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Sun Devils hope to spark formation of western-based NCAA hockey conference

Craig Morgan Avatar
October 2, 2022

Arizona State’s men’s hockey team will play 39 games this season against teams from all six Division I conferences. The Sun Devils will also face all four other independent programs. 

Twenty-four of ASU’s games will be held at Mullett Arena and coach Greg Powers said that the Sun Devils could host as many as 29 games next season.

“Right now, we are very content to stay independent,” Powers said. “We put in so much sweat equity for seven years, traveling more than anybody. So many teams owe us trips back. That could last three or four years. We’re not giving that up to join a league. It’s too valuable, revenue wise, and we think we’re going to have a great home-ice advantage and win a lot of games here.”

There are obvious advantages to Sun Devil hockey remaining independent. Other schools love the idea of a trip to Division’s I’s only true warm-weather climate. The Sun Devils can market the program to more outsiders, whether its visitors or the programs that ASU visits all over the nation. Finally, the Sun Devils can craft their own schedule to give themselves the best possible odds to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, rather than having to play the vast majority of their games within a conference.

That’s an advantage that none of the other independents — Alaska, Alaska Anchorage, LIU and Lindenwood — enjoy.

“We’re a school that can get away with it,” Powers said. “We can live as an independent and succeed as an independent.”

That doesn’t mean that ASU will remain independent forever. The attraction of a conference is the opportunity that it affords for automatic NCAA Tournament bids (independents are not afforded that right), or at-large bids if a team goes on a run in a conference postseason tournament.

ASU has already dallied with the idea of joining either the Big Ten or the NCHC. While the NCHC would seem to make more sense because its schools are, by and large, closer geographically, when you factor in nearby airports and bus travel to reach those schools, the travel is no less arduous to the NCHC than it would be to the Big Ten, although the Big Ten does have four schools in the Eastern time zone while the NCHC has just two.

There is also the Big Ten’s pedigree to consider. Other than North Dakota, the NCHC’s schools are not major brands. Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin and even Minnesota (for hockey) all are big brands in the Big Ten, and that could mean greater revenue possibilities in that conference. If the Sun Devils do join an existing conference, the Big Ten is the more likely route.

The Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes stand for the National Anthem before a Big Ten game at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Feb. 22, 2019. The Sun Devils played at Yost in the 2020-21 season. (Getty Images)

The fourth option? Well, that’s the dream that ASU keeps in its back pocket, hoping to one day brandish with pride as the program that sparked its creation. The Sun Devils would love to play in their own conference with schools that are based in the west.

“There’s a high desirability for it,” Senior Associate Athletic Director and CFO for Sun Devil Athletics, Frank Ferrara said. “I have always believed that college hockey was underserved on the national landscape. It has its strong pockets up in the Northeast, and in Michigan and Minnesota, but down here it’s underserved. We need to see it grow. Taking this program DI and building this arena was always about more than just Sun Devil hockey. This was about trying to grow the sport and trying to prove to everyone in the non-traditional markets that this is something that could work.”

It requires a minimum of six teams to form a conference in Division I college hockey. There are currently four in what might be termed the western portion of the continental United States: ASU, Denver, Colorado College and Air Force.

When you look at markets that either have an existing NHL team or a thriving club program, there are several possibilities to beef up the West’s numbers to the minimum threshold. USC and UCLA reside in a thriving youth hockey market that the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks have helped build. UNLV already has a strong partnership with the Vegas Golden Knights, Stanford has so much money that it may not even need the San Jose Sharks’ help, Oregon doesn’t need anybody other than Nike’s Phil Knight for financial help, and the Washington Huskies could benefit from the expansion Seattle Kraken’s uber community-focused approach. The University of Arizona has long had a thriving club program and anew arena in the planning stages. Toss in Colorado, Colorado State and Utah, where Salt Lake City already has a hockey history, and there are numerous possibilities.

Illustration by Shawn DePaz

Unfortunately for college hockey hopefuls in the West, including the Sun Devils, there are also numerous hurdles.

In UNLV’s case, the Rebels split their games between 5,567-seat Dollar Loan Center, home of the AHL’s Henderson Silver Knights, and 600-seat City National Arena, the practice facility and headquarters of the Vegas Golden Knights. The former arena is too big; the latter is too small.

