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It was a busy offseason for the Sun Devils men’s hockey program.
The biggest recruit in program history pulled a surprise by turning pro after two seasons, and Arizona State’s roster underwent significant changes with the hope of restoring the program’s old identity.
A longtime assistant departed as coach Greg Powers remade his staff. Then the Sun Devils announced that they would be joining the National Collegiate Hockey Conference beginning in the 2024-25 season, putting the last piece of the program’s foundation in place after eight seasons at the Division I level.
Despite the searing heat, most of the Sun Devils are already training in Arizona; working out at the community rink adjacent to Mullett Arena until the big ice goes down in late August. There are still minor tweaks being made to ASU’s state-of-the-start home, and there are decisions to be made with the lineup, but with most of the heavy lifting behind him, Powers spoke to PHNX Sports to recap all of the news.
Let’s talk about the two new assistants whom you have added to your staff, Dana Borges and Albie O’Connell.
“Dana and I worked some USA Hockey camps together for the last three, four years. We became friends and stayed in close contact and have a really good relationship. He’s a young kid and it’s hard not to be impressed with what he did at Colgate as an associate head coach at 33 years old. He really, for all intents and purposes, ran that program and built it up in a really good way. He’s very good with players, he’s a great communicator, he’s a great recruiter, he loves developing players and working with players. Whether it’s film or individual work on the ice, he’s just really good at connecting with players.
“There was a lot of applicants for that position. We talked to a lot of guys, but the relationship I have with Dana and knowing how committed he is to his craft, and how good he is at it, and the job that he did at Colgate, and all the fresh ideas he can bring here, that tipped the scales. He’s really innovative. We’re going to build out a player portal where we’re gonna manage every player’s development in their own portal with video and journals and other stuff. He’s spearheading that project and he’s pretty much done with it so I’m excited to implement that. He’s already made a big impact and he is just an absolute workhorse.
“As far as Albie, I’ve known him a long time and we became friends right away when we went Division One. We would schedule games with Albie when he was an assistant and a head coach at BU.
“With the arena, and with what I knew was an imminent conference affiliation, I knew I needed to go get the very best recruiter that I could. We went and got the very best recruiter that there is. I don’t think there’s been a recruiter in college hockey in the past decade that can match what he’s done from a level of talent evaluation and recruiting and retaining. You can list the long line of players that have gone to BU from Jack Eichel to Charlie McAvoy to Clayton Keller, Jordan Greenway, Jake Oettinger. Anyone that has gone to BU in the last 10 years was recruited by Albie O’Connell, whether as an assistant or head coach. It’s what he does. He is an elite recruiter and he’s also a hell of a coach.
“I think he saw a canvas here that he could paint some pretty exciting things on. He was here for the Minnesota series because he was a scout for Montréal and that was where our conversation picked back up. He missed the grind of being on staff and working with players and being in the foxhole every day. We were lucky enough to get him because he had a lot of options.”
What will be the on-ice roles for the new assistants?
“Albie will primarily work with the D and then he will help [Alex Hicks] with the power play. Dana will be kind of an all-encompassing player development guy. It’s almost like what an NHL player development guy does. We have a list of committed kids that we want to continue to develop really firm, solid relationships with and Dana will go out on the road and watch them play and continue to build relationships with kids that are committed. Just to have another body on staff to be able to go do that and firm those relationships up is huge.
“What I like about our staff is their versatility. They’ll be interchangeable from a hockey standpoint depending on who’s here and who’s out recruiting. Hicksy will do what he always does. He’s kind of an all encompassing hockey guy who runs the power play, helps me with a lot of the five-on-five stuff.”
Mike Field was with you at the birth of the Division I program all the way until the end of last season when you parted ways. What prompted that departure?
“We had one of the longest tenured staffs in college hockey. He was with us for eight years, if you count the hybrid year. It wasn’t like the separation with Mike was this messy divorce. It was just time. It was time for me to bring in new ideas and new blood and new energy. And it was time for Mike as a young coach to go do his next thing and continue on his journey because he does want to be a head coach one day. He’s working through a few different options that he has on the table right now. He’s gonna land on his feet and get a really good job.
“The first thing that I look for when I hire anybody is, do I want to have a beer with him? Do I enjoy being around him? Do I like him? You spend way too much time with your staff not to really enjoy being around them every day. Obviously, I really enjoy being around Mike because he worked for me for eight years. It’s never easy to separate and have those really hard conversations, but over the course of a few days, it becomes easy for both of us and there’s zero animosity. It’s a positive thing for his career. He has a lot to hang his hat on here with what he accomplished through eight years of starting up a program at Arizona State.”
