Nov. 18, 2014 – a date that will undoubtedly be etched in the annals of Arizona State University athletics history.
That is, of course, the day the nation’s largest public university announced that men’s ice hockey would be its athletic department’s 23rd varsity sport – and the NCAA’s 60th Division I hockey program – when it drops the puck for the first time next fall.
But it’s another date entirely – just a few weeks later, to be sure – that has the potential to go down as an even bigger moment in the eyes of Arizona’s ever-evolving amateur hockey community.
On Dec. 11, Cody Gylling, a Chandler native and former forward with the Scottsdale-based Phoenix Jr. Coyotes program, took to his Twitter account to make a declaration.
“Excited to announce my commitment to play D-I hockey at Arizona State University!” tweeted Gylling, now a member of the North American Hockey League’s Amarillo Bulls and not only the Sun Devils’ first NCAA commit from Arizona, but its first committed varsity player, period.
Gylling is a solid prospect with undoubtedly a number of post-junior hockey options, but it’s not the talent coming to Tempe that’s most notable; rather, it’s the idea that just days into its tenure on the biggest college hockey stage of all, a local team was already a player at keeping – or in this case bringing back home – local talent.
When ASU athletic director Ray Anderson kicked off that Nov. 18 press conference in Tempe, it didn’t take long for him to throw his support behind current Sun Devils hockey coach Greg Powers; Anderson handed Powers the keys to what essentially amounts to a shiny new $32 million sports car.
Powers fits the bill. He’s an ASU alum, and led the Sun Devils – currently playing at the highest level of collegiate club hockey offered in the United States – to an American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division I national title last year.
After that – in simultaneous homage to ASU hockey past and future, Anderson explained how the school was going to finance it all. Seated next to Powers at the dais was father-son duo of Don and Chris Mullett.
Chris, a former Sun Devils hockey player, and his father were presented as the lead donors in a $32 million total gift – a number that would not only offset operating costs for the hockey program for its first 10 years at the D-I level, but also cover a corresponding new ASU women’s sport, with lacrosse or crew both rumored as possibilities.
Valley media bit on the story hard, and the national bunch wasn’t far behind. The move quickly started trending on Twitter, became the centerpiece story on NHL.com for the better part of the day, and ended up capturing a shout-out from ESPN anchor and self-appointed “Cawledge Hawkey” expect John Buccigross on SportsCenter that night.
Perhaps most telling, however, was what some of those national voices said the move would mean. In some circles, “westward expansion” was hailed as having the potential to be the biggest thing to ever happen to NCAA hockey. Others welcomed the news of ASU going D-I as nearly – if not more – relevant to Arizona’s youth hockey community than the NHL’s Coyotes decision to stay in Arizona.
Powers himself sees the distinction.
“I think the difference between us and the NHL and why this is so impactful, is that light at the end of the tunnel is so much brighter to play at this level. It’s so much more attainable – it’s within reach – to play college hockey.”
While it remains to be seen whether any of these notions will come true, one fact can’t be denied: The trickle-down effect on Arizona’s hockey community has already begun in earnest.
Powers, now with the oft-unenviable task of abiding by the NCAA’s litany of rules, can’t comment on recruits, like Gylling. What Powers can say, however, is the inevitable: Arizona is naturally the first place he’ll look for ASU-caliber talent.
“Any player who’s an Arizona kid who’s homegrown here and who we think is good enough to play NCAA Division I hockey, we want to make sure we don’t let them get away,” Powers said. “I think that’s what makes this opportunity so special and hopefully drives the growth of the game more (in Arizona).”
Powers admits his job from this point forward – not that it hasn’t been already with the ACHA program – will be to recruit the best possible players to put a winning hockey team on the ice, no matter where they’re from. He won’t favor Arizona kids, but that doesn’t mean he won’t target them either.
In the last decade, Frozen Four or national-championship caliber programs like Boston College, North Dakota and Denver have all brought in Arizona-bred talent.
So what’s to stop those kids from all staying close to home?
Powers has already had great success of late on this front with the ACHA program, with local products like Cave Creek’s Jordan Young, Scottsdale’s Ed McGovern and Drew Newmeyer and Chandler’s Jarrod Levos all a part of this year’s team attempting to repeat as champs in its last ACHA season.
And he plans for it to continue at the NCAA level.
