ASU Hockey: Sun Devils’ meteoric rise though the D-I ranks

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 14: The Arizona State Sun Devils mascot 'Sparky' performs during the college football game against the Washington Huskies at Sun Devil Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Huskies 27-17. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 14: The Arizona State Sun Devils mascot 'Sparky' performs during the college football game against the Washington Huskies at Sun Devil Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Huskies 27-17. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

In just their third full Division I season, ASU hockey has defied the odds entering the top-20 rankings to continue their quick rise through college hockey.

Arizona State’s men’s ice hockey team began their third full season at the NCAA Division I level in October. After taking in any and all players who were willing to come to Tempe to play hockey when they first started, head coach Greg Powers is finally getting the chance to play with a roster made up of mostly players he recruited this year.

That team of players is setting program records and surpassing milestones left and right with less than 100 NCAA games under their belt, which begs the question: How did they get to where they are today so quickly?

New Beginnings

After spending 21 years at the ACHA Division I level, the Sun Devils made the leap to the NCAA level for the 2015-16 season, splitting their games between ACHA and NCAA D-I opponents.

They were able to make the leap due to a pair of donors: Don Mullett, retired businessman and father of former Sun Devil hockey player Chris Mullett, and an anonymous benefactor. Their combined $32 million donation covered what Powers believed the program needed in order to get started at the NCAA level.

After the money was in place and the announcement was made, Powers began his search for a D-I caliber coaching staff. His first hire? Former Division III standout and NHL journeyman Alex Hicks.

“I didn’t play pro hockey, so the first thing I had to do building a program that sends kids to the next level was hire somebody who knows what it takes to get to the highest level,” Powers said, “and there’s no better story than Alex Hicks.”

Hailing from Calgary, Hicks attended the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire, where he played hockey.

In his four years there, Hicks put together an eye-popping stat line of 98 goals-151 assists-249 points with no less than 30 penalty minutes each season.

Despite his outstanding resumé with the Blugolds, Hicks went undrafted and spent the first two seasons of his career floating between the Adirondack Red Wings of the American Hockey League and the Toledo Storm of the East Coast Hockey League.

It was not until the 1995-96 season when he was given his first crack at the National Hockey League.

Hicks played five of his 15 professional seasons at the NHL level, splitting time among the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers.

There he totaled 79 points and 247 penalty minutes, with a career +/- of +8. He closed out his career in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, giving him experience on multiple continents.

Hicks, Powers, and the rest of the coaching staff have built a well-oiled machine in just four short years, and each of them has played their part in improving the program and preparing the boys for the future.

Growing Pains

The Sun Devils have played close games and even pulled off upsets against multiple top-10 teams this season. In the three seasons prior to 2018-19, the most wins the Sun Devils had against NCAA D-I opponents was eight and their highest single-season win total was 10.

Sixteen games into their fourth season, they boast a 10-6-0 record with another 16 games remaining in the regular season, making it likely that they set a new win record.

Wins are not the only area the Sun Devils have struggled in to this point. Heading into this season, the team had yet to sweep a weekend series against any NCAA D-I team, at home or on the road.

They also had not hosted a top-10 team, been ranked in the Top 20, defeated a ranked team or had a player finish a single season with more than 24 points.

“My freshman year I came in and we were just starting to build a culture; we didn’t have one. Sophomore year was kind of the same, but we started to beat a few teams,” junior co-captain and defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk said. “This year what’s different is we’re going into games expecting to win, we don’t go into games anymore thinking ‘We could maybe beat this team if we play really well.’”

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In the 2018-19 season, Arizona State has hosted Ohio State, the then No. 1 team in college hockey, swept multiple series both home and away, taken down a top-10 team in their building and been ranked as high as No. 15 in the polls.

Sophomore Johnny Walker, one of the five highest scoring players in the nation right now, leads the team with 18 points in 16 games, putting him on pace to smash the program’s single season points record.

“I think [the media] cares about that stuff more than us,” Walker said in October of his then nation-leading points total. “But it’s definitely nice to see your name on the stat sheet.”

Senior forward Anthony Croston has watched the team grow from the very beginning, and he is proud of where the program is at currently.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but any new program is going to have that. I think we’re doing it the right way,” Croston said, adding that the team is where they want to be and where many people did not expect them to be.