Let’s touch on some of the additions to the roster and what you were trying to accomplish this offseason.
“We wanted to get back to that identity of being hard to play against and that’s all we looked for. We added two guys up front with size and speed and absolute grit. Brian Chambers is a blue-collar kid that plays down the middle. He’s great on faceoffs and he goes hard to cage. He loves to hunt pucks. He wins 50-50 battles and races like nobody’s business. He’s great defensively. He finishes his checks. He loves to forecheck.
“It’s the same thing with Tyler Gratton, who was an assistant captain at Penn State and helped lead them to one of the best seasons they’ve ever had. He’s a big, strong, mean, tough kid that just flies up and down the wing and loves finishing checks. Those two guys instantly change our identity back to where we want it.
“The icing on the cake was when we were able to get Alex Young, who was one of the top goal scorers in all of college hockey last year. With Matthew Kopperud healthy and Lukas Sillinger healthy and then the way the Jacksons (Ty and Dylan) came on for us, the goal scoring is going to be there. We were more concerned with getting those identity guys that make us difficult to play against and we went out and got them.
“On the back end with the two transfers, Brandon Tabakin from Yale is a really talented kid who is hard to play against and an elite skater and an elite puck mover. Cade Alami from BC is 6 foot 7 and played in 29 games last year. He’s big and he has really good edges and he can skate. Now it’s just going to be making sure that he understands he’s got to be the hardest guy to play against every night. If he has that mindset, he’s going to be a really good pickup for us. So is the whole freshman class. They all really shaped that identity. They’re big, they’re tough, they’re mean and they love to forecheck. They’re always on the right side of the puck.”
TJ Semptimphelter really solidified the starting goaltending position last season, but how are you feeling about the overall depth now?
“Obviously, people saw how good TJ is and how much upside he has, but the one regret I have from last year was I probably overused him. I probably should have played him a little less down the stretch because he really tired out. He battled through some adversity where he maybe wasn’t quite 100 percent, but he still wanted to play because he’s a mentally tough kid.
“What people forget is Gibson Homer came to us from the national development team where he was for two years. He was regarded as one of the top two goalies in his birth year. Then he went to play a year for the Chicago Steel.
“He’s 6-5, he’s athletic and he’s competitive. The players voted him best practice player last year when he redshirted, which says a lot about his commitment. Ten games into the season, he came into my office. Seeing how good TJ was and how well he was playing, I think he kind of saw the writing on the wall. He said, ‘Hey, coach, what do you think if I just decide to redshirt now to save a year of eligibility instead of you putting me in three or four times this year and burning a year?’ That was his idea and we stuck with it. He worked his tail off and got better. He’s gonna play this season. You’ll see Gibson Homer in the net.
“And then we brought in a freshman from Penticton who won in the BCHL. Hank Levy is coming here to support those two and be a good teammate.”
With the additions to your staff and per NCAA rules, Eddie Läck won’t be allowed to serve as a volunteer goaltending coach this season. How will you make sure that your goalies are getting the one-on-one attention they need?
“Dana worked a lot with the goalies at Colgate and if you look at how Carter Gylander, a Detroit draft pick, played for Colgate last year, it’s clear that he’s very comfortable and very good with the goalies. Probably half of the coaches across college hockey used that new third assistant position to hire a goalie guy. I wanted somebody that I felt could move the needle a little bit more than just a goalie guy and be more all encompassing. That’s what Dana is.
“We also have a head coach who played the position. I’m just kind of retooling and committing myself to be more of a part of what the goaltenders are doing on a daily basis. We have that luxury with me being here that I can do that and I’m capable of doing that. I’m going to take a much more active role with Dana, working with the goalies.
Josh Doan elected to turn pro after his sophomore season. How will that impact the program?
“What would I do to be sitting here at Mullett right now with him on our roster? It would be incredible, but attrition happens. When it happened, at the very beginning of it, I was caught a little bit by surprise because I didn’t actually expect it. But Josh being Josh and having the utmost in high character, he came in with a good month left in the season and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start meeting with them and figuring out what these next steps look like.’ He kept me overly informed every step of the way.
“There were days that he would come in that he was going to come back and then there were days that would follow where it looked like he was going to leave. He made the decision to go pro. He has so many people to lean on for support and he asked for my advice a little, but I just genuinely believe that my job with these kids is to support them. His dream was to play professional hockey and now he’s literally a step away from the NHL.
“Shane will tell you that Josh has made his own decisions every step of the way. Back in the day, Josh would have gone to Kamloops when he was 17 and not to the Chicago Steel but Josh has calculated his career in such an effective way and he has such a great inner confidence that he’s going to get it done. I have no doubt that we’re going to see him on NHL ice at some point this year.