“The biggest thing that’s caught me by surprise (since the announcement) was how aggressively really high-level kids immediately pursued us,” Powers said. “I always knew that, if and when it would happen, we could go out and get the highest-level kids to come and play here. But the number of kids that genuinely want to help build a varsity program at ASU – it’s incredible; it’s really cool to see and even cooler to be a part of.”
Powers realizes he might be creating his own competition; big-time visiting college hockey coaches will now have built-in weekends in Arizona to not only play games, but scout or recruit younger talent.
There’s also the possibility that the University of Arizona in Tucson or Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff erect NCAA programs (NAU, to be fair, used to be an NCAA program itself). Powers said he’d welcome either.
“I’m ready to see where this takes all of us,” he said.
Powers is proud of ASU’s connection to the local youth hockey scene over the years.
“Two of the first people that reached out to congratulate us when this went public were Mike and Jeremy,” Powers said of Mike DeAngelis, director of travel hockey for Scottsdale’s Coyotes Amateur Hockey Association and the Jr. Coyotes program, and Jeremy Goltz, founder and coach-in-chief of Peoria-based Mission Arizona outfit. “I think they understand more than anybody what this will do for youth hockey in this state.”
Both DeAngelis and Goltz were ASU head coaches in the years prior to Powers taking over, with Powers also serving as Goltz’s top assistant during his two years at the helm.
“Immediately, the real impact will be more of that new excitement and dangling a carrot,” said Goltz, the ACHA’s national coach of the year in his final ASU campaign. “It’s an exciting time and, to be honest, I think it will help give our state some national credibility and attention.”
DeAngelis, speaking before Gylling’s announcement went public, said that his own Tier I players started wondering what it would be like to wear that signature maroon and gold.
“Many of our Jr. Coyotes have heard the news and are talking about being the first local product to play for the Sun Devils,” he said. “It’s a tremendous thought that there will be local, homegrown players playing NCAA D-I (hockey) in their home state.”
Adam Mims, general manager at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, added that this announcement – and especially when ASU starts its hybrid NCAA schedule next fall – could have a similar effect as the Coyotes arriving from Winnipeg to Phoenix in the mid 1990s.
“I think we’ll see another bump in youth hockey numbers, possibly even as many new kids trying hockey as when the Coyotes moved to town,” Mims said.
A Place to Call Home
Currently, all three ASU teams – the program also has a pair of ACHA Division II squads – practice and play home games at Oceanside.
The reality is that once big-time NCAA opponents start hitting the road to play at ASU, a full-scale arena will likely be needed. In the short-term, rumors have circulated that downtown Phoenix’s U.S. Airways Center – near ASU’s downtown campus – might be an option. In the long-term, the idea of renovating Wells Fargo Arena on ASU’s Tempe campus or building a new hockey facility altogether have been tossed around.
Mims said he thinks Oceanside could be a strong short-term option during the ramp-up period, and even if ASU ends up leaving eventually, the facility will always be there for the Devils.
“I foresee the NCAA team practicing at Oceanside for many years to come, especially with our close proximity to campus and the amazing new locker room addition that was just built here one year ago,” Mims said.
Oceanside will also continue to be home to the remaining two ACHA teams, which will operate independent of ASU’s athletic department and the NCAA program.
“When – or if – the NCAA team is ready to move on and play games elsewhere, we’ll still 100 percent support them as a practice rink or in whatever capacity possible,” Mims added. “Phoenix doesn’t have a medium-sized arena suitable for hockey, so at this point I think Oceanside is the best short-term home for the NCAA team.
“Hopefully, the team will be successful in getting a new arena just for them. There’s no doubt they’ll pack the fans in.”
No Roll of the Dice
Powers is the first to admit: College coaches in any sport tend to have short shelf lives these days, and that’s especially the case in a transition-type situation like what he’s entrenched in.
But that doesn’t faze him. Powers is a Sun Devil, and intends to stay a Sun Devil.
“This to me was the greatest opportunity that’s ever been put in front of me. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m going to tackle this full force,” he said.
The sentiment is that Powers, an All-American goaltender at ASU during his college days, can connect ASU’s past – including with alumni, like Mullett – with the tenacity needed to drive its future.
Powers himself contends that his former professional career as a corporate headhunter is a near-perfect parallel to what a major college coach sees on the recruiting trail.
“We’re going to go about this absolutely the right way, and we’re going to go about it fast and furiously. We have a winning tradition and winning culture. That’s not stopping now.”
– Brett Fera