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Last hurrah: Four Sun Devils hope to make most of extra year of NCAA eligibility

Craig Morgan Avatar
September 25, 2021

Johnny Walker announced a career shift in an exclusive interview with PHNX Sports at Oceanside Ice Arena on Tuesday.

“I’m going back to being a stick boy,” Walker quipped as he climbed the stands with a stick in hand to chat with a reporter while the Sun Devils practiced. “That’s where it all started for me so I’ll just find my roots for a practice or two and see if it’s for me.” 

Relax. Walker is not giving up on his first love. He’ll play for the Devils again this season, along with three other players who returned for the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted them due to the havoc that COVID-19 wreaked on collegiate careers.

“Yeah, I don’t think being a stick boy is for me,” Walker said. “I actually think I’m close to being fired so I’ll definitely get back out on the ice within the next day or two.”

Sun Devils coach Greg Powers began discussions with his seniors about returning for another year on the team’s second trip to Notre Dame in early January. The NCAA had already granted winter-sport athletes another year of eligibility in October, two months after announcing that same allowance for fall-sport athletes. 

While Powers prepared a convincing pitch, Walker, Jacob Wilson, Sean Dhooghe and Willie Knierim all said that they decided to return early in the process. When Powers approached them it was basically, you had me at hello. 

Sun Devils forward Willie Knierim signs autographs with his teammates.Top photo is ASU defenseman Jacob Wilson. (All photos courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

“I had no hesitation when coach Powers called me; I took it right away,” Knierim said. “I spent a good chunk of last season out with an injury, and I know that Jacob and Johnny and Sean did, too.

“I can’t honestly say I was expecting much out of last season with the pandemic shutting down our whole world. We were lucky enough to play a kids game and it was just a joy to go out there and play 28 games when other leagues didn’t even play, but it’s nice to be able to play at home. I think we have 20 games at Oceanside this year and this rink is pretty special so we want to close it down in style.”

Powers even thought that senior James Sanchez would return until the New York Rangers offered him a contract to sign with their AHL affiliate in Hartford, but four out of five was still a good success rate.

“A couple other guys turned down deals because they wanted to come back and have a really good season and hopefully get an even better deal,” Powers said. “If you treat kids the right way, they get the experience that they hope they get.

“That’s what eventually those guys all decided is that they could come back here, get a really good year of development in, win, have a great season and go out the way they wanted to go out.”

Last season was full of trials for all of ASU’s players. Except for two exhibition games against the United States National Team Development Program at Oceanside, the Sun Devils played their entire season on the road in the rugged Big Ten. Sleep schedules, practice schedules, workout schedules and travel schedules were all disrupted. The players were away from their family and home base, and the challenge was reflected in ASU’s 7-16-3 record.

“It felt like a youth tournament that lasted for two months where you were just hanging out with your friends in the hotel room playing Xbox,” Walker said.

Sun Devils forward Johnny Walker sustained an MCL tear in the second game of the season at Michigan.

On top of those challenges, all four of the aforementioned players missed time with injuries. Walker sustained an MCL tear early in the season from which he never fully recovered. Dhooghe sustained an ankle injury late in the season, Knierim had a lower-body injury and Wilson had an upper-body injury. Wilson played the most games (22), Dhooghe played 20, Knierim played 18 and Walker played 16. All of those factors contributed to a drop in production for the group.

“Whether the other guys stayed or not, I don’t think it really would have influenced my decision to come back much,” said Dhooge who transferred from Wisconsin with the hope of recapturing his sophomore season magic, only to slip to two goals and four points last season. “It was definitely frustrating for me last season, but I think a better word would be stressful.

“I took some time right at the end of the season to reflect and to learn and to take a break, but I wasn’t happy with how things went for me so I was just hungry to get right back at it. One of the biggest things I’ve learned throughout my career is to maintain confidence and you do that through constant preparation. Over my dead body was I going to come into this year not feeling 100 percent.”

The decision to bring back four seniors limited the number of recruits that Powers could insert into his lineup, and he also added a trio of graduate transfers from other schools in Bowling Green State’s Tim Theocharidis, Michigan’s Jack Becker and Notre Dame’s Colin Theisen. ASU has high expectations for its final season at Oceanside. Having so much experience in the lineup, including those four returning seniors, makes Powers believe the Sun Devils can achieve their goals.

“There’s nothing that we haven’t been through together,” Powers said. “So to have that to lean on in clutch moments and in big moments when we need these guys and their experience to shine and show the young guys the way, it’s incredibly valuable.”

Sun Devils forward Sean Dhooghe hopes to rebound from a difficult 2020-21 season.

None of the four returning seniors is admitting to giving much thought to what comes after this season.

“I mean, I want to keep playing so you know, that’s the goal and that’s what you play for,” Wilson said. “But I think at the same time, this is a great opportunity to get a master’s degree, to play at an elite level, and to sharpen my game a little bit more.

“We have a great team that plans to win a lot of hockey games this year. I think about the future here and there, but with everything that can happen in a season and does happen as we know here better than anyone else, you’ve got to take it one day at a time. We’re playing our first game in (seven) days. The coaches preach focusing on the present so that’s the only thing I’m thinking about right now.”

Walker agreed.

“One thing I learned from last year is the importance of staying present,” he said. “Once you start worrying about next year and what the future holds, you can’t possibly give the most you have right now.

“Our goal is to win a national championship and that’s what I came here to do four or five or six or seven or eight or it might have been nine years ago. I don’t know when I started here anymore (laughs), but a national championship was the goal, it’s the goal now and I think we have the team to do it.”

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter

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