New Names, New Faces, New Threads

Powers has bolstered the Sun Devil hockey roster in their time at the highest level, most recently bringing a freshman class that includes Mario Lemieux’s son, Austin, and the 2018 third round pick of the Calgary Flames, Demetrios Koumontzis.

Lemieux and Koumontzis, a Scottsdale native, headline an eight-man freshmen class that consists of four forwards, three defensemen, and one netminder. Of those eight first-year players, all but second-string goaltender Evan DeBrouwer have seen ice time this season.

Much of that ice time comes from the recently separated second line that consisted of only freshmen early in the season. The forward trio consisted of Lemieux, Koumontzis and Jordan Sandhu, combining for a stat line of five goals-21 assists-26 points over the course of the season, both together and apart.

Looking at the trio’s combined stat line, it is clear to see that all three of them are pass-first forwards, as they have 21 combined assists and only five goals.

All are talented shooters with an even better eye for finding open teammates, but when they are all on a line together, it does not do them much good other than giving them ice time together.

Three of the other freshmen—Connor Stuart, Jarrod Gourley and Josh Maniscalco—have had a chance to thrive defensively.

With upperclassmen, such as Pasichnuk and Jakob Stridsberg, confident enough in their game to take on being paired with a freshman, the new Sun Devils have been given a great opportunity to improve their game early on in their collegiate careers.

Additionally, the team improved their uniforms over the offseason. The Sun Devils upgraded their old Adidas jerseys to the new ADIZERO Authentic jerseys, which are also worn by all 31 NHL teams.

One of the biggest features on the jerseys is the weight. New materials used to make the crest help to reduce weight by up to 46 percent, and the improved threads utilized for jersey numbering weigh up to 60 percent less, according to Adidas.

The company also said these jerseys feature Adidas’ Clima technology fabrics, which increases air flow while being 27 percent stronger in burst testing and 72 percent more resistant during abrasion tests.

The two jerseys, one maroon with grey accents and the other white with maroon accents, can combine with four helmet options and three glove and pant options for a total of 72 possible uniform combinations.

Desert Breeding Grounds

Koumontzis is not the only Arizona native on the Sun Devil roster. Walker also hails from the Grand Canyon State, as do Croston and Stuart. Sophomore forward Dominic Garcia comes to the Sun Devil program after growing up in the desert landscape outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Croston, who attended Pinnacle High School, said choosing ASU was an easy decision as soon as he heard the school was getting a D-I program. He has no regrets in choosing to build a culture at a young program over a school with a storied program.

Despite not being a storied program quite yet, the local talent has done more than its fair share of work in putting Arizona State hockey, and Arizona hockey in general, on the map.

“It’s amazing,” Croston said, “we’re at a point a lot of different programs did not expect us to be.”

Star Power

Despite only having two players on the roster that have been drafted by NHL teams, Koumontzis by the Flames and goaltender Joey Daccord by the Ottawa Senators, the 2018-19 Sun Devil hockey team has shown that they have their fair share of players who can hang with the best of the best.

Koumontzis dominated in his two seasons with the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes U-16 team, totaling 17 goals and 21 assists in 43 games over the course of two seasons. He also took care of business in the only season of high school hockey he played, where he tallied 41 points in 24 games with Edina High School in Minnesota.

Though he has yet to break out this season, Koumontzis has been a spark plug, especially on the power play, where he shares a line with Walker.

In the Sun Devils 7-2 victory over the University of Nebraska-Omaha earlier this season, Walker scored four power play goals, and Koumontzis was there to assist him each time.

That passing touch will be very helpful at the top level, whether he signs with the Flames or is taken by a different team after his senior season.

A New Home?

The early success through the first half-decade of top-level collegiate hockey has been hindered by only one thing: Oceanside Ice Arena. The current home of the NCAA D-I Sun Devils has its fair share of problems, such as the pipe running the length of the “press box” that will clothesline any unsuspecting journalist.

By the 2021 season, the team will play at the multi-purpose arena that will be built next to Wells Fargo Arena, much closer to campus than Oceanside. There is not much information that has been released, although the seating capacity is expected to be 5,000, more than seven times the current seating capacity in Oceanside Arena.

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The new arena, which will also host gymnastics and wrestling, will likely fill the missing piece for the program as it continues to gain the respect of other programs across the country.

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.