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Sun Devils hockey notebook: Rekindling rivalry with Arizona Wildcats

Craig Morgan Avatar
October 6, 2023
Greg Powers and the Sun Devils celebrate their first ever win against Arizona in Powers' freshman year at ASU (1995-96).

Sun Devils coach Greg Powers brings a wealth of institutional knowledge and memory to the hockey program. Those assets will benefit ASU hockey fans when the Sun Devils open the 2023-24 season with an exhibition game against the University of Arizona’s club team at 7 p.m. on Friday at Mullett Arena.

Powers played for the Sun Devils when they were a club team. He coached them as a club team. He remembers struggling for legitimacy. He remembers how Arizona had the upper hand for a long stretch as one of the nation’s premier club teams under then-coach Leo Golembiewski, who died in January at the age of 73.

“The last thing I said to the guys is ‘Don’t take them lightly because you just never know,'” Powers said. “You know damn well they’re going to come up and give their very best efforts. It’s their Stanley Cup. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all those kids to get a Division One experience.

“I’ve been on the other side of it. We took our ACHA team to Penn State when they were Division One and we beat them, so it can happen. We’re going to be ready to play and we’re treating it like any other game. We don’t care if they’re a club team. We don’t care if they’re a varsity team. We don’t care if they’re the Little Sisters of the Poor. They’ve got an A block on their jersey and we’re gonna go after them.”

Powers made a big push to rekindle the rivalry; both with the NCAA and through his relationship with Arizona coach Chad Berman.

“I actually put in for legislation to get a change to allow NCAA teams to use ACHA [teams] as their exhibition [games],” Powers said. “In my opinion, it makes way more sense to exhibition against ACHA teams to grow the game of college hockey in our country rather than play a Canadian school. There was an international exemption prior and the ACHA wasn’t a part of that exemption.

“I’ve always said without that game for us at Penn State; without that win at Penn State, we’re not here today. This doesn’t exist. That put our team and our program on the map. It wasn’t the [ACHA] national championship. It was that game and it was that opportunity that raised a lot of eyebrows going, ‘Hey, what’s going on? This is working. A club team from Arizona State just beat a Division One team.’

“Now you see Denver, the last two years, they exhibitioned UNLV last year; Lindenwood the year before. Liberty beat Long Island two years ago. This year, Minot State, who is very good, is going to play Colorado College and Denver. So more NCAA teams are giving these ACHA programs opportunities.

“UA is coming up Thursday and we’re going to treat them like a Division One team. They’re going to get a great experience and who knows, maybe some multibillionaire donor from U of A sees the game and says, ‘You know what? We’re going to level the playing field. We’re going to put U of A in Division One hockey.’ There’s nobody that’d be happier to see the University of Arizona step up to the plate and add Division One hockey than me.”

As for his own team, Powers promised that the Sun Devils will not take the Wildcats lightly.

“Every year at the start of the year, the athletic department puts together an entire kind of convocation for all the student-athletes and every team gets a Kachina doll for beating Arizona,” Powers said. “Our guys have to watch it every year. We don’t get that opportunity. So this is the opportunity and we better damn well get a Kachina doll if we win.”

Sun devils Coaching chemistry

It’s an annual occurrence in college sports, but it will take time for the Sun Devils to mesh as they adjust to the player departures and blend in all of the new faces. That goes for the coaching staff as well, where assistants Albie O’Connell and Dana Borges have joined the staff while longtime assistant Mike Field has departed to take an assistant coaching job with thew WHL’s Everett Silvertips.

“It doesn’t happen overnight but I think we’ve done a really good job of it,” Powers said. “Most importantly as a head coach, you’ve got to let them do the job. You have to let them coach and find their way and let the players get comfortable with them and their messaging; the way they communicate.

“We’ve changed a little bit how we’re going to play this year. We’re going to play differently in neutral ice. We’re going to play a little bit differently in our defensive zone, but really outside of that, we’re gonna play the same way. At the end of the day, it’s just outcompeting and outwilling. We have a team that’s much more constructed to get in on the forecheck and be physical and be hard and be heavy and get back to that identity.”

Powers said having O’Connell and Borges aboard has helped him better evaluate the Sun Devils.

“I’ve stepped back,” he said. “I used to run pretty much 100 percent of our practices. [Tuesday], I had all three run (Alex Hicks is the other assistant) a practice combined and I just kind of watched. It’s a luxury as a head coach.

