As he conducted a Zoom call with reporters earlier this week, Greg Powers was driving somewhere in the vast sprawl of the Phoenix metro area, known as the Valley of the Sun.
Through his sunroof, one could see the UV rays pouring in and towering palm trees providing occasional shade, as the coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils got his last taste of desert southwest weather for a bit.
Visit any of the countless “snowbird” communities scattered throughout Arizona and you will see license plates from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, as retirees from Big Ten country head south for the winter about the time that college men's hockey season begins. Powers and the Sun Devils are pulling a bit of a “reverse snowbird” this winter, and will come to Minnesota this weekend to begin Phase 2 of a season-long road trip that has come as a result of COVID-19’s affect on the sports world.
Hefty hotel stays
The Sun Devils (4-6-2), who will face the top-ranked Minnesota Gophers (8-0-0) at 3 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Monday in Minneapolis, are among two independent programs (out of 60) in Division I college hockey.
Arizona State had nothing definite on their schedule when the pandemic threw sports into chaos earlier this year. Needing games, they worked out an arrangement which has ASU playing four games against every Big Ten team — all of them on the road — with an agreement that the conference’s seven teams will all play a pair of games in Tempe, Ariz., in the future.
Powers and his team spent 36 straight days on the road in November and December to get their first dozen games played. They will make two extended road trips in Phase 2 of the season, flying to Minnesota on Wednesday.
Arizona State will play two games against the Gophers, two at Notre Dame, two at Wisconsin and two more with the Gophers, and are not scheduled to return to Arizona until after they play in Minneapolis a fourth time, on Friday, Jan. 22.
“Being back in Arizona in the nice weather, we’ve been able to kind of stay dialed in on the ice, keep our guys fresh and do some good things,” Powers said on Tuesday from Tempe, where it was in the 60s and cloudless. “We’re excited to get back out and play, but it’s a little bit bittersweet because it’s been a nice 10 days back here.”
New digs on the way
Six years ago, when a donation of $30 million-plus from an alumnus helped Arizona State move up from club team to NCAA Division I status, the Sun Devils were seen as an oddity by many. They play in a small rink off campus with seating for less than 1,000, and still have not found a conference, despite making it to the NCAA tournament in 2019 and the Sun Devils were in position for a return trip in 2020, had the schedule not been wiped out by the pandemic on March 12.
But Arizona State hockey got an impressive gift right before Christmas in the form of confirmation — after years of speculation — that a new 5,000-seat hockey rink will open on the Sun Devils’ campus within the next two years. The affiliation with the Big Ten has many thinking that ASU could become the conference’s eighth member (or join the NCHC) about the time the new rink opens.
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As a high-profile school in a huge TV market, the Sun Devils seem to be in a position of strength when it comes to where they eventually land, conference-wise.
“I think we’ve proven that we’re going to be competitive and have hopefully earned our stripes on the ice with what we’ve done the last couple years,” said Powers, who coached the team to a club-level national championship in 2015 before transitioning the program. “Now it’s time to really, really make a decision and hone in on what that home is going to be. We want to get into a league and the arena was probably the last step for us in probably really, truly pursuing where that home is going to be.”
Bundle up and skate
For now, home is a hotel room for the Sun Devils players, who are taking classes remotely and living inside their own bubble, for weeks at a time, all while playing hockey. The biggest challenge for the coaches is keeping their players isolated and engaged in this strange world of playing in empty arenas, where they are not able to see parents and friends. They also face a big on-ice challenge from the Gophers and have spent considerable time on the practice rink, working on their special teams.
They are also aware of what Sun Devils senior Jacob Wilson called the “lake” they will play on in Minneapolis. Like many opponents who come to visit the Gophers, the Sun Devils are cognizant of the adjustment that playing on 3M Arena at Mariucci’s larger Olympic-sized ice sheet.
For some, leaving their familiar surroundings in the Arizona sun to get on a plane bound for the snow, the cold, another sterile hotel room and two dates with the nation’s top-ranked hockey team, would be worth dreading. The Arizona State players say “bring it on.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s tough to go back on the road. We’re going to play hockey, and there’s no greater game for us,” said Wilson, a defenseman from suburban St. Louis. “We’re just thankful and we’re looking forward to it. But it’s going to be hard to leave this weather when you walk outside in a t-shirt and shorts in December.”