Until 2006 the program was toiling in mediocrity and couldn't compete with some of its foes who had much higher budgets and were fully funded by their respective schools. Because of Title IX which requires NCAA programs to equally fund men and women's sports, smaller sports such as Hockey has only limited number of scholarships to give out prompting very talented players to join ACHA programs such as ASU's. Needless to say that the Sun Devils have greatly benefited from that trend that has helped them rise to prominence.
"We have really developed the program here for the last five years," said head coach Greg Powers, "We got some people behind it, and the school to some extent is behind it. I actually bumped into President Crow and he knows all about us. So we have a lot of positive momentum and people who know and love hockey enjoy seeing us play.
"When they see us they can tell that we are not a club hockey team. Club sports don't operate with a $250,000 budget that mainly comes from boosters who really believe in what we are doing and respect the program we are building. We had two guys last year ago after the season who signed minor league contracts and we'll have another player do this year and we'll continue to have guys sign with minor league teams. So from a recruiting standpoint they are a lot of high level kids that will turn down scholarships because they want to come down here. They come here to a great city and a school that offers great education and they know they will compete for a national championship."
Powers is naturally grateful for the increased support his program has received, and said that even the new Phoenix Coyotes owners are starting to take interest in the team and have been deeply impressed with the Sun Devils' level of play.
Challenges certainly exist in the road ahead for the Arizona State team, yet for Powers, who was recently named ACHA Coach of the year, it's truly a labor of love.
"I love ASU and I love everything about it," Powers declared. "I'm an alumni and I bleed maroon and gold. In my opinion, this is what a lot of the ASU teams have been lacking, someone that was here to build and sustain a program in whatever sport it may be. A lot of coaches come here as a stepping stone. This is the community I love, this is where I met my wife, this is where my family lives and this is where we are staying.
"I had a lot of opportunities to go to different places and I'm not going anywhere. If you're transparent with your kids like that, it's gold because kids want stability and a coach who has passion for what they are doing. And it's not just me, all the people who are associated with the program have a lot of passion too and that is a reason for our success."
The 34-2 Sun Devils will face Rhode Island Friday night in the second round of the ACHA National Tournament held at the University of Delaware. The puck drops at 6:00 MT and the game will be streamed here. . If ASU advances to the championship game it will be played on Tuesday March 12th.
ASU finished third in last year's tournament and was able to feed off that strong campaign in the current season.
"We expected to be ranked number one in this year's tournament," Powers stated. "We have an extremely balanced program. We have at least ten kids that could be playing Division I hockey and more than that who got passed by. With our recruiting level we are expecting national championships, so last year was definitely a disappointment. Last year we beat a Division I team in Penn State so we are a very good program."
Win or lose in this year's tournament, it's quite evident that the ASU hockey club is thriving. The foundation for success is undoubtedly in place for the program to take even more steps forward, however other obstacles remain.
"I think it's very realistic that ASU could field a Division I hockey program and be very successful," Powers remarked. "The naysayers aren't incredibly educated on college hockey. It's not typical for high level hockey players to come to a club team and turn down a scholarship, so if I had scholarships to give out…even players that don't come here because they get a scholarship (to another school) see the way our players get treated and the professionalism that we expose them to.
"I get asked everyday ‘you guys are doing so well, are you going to D-I?' and honestly it's not up to us. We're just focused on the year now, winning a national championship in the ACHA. Can we be a Division I program? That is entirely up to the athletic department and they obviously have to add a women's program to be title IX compliant. But more importantly they would have to build an arena and that is a costly venture. So I don't see it happening anytime soon. But do I think we can still be successful? Absolutely.
"We are happy with where we are right now. We are getting a good fan base and people respect the level of hockey we are playing. We don't refer ourselves as a club because we don't operate like a club and we certainly don't play like a club."