“When you’re running practice all the time, it’s hard to really look at detail. It’s hard to look at habits. It’s hard to look at what guys are doing because you’re so concerned with the pace of play and running drills and the spacing in drills. It’s an art to run a practice so you can’t always catch everything when you run it. Now I have three really good coaches that I trust to run a practice or combined practice. It’s been really good for me that way.”

Sun Devils forward Tyler Gratton was named captain.
Tyler Gratton wore an A for Penn State last season. He’ll wear the C as Sun Devils captain this season. (Getty Images)

Consensus captain

Earlier this offseason, the Sun Devils voted on captains. Returning players Ryan O’Reilly, Matthew Kopperud, Ethan Szmagaj and Lukas Sillinger were named alternate captains.

The guy elected to wear the C to replace Josh Doan? Tyler Gratton, who transferred from Penn State after four years with the Nittany Lions; the last one as an alternate captain.

“I left it to a player vote this year and it was unanimous,”Powers said. “He was the only player that got a vote from every single person, whether staff or players. I think it says a lot about his character and his ability to gain control of a room. To do that as a new player in college is really impressive.”

Gratton admits that even he was surprised by the results of the vote.

“It was a little crazy for me to hear, too,” he said, laughing. “I thought I might get a letter. Regardless, it wasn’t going to change my output and approach. I’m kind of an older guy who was going to be a leader on the team. I felt like there was things that I could definitely show the younger guys; just how things are done and whatnot.

“The fact that the guys trusted me and I was able to earn the respect quick enough is really an honor, but my approach will be the same. It’s simple: Only be vocal when you have to and lead by example. You’ve got to show up and work, day in and day out. Just show the guys what needs to happen.”

Sun Devils forward Matthew Kopperud will be critical to the team's offense.
Sun Devils forward Matthew Kopperud is healthy for the first time in a long time. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

Healthy Kopper

It has been a long time since Sun Devils forward Matthew Kopperud felt healthy.

“It was tough last year with a lot of surgeries and stuff throughout the year and before the year but now finally going into this year I feel like I’m fully back to 100 percent,” Kopperud said. “The last time I felt 100 percent was probably before my first surgery at 16 years old. Going into my senior year and being 24, I finally feel like myself again.”

Kopperud spent all summer in Arizona rehabbing, training and preparing for a big senior season.

“I got into hot yoga which definitely helped loosen up everything,” he said. “I was coming back at night to ice baths, a compression sleeve, extra stretching with [Director of Sports Performance] Liane [Blyn], going to physical therapy twice a week.

“I actually got into hot yoga because Lukas Sillinger’s younger brother Cole Sillinger was wondering what he could do to get more flexible and he said hot yoga was the way to go. It helped loosen up my joints and everything and get me more flexible. I didn’t have a clue what it was. If you would have told me a summer ago to go to hot yoga, I would have looked at you like, ‘No way. I’m not going to buy yoga mats.’ But yoga was one of the biggest things that helped fix me.”

That’s good news for the Sun Devils, who will need to replace the offense lost when Josh Doan and Robert Mastrosimone turned pro. Kopperud had 13 goals in his freshman season and 22 in 34 games in his sophomore season, but injuries limited him to six in 21 games last season.

“I’ve got to step up and come back to what I was doing my freshman and sophomore year, and hopefully lead the charge again,” Kopperud said.

Goaltending plan

Ask TJ Semptimphelter and he’ll tell you he was never overworked last season.

“My attitude is that I want to be in there every night, so no, I don’t think my workload was too big,” he said, smiling.

Ask Greg Powers and you’ll get a different take. Powers expects backup Gibson Homer to play games for the Sun Devils this season to relieve some of the load on Semptimphelter.

“Do I know what it’s gonna look like? No,” Powers said. “Will Gibby get starts? Yes. We rode TJ too hard last year. A lot of that was just to push him. We knew that the season wasn’t gonna go the way we wanted it at a certain point and he needed to feel that to know what he needed to do in the offseason to not feel that way again.

“I think we can manage his workload a lot more effectively and we will. Gibby’s a great goalie. He was a national development team kid. Obviously, USA Hockey thought he was one of the top two goalies in his birth year in the country. Gibby’s gonna get his opportunity and he’s going to push [TJ].”

Top photo: The Sun Devils celebrate their first-ever win against Arizona in Greg Powers’ freshman year of 1995-96. Photo courtesy of Greg Powers

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