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When Colin Theisen entered the NCAA transfer portal this offseason after four years at Notre Dame, he became priority No. 1 for the Sun Devils. Coach Greg Powers already knew that the NCAA’s decision to extend one-time transfers to men’s hockey would significantly alter the sport’s landscape. He wanted in on the action, seeing an opportunity to elevate his program back to NCAA Tournament level after a difficult, all-road schedule in 2020-21.
By Oct. 1, 154 players had switched schools, and ASU landed its share, but Theisen was a different kind of case. His was personal. Assistant coach Mike Field had coached him at Dubuque in the USHL. Field loved his game, loved his attitude and knew that ASU would afford him a great opportunity in his final year of NCAA eligibility.
“It wasn’t quite every day, but I called him more than I called 99 percent of the guys that we were recruiting,” Field said with a sheepish grin. “If he would have said ‘no,’ I really would have taken it personally, and I never do that.
“I just knew what we had for him as an opportunity and I knew he would love it, so it would have been hard for me if I couldn’t get him to understand.”
Field didn’t have to sell very hard. It’s not hard to sell northern-bred hockey players on the idea of sunshine and warmth anyway — even though the Sun Devils’ swanky new arena isn’t quite ready — but Theisen was looking for a change and ASU offered some coaching comforts.
“I did my four years at Notre Dame and I enjoyed my time there and met a lot of good guys, good staff and all that, but my time came up and I just thought I’d look at other options just to explore new places and kind of experience something new,” he said. “Coach Powers called me before I originally committed to Dartmouth and when I decommitted and went to Notre Dame, he called me again so they were always in the back of my mind.
“I always liked playing for coach Field. Everything he said to me back in the day is what he always stuck to. I knew he was a man of his word, so we had that connection right away, which helped me in the transfer process when I had questions.”
Theisen hasn’t disappointed the Sun Devils since making his decision. In 10 games, he has 13 points (five goals), which is tied for eighth in NCAA Division I. Theisen has failed to record a point in a game just once this season, (Oct. 29 vs. St. Thomas), and he followed that game with a hat trick the following day against St. Thomas.
“He’s obviously playing with some pretty talented guys every night and I think being on the power play has really boosted his confidence,” Powers said. “But he’s really the straw that stirs the drink. He and Jack Becker are the ones that nobody talks about. They do all the dirty work by keeping pucks in and retrieving pucks and getting us sustained zone time until those other guys figure something out. He has also made some unbelievable plays. He’s just really good at that middle-man role.”
Theisen is also benefiting from a move to the center position; a move that the coaching staff immediately identified as a possibility because of his ability to be a distributor and a shooter, and because of his hockey IQ.
“The guys I have played with, Johnny (Walker) and Chris Grando and (Josh Doan), have been a big help and I think I’ve generated a lot of offense,” he said. “With the move to center I’ve actually had more responsibility in the D-zone, helping out the D down low, taking faceoffs and stuff like that. You kind of demand the puck more and you’re more in control on the ice, kind of leading the players on offense, so I kind of like that aspect of it.”
Theiesen’s hard-nosed, 200-foot game made him attractive to Powers, but Theisen’s main calling card has always been his shot. Several Sun Devils have high shooting percentages this season, but Theisen is scoring on 17.2 percent of his shots and there is a reason for that.
“I can specifically remember the first goal he scored in Waterloo in an exhibition game,” said Jason Lammers, who took over as head coach in Dubuque the same season that Field joined ASU’s staff. ”It was a slap shot over the goalie’s glove and I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, that was a pretty special goal that not a lot of guys can score.
“It was just the angle that he was coming from and the speed and with a guy closing on him. He literally blew it by the goalie like an old-school, 1984 slapshot from the wing. He roofed it and I thought, ‘Whoa, that was pretty cool. That’s not supposed to go in. That’s a good shot right there.”
Theisen isn’t a hockey blue blood. His dad, Paul, played high school football and there were no hockey genes in the family before he and his brother, Isaac, started playing on the pond in the family backyard. He had some advantages, however. Monroe, Michigan is only 40 miles south of Detroit, and for the first decade-plus of Theisen’s life, the Red Wings were the NHL franchise, winning four Stanley Cups and qualifying for the postseason for 25 straight seasons with a host of stars that included Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidström, Brendan Shanahan, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Detroit also had powerhouse youth programs such as Compuware and Victory Honda, both for which Theisen played before Dubuque.
“I kind of was a late bloomer,” he said. “When I got drafted (by Dubuque in 2013) I was like five-foot-six. I always wanted to envision playing college hockey, but I was always told to just take it step by step.”
While teammates such as Sean Day and Max Jones were committing to the OHL at a young age, Theisen played two years of U16 and he spent some time in the NAHL to develop.
“We started seeing him kind of regressing,” Field said. “He wasn’t trying to make plays. He was only trying to do what the coaches wanted, so we thought for his development, it would be better for him to go and play in the North American league and just kind of get more offensive situations and feel those opportunities again.
“In order to do that, he had to sign a waiver that basically said no other team in the USHL could pick him up. He had to forfeit an opportunity to stay in the USHL to go to a lower level. We laid it all out for him and his parents to make sure they understood it was up to them. That’s a pretty big leap of faith and they just said. ‘OK, if you think this is what’s best for Colin, we’ll do it.’ So he goes down, gets his mojo back offensively, comes back up and plays great for us.”
Like virtually every player who puts on skates, Theisen wants to continue his career at some level of professional hockey, whether that is in North America or Europe, but to a man, Powers’ players preach their coach’s in-the-moment mantra.
It was easy for Theisen to adopt that mantra. It has guided his entire career.
“We kind of want to win the national championship here,” he said, smiling. “I’m trying to focus on that first, but I’d love to play pro hockey next year. I have loved this game ever since I was two years old, but like I said, I’ve just got to keep getting better every day, keep the process moving and we’ll see where that leads me.”