Inaugural Desert Hockey Classic leaves mark on Gila River Arena
Arizona State University hockey coach Greg Powers knew there would be hardships, bumps in the road and adversity.
With the desire to play at the elite Division I level finalized this past summer, Powers and his intrepid Sun Devils embarked on a journey filled with known and unknown challenges. While the results could be better, Powers constantly tells his players to keep their heads above water, continued to work hard, and good times will come.
After being blanked by the University of Connecticut 3-0 in the consolation game of the Desert Hockey Classic Jan. 10 at the Gila River Arena, Powers took solace in the fact this transition to Division I would be painful.
At the same time, his players echoed the reality.
“In the tournament, we would have liked better results,” said defenseman Jordon Young, a Cave Creek native. “We understand the level of talent we need to be successful at this level. Losing is terrible, but we have to suck it up and keep grinding.”
After their first 25 games at the D-I level, the Sun Devils were 6-17-2 and had been shut out five times. That included not scoring in the Desert Classic against both Yale University and UConn.
While the Sun Devils attempt to ease the transition to Division I, Powers knows the reality. His roster, dominated by freshmen and inexperience, encountered top college programs in this their initial season into Division I play. For his part, Powers would have it no other way. The only way to grow, he said during the tournament, is engage great competition.
That way, he pointed out, the playing field becomes somewhat level. More importantly, the caliber of play from his Sun Devils will improve and that clearly helps in recruiting and the establishment of a solid fan base.
The growing pains were evident during that Desert Classic. Because Powers, athletic director Ray Anderson and other university officials would like to accelerate the program, persistence is the key.
“I’m an impatient guy, but have no choice but to be patient,” said Powers. “This is a process, and if we focus on the process, we’ll get there.”
In taking on Yale, ranked 12th in the country, in the opener of the tournament, Powers pointed out the match was clearly a learning experience. Citing Yale’s Alex Lyon as the best college goalie in the country, the Devils managed only 12 shots on Lyon while losing 4-0. The misery seemed exacerbated when UConn goalie Rob Nichols turned in his first shutout of the season in the consolation game of the tourney two days later.
Still, the Sun Devils are driven by hope and optimism for the future. With the move to D-I status, a likely result was skating in a suitable building that would be conducive and representative of moving to the highest level in collegiate athletics.
The venue for this tournament was significant. In playing on the home rink of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, Anderson’s attempt to gain a high profile tournament and engage in the best college competition in the country, was clearly on his radar screen.
Plus, the Frozen Four is etched on his calendar.
For the 2016 NCAA final championship round, the Frozen Four is slated for a warm weather destination. That would be the Amalie Arena, home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, on April 7 and 9. If this edition of the Frozen Four can be held amid palm trees and sunshine, Anderson believes Arizona State has the same physical environment. Since the announcement to Division I last summer, Anderson wants a Frozen Four in the Gila River Arena, and that, he hopes, will continues his push to elevate the fledgling Devils hockey program.
If the Sun Devils are just getting off the ground, they can receive heed from a program which has “been there, done that.” In defeating Yale 2-1 in a shootout to capture the initial Desert Hockey Classic, Michigan Tech University traversed through the journey.
“I can remember playing a tournament before a few hundred people in the old (Detroit) Olympia,” said Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson. “Just last week, we lost a tough game to Michigan (4-2 on Dec. 30), but played that game before 17,000 in Joe Louis Arena. Things do get better. I would say to those with the Arizona State program to stay the course. It does takes time and remain stay positive. It’s great to have a tournament like this and success will come to the Arizona State program sooner than later.”
Despite back-to-back shut-outs in the tournament and the burden of a losing season, Powers remains heartened and optimistic. Going forward, the 12 freshmen on the roster, he tells listeners, will gain experience, develop into substantial players and establish a significant program.
IN THE TOURNAMENT
UConn forward Max Letunov, a Coyotes’ prospect and native of Moscow, picked up one assist in the two-game event. Letunov came to Arizona last March from the St. Louis Blues in a trade for defenseman Zbynek Michalek. For the season, Letunov, a left wing, is the Huskies’ leading scorer and, by the end of the Desert Classic, was the only UConn player in double figures in goals.
Photo/Sun Devil Athletics
— Mark Brown