“We’re not going to get 6,000 people every night,” UNLV coach Anthony Vignieri Greener said. “The Silver Knights don’t get 6,000 people every night. We could do 2,000-3,500 every night, but the price to play in that place is too high for that size crowd.”

The best hope for UNLV, which may be the closest western-based program to making the Division I leap, is that the Golden Knights build additional ice rinks that are already in the planning stages, and that the Rebels may be able to partner with Vegas on a new facility.

That’s not UNLV’s only hurdle, however.

“When you talk to UNLV officials, they want to see a consistent winner,” Vignieri Greener said. “We’re putting a good product on the ice, but we haven’t won anything. They’re like, ‘If you’re not winning at this level, then why are we going to focus on it?’”

“The new AD (Erick Harper) is kind of hockey driven. He’s been to our games and he’s seen that we outdrew the basketball team for half the year last year and we always outdraw the baseball team, so it’s not like there was ever a hurdle that was so big that they were like, ‘Nah, it’s never gonna happen.’ All the talks we’ve had with the Knights or the school have been very positive. It’s just that there’s tons of things that have to happen before we can go DI.”

Vignieri Greener admits that UNLV is trying to follow ASU’s model, but it helped that an anonymous donor and Don Mullett (whose name now appears on the arena) gave ASU a $32 million donation to take the program to Division I.

“If somebody came to Erick Harper and said, ‘Here’s $20 million, let’s make this thing happen,’ I’m sure it could happen,” UNLV’s coach said, laughing. “But I feel like Powers put a good blueprint out there for us and others to follow. He’s definitely helped us along the way.”

There are other ways in which ASU is serving as a test program for other western schools as they look to overcome the challenges of Title IX compliance, the recent advent of NIL’s that are siphoning some money away from athletic programs, the challenge that COVID-19 presented with cancelled seasons (most notably the cash cow of football) and the need for hockey to be a revenue-generating sport, rather than an athletic-department drain.

In that sense, it helped that ASU has an athlete director in Ray Anderson who was educated at Stanford and wanted to follow that school’s model of providing ample opportunities for student-athletes. When ASU made hockey a Division I men’s program for the 2015-16 season, it also added women’s triathlon and women’s lacrosse. The Sun Devils’ triathlon team has already won four national championships.

To make hockey a revenue sport, ASU also followed the school’s blueprint of making its new facility a community asset. Mullett Arena has an adjacent community rink that will be used for youth leagues, men’s leagues and the overall facility will host concerts, shows and tournaments, offering ample revenue opportunities.

“When you’re trying to look at this through the eyes of a chancellor or president or school board, you want to make sure that it’s funded for a long period of time,” Ferrara said. “For us, we try to make sure that our sports are funded for at least 15 years, so before we even had a facility, we needed a big investment to make sure that we had what we needed to operate.

“We will be a revenue sport. The revenue that we generate solely from Sun Devil hockey will be enough to support us, but when you factor in the community ice, the shows, the tournaments, it’s going to be a very good asset for the athletic department, and one that other schools could follow.”

ASU knows that a lot of collegiate hockey eyes are focused on the program. Ferrara hopes and believes that the Sun Devils can deliver.

“For collegiate hockey to truly succeed we need a good media strategy and it cannot be viewed as just a regional sport by the general public,” Ferrara said. “It is a great sport to watch, but what’s lagging behind is the production quality and obviously the ability of people to see it. I mean, you have to be an internet contortionist to try to find college hockey.

“We always knew that there were going to be eyes on us when we launched this, and we know more than anyone that there’s obstacles. We’re about to sit in one of the biggest obstacles in two weeks with our new arena opening. That’s an obstacle that holds some institutions back, and there’s also the travel, but once you have more schools out here in the Southwest and in California, it really starts to shrink the hurdles; the challenge. Once we have the programs and the schools in the West with the big names for the media side, then I think that we could start to see the dominoes fall, we could have a conference in the West, and we could make college hockey a national sport.”

Top photo of Denver’s Magness Arena courtesy of DU Athletics

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