“One big regret I have with Josh is I really wanted to win with him. I feel like we’re going to this year and boy, if he were back it would just be that much sweeter. But he can always look back at his time here and be proud of what he did to further instill our culture. He makes everybody around him better just by being there.”
Is there any update on Robert Mastrosimone’s decision on whether to turn pro or remain with the program?
“He’s waiting until August 15 when he becomes a free agent. Until then, we really have no choice other than to plan like he’s not coming back. But he’s still here. He’s training here. He’s working out here. If he does not get an opportunity that is attractive to him, he has left returning completely open. If he comes back, it’s just going to be a ridiculous cherry on top of what we have.”
Have you pondered all of the potential benefits of joining the NCHC for the 2024-25 season?
“We’ve already made major inroads in recruiting, I can tell you that. There’s always been two roadblocks to recruiting: the building, which obviously is solved, and then being in a conference. We don’t have those roadblocks any more.
“There’s another thing that being in a conference does. When athletes don’t have something definitively to play for it’s a tough mental grind on kids. If you’re not in the mix from a PairWise standpoint, if you’re not in the top 20 by the time the end of January rolls around, it’s a really hard proposition to keep kids motivated and excited to show up every day in the rink because they don’t have a championship to play for. If you have a conference, you’re always in the fight. You’re always in the mix. You’re never out of it no matter what because of the postseason tournaments.
“Look at what Colgate did. They were No. 30 to 35 all year in PairWise, they got hot at the right time and they ran the table in the ECAC [tournament]. They beat Harvard and Quinnipiac in the semis and the finals, and they made the NCAA Tournament. You want to play for the jersey. You want to play for pride and we do all that, but it’s so much easier to do when there’s a championship to play for.”
What are the benefits of the NCHC’s pod scheduling set-up?
“With the NCHC’s pod scheduling with CC and Denver, we’ll have a home and home every year and develop rivalries with them. We haven’t yet. We haven’t earned the right to call anybody a rival, but we will develop rivals that our fans will relate to.”
“The other benefit is the ease of travel. Just knowing that we’re going to fly to Denver and Colorado Springs every year, budget-wise, it’s very inexpensive and it’s an hour-and-20 minute flight. It’s even easy to travel to a place like Omaha or Grand Forks. You can fly direct into Grand Forks. St. Cloud and Duluth are easy. You fly into Minneapolis and it’s a short bus from there so the travel is going to be a lot easier. The student-athlete experience and welfare will be drastically improved. A huge portion of my job is putting the puzzle pieces together as an independent scheduler. Now, all I have to do is schedule 10 games a year because the rest are taken care of.
One of the benefits of playing as an independent was that you got to play in a lot of different college hockey markets and show off your product. How will you balance the desire to play in a conference and play a competitive schedule with the desire to still expose your product to different markets?
“We looked at how they do it in the NCHC; what the really successful teams like Denver and North Dakota and Duluth do nonconference wise. The best coaches are the best thieves so we’re just gonna model off of what they do. You want to schedule some games that you think are winnable. And then you want to schedule some games that if you win, it’s great for PairWise. So you don’t want to just schedule 10 quote-unquote cupcakes, even though there aren’t really any in college hockey. You’ve got to be a little strategic about it.
“The first couple of years, I’m having to spread out all the games that we were going to play in 2024-25 and push them out a year or maybe even two years. Once we really get into the groove of conference play, I think you’re gonna see a lot of home nonconference games because a lot of teams do want to come here. It’s a desirable location to travel to in the winter. I would guess that once we’re through that phase of making up all the games that we have to, at least six of them will be at home, but probably eight or 10.”
Did you witness the demolition of Oceanside Ice Arena and how did you react?
“It’s sad. It’s such a landmark for hockey in our state and there’s so many local players that grew up learning how to play hockey there and cutting their teeth there. Obviously, we built our program there so is it sad to see it go? Absolutely. I would love to have it stay there. I think the market needs as many ice sheets as it can get, but I’m not sad that we’re not playing there.”
With the conference affiliation set, what are your thoughts on playing your last independent schedule this season?
“We have every box checked. The way we’re playing it with our team is this is the final chapter of phase one of Sun Devil hockey and you guys get to be a part of it. We expect our players to wear it like a badge of honor, and if they do, we’re going to have a lot of success this year. We have 26 home games; 27 if you count the exhibition game that we’re going to play. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate our last year as an independent and our history as an independent before we head into that next chapter.”
Financially, what has Mullett Arena meant for the program?
