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ASU Hockey: Sun Devils to become NCAA team

The team will play a hybrid ACHA-NCAA season next year, followed by independent in 2016-17 and join a conference in 2017-18.

Michelle Hekle/Hekle Photo Images

Amid months of rumors and questions and speculation, it finally happened. Arizona State held a press conference Tuesday to announce the elevation of its club hockey team to varsity status, and that it will begin play as an NCAA Division I team next season.

"Head coach Greg Powers has built a powerhouse ice hockey program here in Tempe, and because of his work it was probably a matter not of 'if' but 'when' Sun Devil hockey would be ready to compete at the highest level," Arizona State Vice President of Athletics Ray Anderson said in a release.

According to Anderson, the conversation began with a House of Sparky report published in July in which Anderson said he would like to see the hockey team gain varsity status, but that it would take a financial endowment of between $30-40 million in order to be possible.

A donor group led by Milwaukee businessman Don Mullett, who helped fund the club team when it was sinking in the early 2000s, saw the article and offered to to donate the necessary money. It is the largest donation to athletics in school history.

As for the team's schedule, the plan is to finish the season in the ACHA (American Collegiate Hockey Association), the non-varsity league in which the Sun Devils currently play, then begin a transition to NCAA. It will play next season as a hybrid NCAA-ACHA season, competing against teams from both leagues, then begin play as an NCAA conference-independent school in 2016-17. It will then join a conference in 2017-18.

In order to satisfy the gender equity regulations in Title IX, Arizona State will also be adding a women's sport or sports, but those are to be determined.

Greg Powers will stay on to coach the new NCAA team. Powers has recruited high-level hockey talent to come play in Tempe, including seven veterans of the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the US. Two players, forward Ryan Belonger and defenseman Connor Schmidt, also have NCAA Division I experience, at Northeastern and Ferris State respectively.

Arizona State will be the first team to jump from ACHA to NCAA Division I since Penn State following the 2012 season. Arizona State's hockey team will be farthest to the south in the NCAA and the third-farthest west, behind only Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks.

The Sun Devils will be the second NCAA Division I program in Arizona history, behind Northern Arizona University which fielded a team from 1981-86. The Southwestern United States also saw a program in San Diego, at United States International University, from 1979-88. Both programs are now defunct. Powers said he expects his team to be different.

"We're Arizona State," Powers said. "No offense to NAU ... but it's Flagstaff. We're in Phoenix. I think the East Valley really wants high-level hockey and now they're going to have it.

Arizona State's club team began in approximately 1979 as an adult recreational league, according to early records. The team joined in the ACHA in 1991 and won its first national tournament game in 1996. It won its first national tournament last season, compiling a 38-2-0 record.

Powers has been the head coach since 2010 after starring as a goalie from 1995-99. And as far as he is concerned, Tuesday's announcement is a dream come true for him.

"I always had the dream, and we always wanted it," Powers said. "Through results and a ton of success at the ACHA level, we've garnered the support and belief.

"I'm excited already to coach very good hockey players, and now I get to coach even better ones down the road."