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A Unique College Hockey Experience: Through the eyes of ASU player/coach Ben Findlay

What I learned as a player and a graduate assistant coach for the ASU hockey Division 1 ACHA program.

Ben Findlay played forward for the Sun Devils from 2011-13.
Ben Findlay played forward for the Sun Devils from 2011-13.
Photo donated by Ben Findlay

Eds: Ben Findlay played for the ASU hockey team for two years. Before his junior year, he was told he would not make the roster, and was offered a position on the coaching staff.

This is his story.

To attempt to explain, in full, all that my time with Arizona State Division 1 ACHA hockey has provided me would be a task that would require many more words that an article as such requires.

In the following, I will synthesize, to the best of my ability, my experience with the program in general. I will provide examples of how my experience has molded me into the person I imagined myself to be the moment I first stepped into Oceanside Ice Arena, August of 2011, freshman year. I will recognize those within the program that have influenced my life significantly. Finally, I will close with a message of thanks to my fellow coaches, teammates and family and provide a statement to the future athletes who will be lucky enough to wear the pitchfork on their jerseys in the years to come.

In the spring of 2011, I had just completed my third and last year of junior hockey in the SJHL. It was time to make a decision, a decision that many hockey players face during junior hockey: Where do I play next?

For me growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan, the typical choice, the choice that seemed to be the most practical in terms of proximity to family, friends and financials, was to stay home. I could play for the hometown University of Regina Cougars CIS hockey program, or travel a few hours south of the border and play for Minot State in the ACHA.

But anyone who knows me would more than likely tell you that typical is not my nature. No, I would venture to guess that those who know me best would describe me as unconventional or, for lack of a better adjective, impulsive.

My choice to travel 2,735 kilometers or, for my American readers, 1699.45 miles to Tempe, Ariz. where I would skate for the Sun Devils of Arizona State University in the ACHA is not the decision of typical 21-year-old recent junior hockey graduate.

Like a desperate artist in search of inspiration to paint his next masterpiece, I made a significant sacrifice. I left my family, friends and longtime girlfriend, all of whom I had spent the previous three years away from. I placed a massive financial obligation upon my mother and father's shoulders to attend a much more expensive university than our means called for. Admittedly, in selfish nature, I made each sacrifice to paint that masterpiece. It is something I had to do regardless of all else.

"I have four years of unforgettable memories, I have some of the best, most loyal friends that I could have only wished for..." - Ben Findlay

Arriving in Tempe in August of 2011 for my freshman year, I knew before I walked off the plane that no mistake was made, regardless of the overweight guilt that I had packed in my carry-on baggage. It was paradise and I knew it was the right decision instantly.

For two years, my typical day went as such: Wake up, go for a quick swim in my pool, shower, shave, shorts, tank top, Ray Bans, hop on my bike, 10-minute ride to Oceanside, tunes with the boys in locker room, practice, shower, Chipotle burrito bowl, class, more class, bike home, driving range, study, perhaps three or four cocktails, hot tub, quick long-distance buzz to the sweetie, lights out.

Not the "typical day" in the life of a college student-athlete.

We had tremendous success as a team during my first two years as a Sun Devil, but each year, despite a strong season and a talented roster we fell short of our ultimate goal, a national championship. As a player I enjoyed every minute of my time on the ice, and I emphasize "on the ice."

  
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Ben Findlay skates in Tucson against rival Arizona during his freshman year in 2011. (Photo by Michelle Hekle/Hekle Photo Images)

In my freshman year I suffered a concussion in training camp and it wasn't long after that when I separated my shoulder. In my sophomore year I had more concussion problems and had a hard time finding my game upon my return to the lineup. I will admit, after my injuries I was scared to get hurt again and I played scared. I didn't want to play that way, but I did. Because of my inability to return to my tendencies that brought me success on the ice- speed, a little skill, but mostly speed - I didn't see much ice during the dying days of that sophomore year.

Like any player in my situation, I read the writing on the wall that offseason. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle to crack the squad for my junior year. It didn't help any that we had a dynamite recruiting class of forwards coming in: Sean Murphy, Ryan Ostertag, Eric Rivard, Tommy Cooney and Michael Cummings to name a few.

