ASU Hockey Makes NCAA Tournament Debut To Relative Anonymity
While the desert air outside hits the mid 80s, it’s 40 degrees cooler inside The Oceanside Ice arena, a small rink on the outskirts of Tempe. That's where Arizona State University's hockey team is practicing with an extra skip in their skates.
In only their third full year playing on the Division 1 level, the Sun Devils won a bid to play in the hockey equivalent of the Big Dance, and are now getting ready to travel to Allentown, Pennsylvania to take on Quinnipiac University in the first round of the NCAA Hockey Tournament.
But wait, you say — ASU has a hockey team? When did this happen?
“I’ve been here for 20 years, as a player on the club level, as a coach on the club level, and now even at this level, that’s something I still get and I’m used to it. You just kind of smile,” says head coach Greg Powell. “And there will be a day very soon where we don’t get that anymore — and I think we’re really close to that day.”
Hockey has actually been played on the club level at ASU since the 1970s. But only in the past three years has the program been at the highest level of collegiate athletics.
Freshman forward Demetrios Koumontzis came to the desert from the hockey mecca of Minnesota. He's heard similar skepticism.
“I think it’s starting to go around more that people know about us — but you still have those people doubting, especially those back in Minnesota, but this is why I’m here and why I like proving people wrong and that’s what makes it so special,” he said.
Sophomore forward Johnny Walker said enjoys the chance to respond to that question.
“I actually love that. Like, people from Minnesota or anywhere else [asking] ‘They have a hockey program?’ Yeah, we’re actually in the tournament and Minnesota is not,” he said, laughing.
"There will be a day very soon where we don’t get that anymore — and I think we’re really close to that day."
— Greg Powell, head coach
Walker is one of the big reasons they’re in that tournament as the team’s leading scorer and one of the top goal scorers in the nation this season with 23, including nine on the power play.
“Sixteen teams get to do that, so we’re really honored and excited, and it’s even better when you can rub it in some faces of the naysayers and show them that we’re for real,” Walker said.
After winning only eight games last season, the Devs won 21 in this one, playing as a non-conference independent, good enough to rank them in the top 10 in the country.
Because they didn’t play in a conference tournament, they waited it out. Coach Powers, who’s been at the helm of the program since 2010, says being an independent has helped accelerate their progress.
“Yeah, we view that as a huge advantage. We’ve played in every venue, in any venue against every different conference. There’s nothing our guys haven’t seen, literally,” he said.
ASU is the first independent team to make the tourney since 1992.
Goalie Joey Daccord, a Massachusetts native, had fun waiting out the conference tournaments, Arizona-style.
"I just sent my family a group chat — I sent a picture of myself at the pool last week and said, ‘This is how we wait for the NCAA tournament,'" he said. "My dad texted me back and said that was actually hilarious because other teams are battling it and we’re just chilling here in the sun just waiting for them.”
During the regular season as backstop, Daccord led the nation in wins, recorded seven shutouts and allowed an average of only 2.20 goals per game for ASU.
He also believes the rest has been beneficial.
“We’ve been staying sharp. I think you can see there were several teams that were in the top 16 before the conference play started, got bounced first round and now they’re not in anymore. It was kind of to our advantage that we didn’t have to play any more games and risk falling in the rankings,” he said.
"Sixteen teams get to do that, so we’re really honored and excited, and it’s even better when you can rub it in some faces of the naysayers and show them that we’re for real"
— Johnny Walker, Sophomore forward
And now that they’ve arrived, goal-machine Johnny Walker says they’re in it to win it.
“I don’t think there’s one kid in that locker room that doesn’t believe we could be national champions, and there’s no reason why you should be sitting in the locker room just content that we are going to the NCAA tournament. We’re definitely going to win,” he said.
Greg Powers says they also plan to enjoy the ride.
“Nobody expected us to get this far, so we’re gonna have fun with it," he said. "We’re gonna play hard, we’re gonna play loose and we’re gonna see what happens.”
The Ice Devils take on Quinnipiac in the first round Saturday — a team they’ve played against five times in recent years, including a loss to the Bobcats in Glendale just last season.
Win or lose, Powers hopes from now on, no one will forget that ASU has a hockey team.