(Photo: Allyson Cummings)
Hockey still has a growing hold in Arizona, and Sun Devil senior defenseman Brian Parson proves that top talent can come from the desert.
"Hockey doesn't work in the desert."
For so long, that has been the critics' favorite sentiment, but with each passing year, it has become increasingly irrelevant. At all levels, the sports has to blossomed in Arizona, and the results are now impossible to ignore.
The greatest sign of hockey's regional foothold is the growing number of quality players that the state is producing, and Arizona State senior defensman Brian Parson is one of the very best.
Unlike many of his teammates who hail from traditional hockey hotbeds, Parson grew up first in Chandler before moving to Ahwatukee at age four. Instead of starting out on a frozen pond, he learned the game on the street.
"All the neighborhood kids played street hockey," Parson remembers. "Once I saw the kids around the corner playing, I just picked it up with them. I remember putting on a pair of rollerblades and just loving it. That was the neighborhood sport."
Once the Polar Ice rink opened in Chandler, he made the move from asphalt to ice. His love of the game grew, and as success began to come, Parson starting having aspirations to take his game to higher levels.
"When I first got started when I was younger, I just played for fun and the love of the sport," Parson said. "Once I started playing travel when I was 12 or 13, I had my eyes set on playing some form of collegiate hockey. Obviously the dream was always to make it to the NHL."
But those collegiate dreams did not include his hometown Sun Devils. At that time, Arizona State was nowhere near the powerhouse that it is today. In fact, it was going out of its way to avoid quality competition—including a young Parson and his junior squad.
"When I played juniors here in Phoenix, we had an unbelievable team," said Parson. "We played in a tournament with ASU and two other college teams, and ASU didn't want to play us because their program wasn't that strong at the time. We played in the tournament and beat the other two college teams."
Instead of heading down the road to Tempe, Parson's hockey path took him to Alaska, where he played for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League.
"I never really had my eyes set on ASU until I was playing hockey in Fairbanks. I got a call from Coach Powers telling me about Arizona State. He sold me on it. He told me who they had coming in and where the program was going. Being able to college in my hometown and playing good hockey was a good opportunity."
That call from head coach Greg Powers, as well as the benefit of being closer to his family, sold Parson on being a Sun Devil. He was immediately impressed by the level of play that the program had risen to, although that talent was soon to pale in comparison for the following seasons.
"My freshman year, I think that maybe half that team wouldn't even make the team that we have now. We just have so much talent this year, it's crazy," Parson said.
While he credits Powers for leading the rise of Sun Devil hockey, he also realizes that ASU has some built in advantages over other potential ACHA destinations for top talent.
"Coach Powers has done an amazing job of convincing guys of coming here. Our track record speaks for itself when we go to Nationals every year and we go to one of the best schools in the country. Otherwise, if you are going to play in the ACHA, you're probably going to a place that's cold all the time with terrible weather and shoveling ice off your car."
Now a senior, Parson has had a front row—or rather, blue line—view of the program's maturation. His stout defensive play and leadership capabilities have earned him a key role as one of the team's alternate captains. That perspective has allowed him to more fully appreciate the program's greatest achievement, their victory over NCAA Division I opponent Penn State earlier this month, a win that also served as personal validation for Parson.
"When I think about it, that's definitely the biggest accomplishment I've had in hockey," Parson said. "I had my eyes set on playing NCAA D-I. I talked to a few schools, but I had some family issues going on, so that was one of the main reasons that I came back to ASU. Beating Penn State was a huge thing. I always knew I could play at that level, and getting to play there and win. I had a lot of ice time in those games, so it was cool to know I could compete at that level."
Beyond that historic accomplishment, the first half of this season has been overwhelming success for the Sun Devils. They head into their holiday break with a 20-2 record and the No. 1 ranking in the ACHA.
However, they lost their most recent game, a 5-3 defeat to No. 3 Robert Morris. While disappointing, Parson feels that the rare loss is exactly what this team needed.
"The first half went really well. We ended on a sour note taking a loss," said Parson. "That comes with the territory when you're winning day in and day out. Some of the teams we beat didn't take the most effort to beat. So there's definitely a little bit of complacency, so I think us losing that game may have been better for our team. Now guys realize that we make sure we're showing up every day and giving everything we got, because anyone can win a game on any given day. I think that loss will give us a spark over the latter half of this season."
Should that spark be given to this roster, the dominance that the Sun Devils displayed over their first 22 games could merely be a prelude to greater things. This is the most talented roster that Parson has seen in Tempe, and that depth is the key to ASU's success.
"Top to bottom, every player can play, whether they're in and out of the lineup or in the lineup every night," Parson said. "We can put any line out there against any team and they can put up some numbers. If you look at the points of the guys on our roster, all the top guys are neck and neck, all the guys in the middle are all neck and neck. Everyone is contributing from top to bottom, and that's what makes a good team."
As good as this year's team is, bigger things may be on the horizon for the program.
Parson is one of just six seniors on this year's team. The returning talent will be joined by another touted recruiting class, and along with the continued growth of the program under powers and General Manager Ken Lind, Parson sees a very bright future for ASU.
"Hopefully in the future, we can get this to go NCAA. But just considering everything we've been through these past four years, it's been better every single year. We haven't taken a step backwards at all. Greg Powers is doing a great job and he's definitely taking this program in the right direction. I definitely see good things for the future of this club."
With the end of his collegiate hockey coming up, Parson isn't worrying about the next step. He has his eyes on one goal, and one goal only.
"If I want to take it to the next level, I know that there's opportunity to. As of right now, I'm just looking at a national championship. I'll figure the rest out later."