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ASU Profiles: Sun Devil Hockey head coach Greg Powers

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ASU Hockey head coach Greg Powers discusses how he turned a mediocre club hockey program into an NCAA Division I hockey team in the latest in our ASU Profiles series.

Michelle Hekle

Greg Powers is in a position unlike any head coach at ASU. An ASU alum himself, Powers turned around a mediocre club hockey program and changed its culture, eventually reaching the ACHA National Championship in 2013.

Powers played at Arizona State in the late 90's, leading the Sun Devils to their first appearance in the ACHA National Tournament as a freshman. He was a three-time ACHA Division I All-American Goaltender while playing for the Sun Devils.

Now, he is ushering in a new era of Sun Devil hockey, as ASU begins anew as a full Division I hockey program this season. As the Sun Devils continue to transition to major college hockey, meet the man who is leading that charge.

Up next in our ASU Profiles series — Sun Devil hockey head coach Greg Powers.

RB: So let's start from the beginning, when did you start playing hockey and how did you get into the sport?

GP: I started when I was three-years-old, I started young when I was in Indianapolis. My grandparents grew up big hockey fans and I was very close to my grandma and grandpa on my mom's side. I went to Indianapolis Checkers game back when I was young in the Central Hockey League, which is now the equivalent of the American Hockey League. I fell in love with the sport.

RB: What did you like about the sport, what made you fall in love with hockey?

GP: Just the speed and the passion. It's just a great game, I think it's the greatest game on earth.

RB: You are from Indianapolis, how did you end up playing at Arizona State?

GP: I was on a select team, playing in the Chicago Showcase. Back then, it was the tournament where every all-state hockey team went and showcased for scouts. ASU's coach was there and at that time they were trying to take a semi-serious club program into a serious one.

He saw me play and I played a really good game. A lot of people talked to me after that game but something just popped out about Arizona State. I had never been west of the Mississippi before, and I knew I wanted to go to a big school and get far away from Indiana just to experience new things. I had a few NCAA Division III programs interested in me, I looked closely at those and it just didn't click. I visited this place and knew instantly this is where I wanted to be.

RB: Did you always play goalie?

GP: Yep, I was always a goalie. I started playing goalie when I was seven. So I played out for four years I guess. I was playing on a travel team and our goalie got hurt and I got my name pulled out of a hat. I ended up being a lot better than that kid and a lot better than I was at forward, so it stuck.

RB: You played for ASU back in the late-90's and now you have been back as a coach. What are some of the main differences between the program back then and now?

GP: Back when I was a player, the league (ACHA) just wasn't as developed as it is now. Our program was still trying to figure out how to really do things the right way and how to maintain elite players and have kids come here and take hockey seriously. Now, we are kinda shedding that club label that is so negative. That was always our goal as players and we never were able to really take it to fruition. We had half the guys who really wanted to do it and half the guys didn't.

When I came back as an assistant coach it was still sort of like that. Those of us that took it seriously loved it and had a passion for it. Back when I played I always knew it could become something better. We always knew ASU had the potential to be an elite ACHA program. It just needed the right structure in place for it to happen. I was luckily enough to have the opportunity to get to do that.

RB: What are some of your fondest memories from your time as a player?

GP: I would say my freshman year. We snapped a 68-game losing streak to Arizona. That year we made nationals, that was the first ASU team to ever make the national tournament. We achieved a lot of success. We went from my freshman year, never beating Arizona to my senior year sweeping them. Beating U of A was a highlight and it always will be.

RB: When you were playing, did you envision your future as a coach or did it just happen by chance?

GP: Never. I was focused on moving on with my life. I was off to a successful start in the business world. I coached the year after I graduated, as a graduate assistant. I enjoyed it, but I didn't think that it would turn out to be my career. I got out of hockey altogether and had some success in the business world, (I) started my own company and just out of the blue I got a call from the head coach at the time, Jeremy Goltz, who was actually an assistant at U of A and played for U of A.

When he was an assistant at Arizona, I was playing at ASU so we never played against each other. I think he knew he needed to get some ASU blood on his bench because he was a UA guy. I decided to do it on a voluntary basis. I had just started a business and I just had my daughter so I didn't know how much I could commit.

After two days I was all in.

RB: What happened in those two days?

GP: It was just being back. I would always follow and support the program when I wasn't coaching or playing, in those seven or eight years in between. I would always go to games, there would be years where they were pretty good and I was proud and there were years that they weren't. Whenever ASU would make a national tournament, they would bow out early and I was always frustrated because I never thought anybody gave it what it needed to become what it could become.

I got back involved and both Jeremy and I didn't like what we saw. The kids weren't treated like college athletes. They were flying on separate flights to road games, they didn't even have bags, they weren't treated well. You can't demand all these things from athletes if you aren't giving it back to them. So we had to change the culture in a major way. My first year as an assistant, the team wasn't even ranked. We lost to a couple of (ACHA) Division II teams.