“We were second in ticket revenue in college hockey last year in our first year in Mullett Arena. We were only behind North Dakota. That’s something we’re really proud of. We are a revenue sport. We’re one of only three revenue sports at ASU now with men’s basketball and men’s football. We had $3.1 million in ticket revenue alone in year one. It’s proof that hockey works here. It’s viable and sustainable and most importantly, profitable.
A lot of that money goes into the athletic department budget, but how does it benefit the program to prove that it can be profitable?
“It makes mundane asks a little bit easier. When we’re not a drain on the department, it’s easier to maybe make some asks here and there that maybe in the past we wouldn’t have. It helped justify adding the third coach and paying the salaries that we are to our assistant coaching pool. That was probably the biggest thing, just justifying bringing in some really high caliber guys and paying them competitive wages. If we were still at Oceanside, we couldn’t do that. There’s just no way.”
This is still a long shot but could your example and model lead other programs in the west to explore adding hockey as an additional sport?
“I’ve always said that it would take until we were in an arena for this stuff to become public knowledge that could cause the dominoes to fall. If we can do it, why can’t Oregon? Why can’t Washington? Why can’t Colorado in Boulder? It will work in all of those places. It will just take the right people who are willing to put in the sweat equity to get it done. But if it can work here, it can work at all those places and so many more, like UNLV. Hopefully, the more this information gets out about how successful this really has been on every level, there’s no reason why if you’re an AD or president, you wouldn’t look at it.
“The community rink has become a community asset. There are people on that ice all the time, whether it’s figure skaters, club teams, the Junior Sun Devils. There’s going to be an elite lead U14 and U16 Triple-A tournament during our Desert Classic this year with teams from all over the country coming in. And there’s Coyotes games book-ended on Thursday and Sunday around the Desert Classic. Just the amount of hockey in this building over that weekend is incredible.
“The more settled we get, you’re gonna start to see potentially USA Hockey starting to put some events here like maybe a Five Nations, which they had in Colorado Springs up at Colorado College’s rink last year. It could be district camps for the Rocky Mountain district. Once you start to host those successfully, then it maybe opens up the doors for even bigger things.
What impact did Mullett Arena have on opposing teams?
“They were blown away. The videos and the pictures are all nice, but until you come into the place, you don’t really grasp it. Everybody says the same thing: ‘Oh, man, this is even nicer than I thought. It is a unique building from the generated revenue with all the premium seating to the dark background. You almost feel like you’re watching a game in HD because it’s dark. Visiting coaches have come in and said, ‘Hey, can we come see your locker room?’ We show them and they’re just blown away by it.
“The one thing we didn’t notice, though, is the difference in mindset in opponents. Teams are actually really excited to play us here whereas when we played them in Oceanside they were not. We’ve got to be better in that respect to build a home-ice advantage here. When players walk into this place and we have the NHL playing in here, they’re gonna be excited to play in front of 5,000 people and you’re gonna get their very best.”
You mentioned at the end of last season that there would be tweaks to Mullett Arena in its second season; that everything was not complete. Can you highlight some of those tweaks?
“They extended the ribbon boards all the way around the arena, just below the suite level. That’s going to allow us to do some things. For ASU games last season, we had to be a little bit more ADA compliant than the Coyotes so for our games, the big, center-hung scoreboard had closed captioning on it, which made the video on the board smaller during our games than it was for the Coyotes games. Now it can go on the ribbon board because there’s room for it so it’s going to be more of a pro feel, and that’s one of the upgrades that the Coyotes paid for, mainly for advertising.
“As far as other changes, we had to add an office for (new assistant coach) Dana Borges. We’ve also finished a lot of the branding that didn’t get finished last season so our hallway and our whole area looks really good right now. It’s completely branded.
“In the medical room, we didn’t do any branding in there last season and it just kind of felt like a hospital. Now it’s branded with forks and logos and some really cool striping. The equipment workshop is completely branded with a really cool collage of seven, eight years of our NCAA era. In the main player hallway, we branded a huge wall where it’s the celebration of the players jumping into the glass in the first game against Colgate in the student section. It’s a huge mural, and then to the right of that, we did a captain’s collage of all the guys that have worn letters for us through the NCAA era; that helped us build our program.
“But the coolest thing, like I said, is we actually have a place to develop an offseason culture. In the past, players would all go home. It was tough to get a player to stay here and train because they didn’t want to do it at Oceanside. It was disjointed between campus and off campus. Now you have a one-stop shop where they have a beautiful weight room and ice that they have access to every day. So pretty much our whole team is here.”
Top photo of the 2022-23 Sun Devil hockey team via Getty Images