Coming Out Party

Arizona State Hopes Inaugural Div. I Tournament Is The First Of Many Big Things To Bloom In The Desert

When the puck dropped at Gila River Arena for the inaugural Desert Classic, it was more than the first NCAA Div. I hockey game played in the Southwest.

For the Arizona State University hockey program and grassroots hockey in the area, the Desert Classic was the foundation of something much bigger.

“It’s a huge coup to the game here in Arizona,” ASU head coach Greg Powers said about the tournament that pitted his squad against the University of Connecticut, Michigan Tech University and Yale University. “It’s a big deal for us for our first big publicized game to be on national TV.”

During this season, the upstart program has played almost entirely out of state, and when they were at home it was at Oceanside Ice Arena, a small community rink in Tempe. The Desert Classic, played on the home ice of the Arizona Coyotes, was a showcase event for the program and sport in the west.

Buoyed by large home crowds, ASU took on Yale to open the tournament and lost, 4-0. The Sun Devils were also blanked by UConn, 3-0, in the third-place game. Yale and Michigan Tech skated to a 1-1 tie in the championship game on Sunday.

Still, this tournament was about more than goals and wins. For Powers, the quality of hockey and the experience of the visiting teams were vital ingredients to the success of the event.

“At the end it’s not just about us. It's about the game overall,” he said. “[We want to] hear rave reviews from the hockey community about how good the hockey was. That’s the most important thing for growing the game.”

He also hoped that the visiting teams would leave with their own impressions of how hockey is played in the desert.

“We want [the country] to know we run a first class operation at ASU,” Powers said. “We bear the responsibility to do this right. We want to do things so well and so right that we don’t give other western universities a choice [about adding college hockey] because things have gone so well at Arizona State.”

The Desert Classic was an opportunity  for Arizona State University to showcase college hockey at its finest.The Desert Classic was an opportunity for Arizona State University to showcase college hockey at its finest.

At the heart of the blooming college hockey fan base in the desert is a youth hockey scene that is thriving. Mike DeAngelis, director of hockey with the Junior Coyotes, has seen the talent level steadily rise across the now booming youth hockey leagues in the state.

“We all, in the state, together can build a brand for hockey, with facilities and talent, to keep these kids home,” DeAngelis said, referring to elite Arizona-trained players like top NHL prospect Auston Matthews, who had to leave the state to continue his development.

DeAngelis spent time behind the Arizona State club hockey bench and said the brand awareness of the Sun Devils in the state will make waves in the very near future.

“This is the first big coming out party [for ASU hockey],” DeAngelis said of the Desert Classic. “[Div. I hockey] has been under the radar a bit but this week is really when it blasts off.”

Bringing top college teams to the Valley of the Sun was a way to showcase the sport to new fans, but also a way to let the program make a debut of sorts in front of a home crowd.

“In this inaugural hybrid season we’ve been on the road all year,” Powers said. “[Fans] haven’t had a chance to really experience Div. I hockey yet.”

 

“[Division I hockey] has been under the radar a bit but
this week is really when it blasts off.”­

—Mike DeAngelis, director of hockey, Junior Coyotes

DeAngelis and the Junior Coyotes, as well as youth hockey organizations from around the state, penciled in the Desert Classic as a way to show their young players the path to college hockey.

“What college hockey does in general out on the west coast is it gives kids a foreseeable light at the end of their tunnel,” Powers said. “Everyone wants to make the NHL, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the odds are really slim.”

DeAngelis said seven players in the Desert Classic, not just on the ASU roster, played in Arizona. He said the tournament was a way to show the next generation of players that the path to college hockey is viable and that the strong brand of Sun Devil Athletics has arrived in the sport.

“We need the younger kids and their parents to really see and understand that the Arizona State logo is on a Div. I jersey,” DeAngelis said.

In many sports, Arizona-grown talent moved from high school teams to ASU and beyond, like Super Bowl champion Terrell Suggs. Showing proud ASU families that the same can be done in hockey will, according to DeAngelis, take the sport to the next level.

“It’s only going to get bigger from people understanding what’s happened here.”

Cameron Eickmeyer is the director of USA Hockey’s Internet Content and Development, and a 2005 graduate of Arizona State University.
Issue: 
2016-02

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