Despite the odds, I did what I had to that offseason to give myself a fighting chance come tryouts in the fall. Long story... a little less long. Coach Greg Powers, who I will speak of later, approached me during tryouts that fall and gave me the news.

Even though I knew it was coming, it was like a swallowing a football-sized pill coated with sandpaper. Imagine, playing hockey for 18 years, living, breathing, thinking the game in my every waking moment and it all coming to an end. A reality I knew was coming and had prepared for brought me to my knees. What the hell was I going to do now?

I couldn't tell if it was god or coach Powers on the phone calling me a few days after I had been cut in my junior year, just after tryouts had ended. By the grace of the big guy up top, Powers had offered me the position of Graduate Assistant Coach for the team that year. He explained to me during that fateful phone call that he had never hired a graduate assistant coach who was still eligible to play for the team; it was indeed a very special circumstance.

"Admittedly, in selfish nature, I made each sacrifice to paint that masterpiece. It is something I had to do regardless of all else." - Ben Findlay

I should take this opportunity to thank the captains from that season and a few of my close friends from the team: captain Colin Hekle, Brian McGinty, Dan Anderson, Jordan Young, Brett Blomgren, Brett Prechel, Kale Dolinski, Liam Norris and others, who I know had placed a little bug in the boss's ear vouching for me to obtain the last roster spot. I have no doubt that those guys, who wanted me as their teammate, had some influence on coach's decision to place me on his already-full staff.

For two years, my junior and senior years, I served each and everyday of the hockey season as the graduate assistant coach of the team. My role in the position was fantastic. During practice I would, above all else, make sure pucks were in the desired place on the ice before each drill. In fact, I bet if you asked Powers or any other coaches I served with who the best puck-pusher in the ACHA was, I would get their nod. Anyhow, I digress.

During games I would sit in the media tower and take game notes, anything I saw fit to be noted, and match it to game film for Powers and the assistants to analyze. The odd game, when one of the assistants had other obligations, I would be on the bench serving as Powers' support.

Without question, my favorite and most rewarding part of my job was the interaction with the players. Being a coach, only a few years older, the same age, or in some cases, younger than some of the players, it was a beautiful thing to have such a profound mutual respect between us. Every single player I interacted with, I sought to connect with on some sort of personal level.

It was a privilege being such a young coach while being a classmate of the players. It allowed a certain kind of deep and unique level of communication and player-coach interaction that neither I nor most of the players had ever before experienced.

The ultimate goal of a national championship was achieved in my first year as Grad Assistant. An incredible accomplishment for all involved with ASU hockey. The most gratifying sensation of my life came with a big, fat, shiny ring with that sexy ASU Sun Devil pitchfork on the face.

The experience was gratifying in sense of athletic achievement, yes, but more so as a concrete symbol to myself of personal perseverance. I cannot tell you how close I was to not taking Powers' offer to coach and transferring back to Canada to play and be close to home. It took another football-sized swallow of my own pride to accept the offer and release my feelings of bitterness and self-pity to see the opportunity, the golden opportunity, that Powers had laid before me.

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Ben Findlay hoists the Murdoch Cup after the Sun Devils win the 2014 ACHA national championship. (Photo donated by Ben Findlay)

So here I am now. In Cleveland, Ohio, the date is March 6, 2015. It is 12:06 a.m. and I am writing from my hotel room in the same city as the first ACHA National Championships that I participated as a roster player for the Devils during my freshman season. But some things are different this time around.

I have two degrees from ASU in Communication and Design Management (I graduated a semester early), I have a national championship ring, I have committed to returning to my hometown to start a full time job in April, and on my resume I have, at the top of the list, "Graduate Assistant Coach, ASU Sun Devils 2013-2015."

I have four years of unforgettable memories, I have some of the best, most loyal friends that I could have only wished for, and I have the professional connection and friendship of the soon to be NCAA ASU hockey coaching staff.

I have the experience of a lifetime in my pocket, and that's what we call at ASU hockey an Alex Hicks FACT (inside joke). Tomorrow we play Colorado in the first game of nationals.

I have no doubt that by the time you are reading this we have captured back-to-back national championships. If not, whatever, life goes on and our team has more than enough to be proud of. There are bigger and better things to come from ASU hockey, and whatever happens this weekend, we can all be proud of the mark we left on the ACHA.

