime this past weekend in Denver, only to be foiled by a blown call that led to the Pioneers’ game-winning goal with 1:58 to play.

To casual observers, ASU has an easy sales pitch for recruits: sunshine, a large state school’s facilities, and shiny new Mullett Arena. For the first seven seasons at the DI level, however, the program’s lack of history and lack of a suitable rink were major hurdles to success. The Sun Devils played their first seven seasons at Oceanside Ice Arena, a tiny and aging community rink that sits in the middle of an industrial park and offers no curb appeal for recruits, unless you consider the dirt lot out front an attraction. 

“We’ve been to Oceanside twice to play and I can tell you it’s not very nice,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said of a rink scheduled for demolition this summer. “There’s a reason they’re tearing it down.”

Powers can list a litany of top recruits who passed on ASU because of Oceanside. It got to the point where the coaching staff opted not to take recruits to the rink; they’d meet with them on campus and show off ASU’s other offerings.

“Imagine not being able to show recruits where they are going to play,” said University of St. Thomas coach Rico Blasi, whose team is also navigating its first year of NCAA Division I hockey this season. “In today’s world, the arena is everything. When you’re recruiting, you have to have those amenities to be in the ballgame with some of the higher-end players across the country, and even in North America. These kids are used to good playing facilities and good training facilities so when you don’t have that, it definitely hinders you from taking that next step.

“I was fortunate to be at the University of Denver when we built the new arena in 1999. Five years later, they won back-to-back national championships. I was fortunate enough to be at Miami when we built the building in 2006. Three years later, we went to back-to-back frozen fours and lost the national championship game. I’m not saying it happens all the time, but there’s a little bit of a correlation between having nice amenities and having success.”  

ASU athletic director Ray Anderson sits with hockey head coach Greg Powers to announce the elevation of the program to Division I status in 2014.
(Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

Powers and assistant coaches Alex Hicks, Mike Field and Eddie Läck finally have the arena in the program’s eighth season in Division I, but Powers had much more to offer when Don Mullett donated about $32 million to launch the program and Anderson had to decide whom the right person was to lead it.

“To think that pedigree would be the driving force of trying to build a Division I hockey program from scratch is almost asinine,” Anderson said. “Pedigree doesn’t make a winning program or a winning business. It’s about hard work and having the right connections and the right relationships and the passion.”

Powers had all of that. For seven years, he ran the executive search firm Hanna-Shea Consulting that he founded; selling it to his partner, Sean Eggert in 2014, when he became the Sun Devils’ Division I coach.

“That was a very significant part of our discussion,” Anderson said. “I was looking for somebody who could come in and help us literally start up a college program from scratch, which is like starting up a business from scratch.  

“When you look at what Greg did in his business, that’s recruiting and talking to people about qualities and culture and work ethic and organizational structure. You’ve got to recruit as a college coach. You’re a CEO of a business unit and if you don’t have the skills to do that, including donor relations, and very frankly, fundraising, you won’t last. You have to have somebody who understands that you must run a program like a business where you can at least self-sustain; where you’re not draining money from other sources. A lot of these coaches, if they don’t understand that part of the business, it’s gonna be hard for them.”

It was Powers’ long-standing relationship with Mullett that helped secure the funding for the program; the type of relationship he has with numerous alumni and donors because Powers is a Sun Devil through and through. He graduated from ASU in 1999 with a degree in broadcast journalism, he played for the club team, he coached the club team and he knows every inch of the program’s history.

“He’s got so much passion for the university and he wears it right on his chest; he bleeds maroon and gold,” Hicks said. “I remember when Greg hired me and, just in my inner NHL circle, there were people like, ‘Well, he doesn’t have any NHL or DI experience. How is he gonna coach?’ 

“I just shook my head. He did a great job with this club team and I knew he would do a great job with this team. There’s so much that Greg has to do on a day-to-day basis. When he gets on the ice for an hour with the players that’s probably just a relief for him. It’s an escape. Add in the recruiting and the phone calls and the fundraising and managing the players and it’s beyond what most of the NHL guys would understand because you’re running a whole company.”

Powers behind the bench. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

Powers knew when he took over the program that he had deficiencies on the coaching and recruiting side. That’s where his business acumen paid off. He hired Hicks, who played five seasons in the NHL, for his relationship around the game and his understanding of the game. He hired Field, who had been a college assistant, as well as an assistant and recruiting coordinator for Dubuque in the USHL; the primary league that collegiate players use to prepare for NCAA hockey if they aren’t ready as true freshmen. And even though he played goalie himself, Powers added Läck because Läck played five seasons in the NHL.

“When you’re hiring, you don’t hire people who know less than you about something; you hire people who know more,” he said.

He was also looking for people who could work within his desired culture.

“There were a lot of guys that I interviewed that had Division I head coaching experience and pro experience, but you can’t forget what I did for a living,” Powers said. “I owned an executive recruiting company. Hiring people for the financial side helps in a lot of ways, but you have to always put the human fit first. Basically, if you don’t want to have a beer with them, don’t hire them.

“There were a lot of guys that applied for jobs where I could sniff out real quick that they were coming for mine. They didn’t want their jobs; they wanted mine so their foot in the door was to work for me. Obviously, that wasn’t going to create a good culture.” 

To shore up on Xs and Os, Powers has attended numerous coaching conferences and clinics. He has attended the Coaches Site Conference twice and always attend the NHL Coaches Association Coaches’ Clinic.

In addition, and because he plays in an NHL market, he has had the opportunity for numerous chats with former coach Rick Tocchet, he spoke at the same conference as Coyotes coach André Tourigny in Toronto, and he regularly chats with Roadrunners coaches Steve Potvin, John Slaney, and former NHLers such as Dave Ellett and Barry Smith

“Coaching is a lot of different things so there’s different types of experiences that can help,” Smith said. “I had the chance to work with Wayne Gretzky who is probably the greatest player who has ever played. Wayne saw things in a whole different way than 99 percent of the players because the guy had a gifted hockey IQ. But then you have a guy like [Tampa Bay Lightning coach] Jon Cooper who won the Stanley Cup back-to-back years. He didn’t play hockey at a high level. He was a lacrosse player but he has qualities that worked.

“I can be Einstein, but if I don’t relate to players, it’s difficult for them to improve or embrace me. Certain people fit different programs at different times. ASU is coming. They’re starting to rise. They’re getting better players. They have a great facility now and it’s a good coaching staff that embraces anybody who comes in to talk. When I come in and sit down with the guys, we love chatting and we all love to learn. When you add all that to where Greg has brought this program and how much he cares about the players, I can’t see why there would be anybody better for the job.”

Powers signed a five-year extension in July that will keep him under contract through 2028, but at age 45, he said that he would like to guide the program for another 15 to 20 years. 

“This is my dream job and I think if you have somebody who attacks every day with that mindset, leading any organization in or out of sports, you’re going to be successful,” he said.

Powers knows that he still has doubters, but he has a message for them.

“Here’s what I would say to someone that thinks they should have my job, and that has more playing or coaching pedigree than me,” he said. “‘If you can take our club team and go 169-23 in five years and win a national championship and go to three straight Final Fours, and then elevate to a Division I status out of an 800-seat community ice rink and make the NCAA Tournament in year three and year four, and then raise enough money to build a $115 million arena, then you can have my fucking job.’”

Top photo of Greg Powers courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics

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