That year was humbling because Jeremy was so busy with his youth program that he ended up having to go back to that full time. That first year that I was an assistant, we went and played the No. 1 team in the country Lindenwood. Jeremy couldn't make the trip so it was my first game as the interim head coach. After the first period, we were down 8-1. We lost 15-1 and I remember thinking to myself 'how are we ever going to beat a team like this?' The gap was so large, it was incredible.

Two years later we were beating them.

RB: What were some of the steps in turning the program around?

GP: Jeremy decided he was going to go back and run his youth organization. I learned a lot from him, I took a lot of things from him and we sort of got the ball moving together. When he left I told the members on our executive board that I would help in any way I could. I was all in, I wanted the program to be successful. I didn't even know what that meant. I didn't know if that meant head coach if that meant GM or a job in hockey operations, I always have and I always will put the program first.

Within a week they almost unanimously named me head coach. I did all of the recruiting heading into Year 2. All the kids that I brought in that second year were all of my guys. The first year we went to nationals, we were a top-10 team all year, we swept UA and lost in the first round to Oklahoma. Second year we were a top-5 team all year, we went to nationals and went in as the No. 4 seed and we lost in the first round to Oakland.

That was the only time I really questioned myself. I felt like we had the talent, the ability and we were making strides from a culture standpoint. And we went and got upset by a No. 13 seed. We just ran into a hot team, I see that now but at the time as a young coach I didn't think about those things. I was thinking 'what the hell am I doing wrong?'

The following year we had an unbelievable year and we made the Final Four for the first time and lost to Lindenwood and the next year we were there (National Champions). It was a four-year process but I think it happened a lot quicker than anybody expected. It was all culture, and that's what I am doing now. I believe if everything is right inside the locker room and outside the walls of the arena, than it will become right on the ice.

RB: How would you describe your coaching style and what coaches have influenced that style along the way?

GP: I pride myself in being a players coach. Our players certainly know that I am not their friend, but they also know that I will do anything for them. They know that 24/7, 365 (days a year) I will be there for them. They know I care about them as people first and I want them to be successful and make sure that all the students that come into our program leave better prepared for the real world.

If you can allow players to understand that you care about them as people and want to see them be successful in life and it's not fluff, which our guys do, then you will get the most out of them. I value relationship with all of my players very much. I like to talk to my players and see how things are going in class and in life. I care about them as people because there is more to life than just hockey.

The coach I grew up playing for influenced me the most, his name was Hugh Harris. Hugh played a lot in the NHL and the old WHL and I played for him for almost 13 years growing up. He was a strict, old school Canadian. He had a great personality, I learned a lot from him about how to deal with adversity and how to deal with pressure. He really influenced me. The coach I played for here, Gene Hammond, he was the ultimate players coach. He valued relationships and people. So, I kinda saw the best of both and I would like to think I am a combination of the two.

RB: When did Ray Anderson first inform you the school was looking to take hockey to Division I and what was you initial reaction?

GP: A lot of people ask, 'What was the blueprint? And, how did you do it?' There wasn't a blueprint. We had always hoped and I had always kind of pipe dreamed of how cool it would be to have Division I hockey here and how successful it could become. You always think if they ever did, would they give me a crack at being the head coach? I can tell you right now, if they didn't, I would have supported this wholeheartedly. I wasn't going to get in the way of Division I hockey at ASU, I would have been the first guy in line to buy season tickets.

I think a lot of people started to think 'wow, what is going on over there' when we went and beat an NCAA Division I team (Penn State in 2013). The very next year we won a National Championship. A lot of hype and good press started to surround us and then our good friend (former House of Sparky editor) Justin Emerson got an interview with Ray, he called me walking out of his office and said that he (Anderson) was really receptive. He asked if he could ask me some questions and I said yes. One of the questions was how much did I think it would take? I said 'I don't know, $30 or 40 million?' Everything thinks and assumes it's going to take $100 million because that is what it took for Penn State. But it doesn't.

Maybe if I said $80 or $90 million we would have gotten $80 or $90 (laughs). Then the article came out and it created a big stir and some donors who supported us called me within an hour and said 'Alright, let's see if they are for real. If it takes $30 or $40, that's what we are giving you. Call them and tell them it has to happen now, either a yes or a no.' So I called them and here we are.

RB: In five years, where do you want to see the ASU hockey program?

GP: In five years I want to be an elite Division I program. We have all the resources now to make that happen. We have an amazing staff, we have an incredible administration led by Ray, Rocky (Harris) and Dave Cohen that oversee hockey who are incredibly committed to making this an elite Division I program. We have things here that nobody else has. We have a uniqueness about us that nobody else has, we truly are the most unique college hockey experience in the country.

When we get kids here on campus and they can touch it and feel it, they sense it right away. We have lofty expectations for ourselves. You will never hear from me over these next couple of years as we build the foundation that we are new and it's going to take time. Do I think we are going to win a National Championship in two years? No. But we are going to be a pain in the ass to play against.

The goal is to be the most successful startup hockey program ever.