I am going to thank some people in the following dialog, but those to whom this is directed, I say that you must know as I write, with a heavy heart and sweaty palms, that the words here mean so much more than my written word can express:

Coach Greg Powers:
I may have been the luckiest college student in the country because you handed me two years of front row VIP tickets to the GP show. My education from ASU, although decorated and respectable, does not hold a candle to the education you have provided me. You were the ultimate professor. I was a first-hand witness to one of the greatest athletic success stories of all time in college hockey. NCAA hockey in the desert, are you kidding me? We, the players, use to joke and fantasize about the possibility of going NCAA in my freshman and sophomore years, knowing full well that it would be a million to one shot and that we probably wouldn't live to see the day.

Anyone who knows anything about our program understands that without you at the helm, NCAA would have just been a fantasy, at best. You trusted me enough to place me on your staff even though you were aware of the conflict of interest I would bare between players and coaches. I will always remember that trust you placed in me and pay that same trust forward. I sat with you, for countless hours, in our coach's locker room, at team dinners and lunches, on the plane and bus and everywhere else, listening, watching, observing, and taking mental notes.

I got to watch success, I played for success, I was on the staff with success, and I am proud to call you my friend. You were my ultimate teacher. You are the boss. Thank you for the opportunities you provided me. I will be sure to credit you after I make my first million. I could write forever but I know you know that I know that my level of respect for you can't be typed on a page.

Love, 7.

Adam Blossey and Scott Jacko:
Thanks for treating me and accepting me as an equal to our tight little team of coaches. Both of you are some of the most respectable people I have come to know. Each of you are, and most likely will be in years to come, my first sources when I have "grown up" questions. And I must mention, I will forever take great pride that you both will always fall short to me in Trivia Crack, and that, my friendly duo, is another Alex Hicks FACT!

  
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From left: Ben Findlay, Adam Blossey, Greg Powers and Scott Jacko on the bench before an ASU hockey game. (Photo donated by Ben Findlay)

Alex Hicks:
To work with you has been an incredible experience. Your practices are legit and legendary, FACT. Your black and white, no-bullshit philosophy is something that I have come to respect. Above all Hicksy, you taught me that stick handling the puck is for the birds and that you should never wait, for anyone, ever. Congrats on all of your success. Hit the boys hard in the coming years with the Hansi drill.

The players, past, present future:
As a hockey player who is fortunate enough to make it to the college level, we have the privilege of creating friendships though the camaraderie of the sport. It is my teammates who I consider the closest to me because we go to battle everyday, against each other in practice, and together each game night as a team. I don't have to explain this to you but you understand that these days together - in the locker room, at the bar, by the pool, talking about booze, girls, and other things - these days are as good as they are ever going to get, and we must cherish the moments.

Anyway, I love you all and it is important to never forget each other because Hicksy keeps telling me that life is just a hard tumble down hill after college, and he is right. That is a FACT.

Future players, take lots of pictures. It goes so fast, so I offer you the following advice:

-Unless you know you're going to marry her, be single.

-Work out and train hard, don't waste the opportunity, you can still party, just workout hard.

-Mission Beach in San Diego is an unreal spot for spring break, I highly recommend it.

- Build meaningful relationships and keep them.

- Give time to the alumni, we love you more than you realize.

- Don't take a day in Tempe for granted.

- Always remember, you're not entitled to anything.

- Respect the Fork.

- Oh, and never be late, for anything. Ever.

Liam Norris, Jordan Young, Connor Buchanan, Kory Chisholm, Brett Blomgen (Finer Things Club #FTC):
You're my best friends. I love you.

Jeff Tecca, Jake Skojt, John Peters:
Didn't spend much time with you, but you're all a part of that painting I was talking about earlier. Your dedication is really admirable. Best of luck in the future.

My Family:
Thank you for all of your love and support over the last four years. Without you, I would not have had the opportunity to have such an experience.

Michelle:
Thank you for your love and support, your understanding and patience, and all of your sacrifice. I love you and I cannot wait to come home to you! Xoxo

P.S.
If I missed anyone, I apologize. It is 3:30 a.m. right now and I am pretty sure my eyes are bleeding from staring at the computer screen.

Ben Findlay #7

  
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Ben Findlay, white shirt with green sleeves in back, with the 2014 ACHA national champion ASU hockey team. (Photo donated by Ben Findlay)