PHOENIX – Just as the puck is about to drop on a new season of Arizona State hockey, the Sun Devils are celebrating a major win in a different arena.
After nearly a decade as a Division I independent hockey program, ASU’s men’s team will officially join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) as its ninth member starting in the 2024-25 season. That means this season, which begins Friday with a home game against the University of Arizona, will be the Devils’ last as an independent team.
This was ASU’s second time applying for a spot in the conference. When Sun Devil hockey first developed as a Div. I hockey team eight years ago, it applied for NCHC membership, but ultimately the request was declined.
“Arizona State was still relatively new,” NCHC commissioner Heather Weems said. “They hadn’t maybe solidified the history and tradition of the program.”
The NCHC is viewed as one of the top premier conferences in college hockey. The conference has produced five of the last seven national champions, with Denver (2017, 2022) and Minnesota Duluth (2018, 2019) both winning two and North Dakota (2016).
Founded in 2011, the NCHC has not expanded past its eight original teams since play started in 2013. The addition of a ninth team provides many benefits for the participating schools and the conference as a whole, but there are some logistical adjustments that need to be made.
The biggest change? Scheduling.
“As you alluded to in our first 10 years, we’ve only had eight schools. That’s a nice, even number,” NCHC associate commissioner Michael Weisman said. “Adding a ninth team certainly complicates things a little bit because now you have an odd number. So there’s always one team that can’t be playing a conference game.
With nine teams spread across three and sometimes four time zones, the NCHC has introduced a pod system. The three pods, based on geographical footprint, allow the schools to maintain a 24-game conference schedule without a dramatic expansion in travel.
ASU, Denver and Colorado College make up the western pod, North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State in the central, and Western Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and Nebraska-Omaha round out the eastern pod.
The addition of ASU to the conference is not only a beneficial move for the Sun Devils and the NCHC, but the other member schools as well.
As an official member of a conference, ASU is given a better opportunity to make the NCAA tournament. If at the end of the regular season the Sun Devils are not at a place where they would qualify for the tournament, the team has a chance to win the NCHC tournament and earn an automatic berth for the NCAA tournament.
Outside of hockey, brand recognition and expansion is a major benefit for the conference and its member schools. Bringing on a power five school in ASU puts the NCHC in front of more eyes that may not have been aware of the conference before.
“When you get the opportunity to include another program, and a program that has aspirations to be successful, you know, high tide rises all ships,” Weems said.
From club to conference
The Sun Devil hockey program has continued to grow and develop over the last several years. ASU made the jump from club status to Div. I during the 2015-16 season, and has not looked back.
In 2018-19, the team earned its first win against a top-10 opponent, beating No. 6 Penn State 4-3 in overtime. But this wasn’t the first time the Sun Devils had a win against the Nittany Lions. In 2012, ASU, which was still a club team, went into University Park and beat the Nittany Lions 3-1.
“I’ve always said without that game for us at Penn State, we’re not here today,” said ASU coach Greg Powers. “It put our team and our program on the map. It wasn’t the (American Collegiate Hockey Association) national championship, it was that game.”
Soon after the 2018 win against Penn State, ASU received its first ever national ranking, coming in at No. 18 in the USCHO Coaches’ Poll.
In 2019, in just its third full season as a Div. I program, the Sun Devils earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament. Before the Sun Devils’ appearance in the tournament, the last independent team to make it was 30 years prior.
The 2022 season for Sun Devil hockey was the first to be played in Mullett Arena, the intimate Tempe rink. Before Mullett’s construction, ASU played its home games at Oceanside Ice Arena. However, in its first seven years as a Div. I program, ASU played a lot of its games on the road. The benefit now is getting to play its last season of independent hockey with 26 home games.
“It’s just a fitting way to end our independent era. You know the messaging to our guys is, ‘The guys before you gave you this opportunity to play (an) entire home season in front of 5,000 fans,’” Powers said. “It was not easy what we did to build this program out of Oceanside, getting 10-12 home games a year.
“Now it’s time to, you know, enjoy the fruits of those guys’ labor and respect what they did before.”
The opening of Mullett Arena checked the final box for the NCHC when considering ASU as its ninth member. The new state-of-the-art facility was a big game-changer in the eyes of NCHC membership.
“I’ll have to be honest in saying most of our upper Midwestern teams, and Northern teams don’t have a lot of complaints about coming to Tempe in the winter,” Weems said. “So the years that they get scheduled to make the trip to Tempe, there will certainly be fans who want to come along and enjoy some golf, or just the sunshine.”
Ahead of starting its official membership, ASU has already had some experience with NCHC teams. Last season, the Sun Devils finished with a 3-4 record against NCHC teams with wins over sixth-ranked North Dakota and Colorado College.
This year, the Sun Devils face off against three NCHC teams, including Denver twice at home on Nov. 10-11.
ASU has much to look forward to as the Sun Devils officially join the NCHC July 1, 2024. However, as the independent chapter for Sun Devil hockey comes to a close, the team is ready to fight this season.
“We’re celebrating this as kind of closing the first chapter of Sun Devil hockey and wearing it as a badge of honor,” Powers said. “We want to finish our independent era going to the NCAA tournament because we’ve done it and we can do it again.”