James Sanchez and Willie Knierim were 8-year-olds playing together for the Chicago Mission AAA hockey program.
Playing together in juniors and at the NCAA level was something the two Illinois natives could only talk and dream about. However, their words and thoughts spoke it into existence. 13 years later, they are junior forwards and teammates at Arizona State.
“We have pretty much been playing with each other or against each other our whole lives,” Sanchez said. “It’s weird. When we were younger, we’d talk about if we were ever going to play in juniors or college together...I think everything happens for a reason.”
Their landing together in Tempe comes as a result of individual growth and two unique paths that nearly mirror one another. Sanchez was at Michigan, and Knierim was at Miami-Ohio for their freshman and sophomore seasons.
The now 21-year-olds earned ice time during their first two years of college hockey, but they felt their maximum potential hadn’t been unlocked. They were looking to find their games as strong power forwards who work below the goal line and around the net, something they have shown thus far at ASU.
Knierim played junior hockey for the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Dubuque Fighting Saints before playing at Miami, where he registered nearly 30 points in two seasons.
Meanwhile, Sanchez played for the United States National Development Program before arriving in Ann Arbor. After two years at Michigan, it was time to change things up. Both youth hockey teammates bet on themselves and went back to junior hockey to play for the Fighting Saints.
“When you go to college, you don’t really plan on going back to juniors,” Knierim said. “I think just getting over it mentally was the biggest thing, but I took it with a grain of salt and took it in a positive way...It was the best thing for me to go back, and it led me here.”
Knierim and Sanchez were reunited, and they put together a cast to try and win a Clark Cup (the championship for the USHL). Led by head coach Oliver David, the duo played alongside Jacob Semik, who is now one of ASU’s top freshman defenseman.
The ASU pipeline to Dubuque has been fully developed over the last two years, and that’s because of Sun Devil assistant coach Mike Field, who used to coach with the program.
As an assistant last year, he went out to recruit his platoon of current Sun Devils. He had an hour-long conversation with Knierim, who Field had previously coached during the 2015 season.
“It really wasn’t about recruiting. It was about him being a mentor to me,” Knierim said. “It wasn’t a pitch, it was just that he really cared for me and was trying to give me advice about what to do moving forward. It was just about getting back to my game and I got to have fun with hockey again.
“I think he saw a couple things in my game when he brought me in as a 16-year-old in Dubuque that I kind of got away from. He noticed it, and he kind of just pointed it out and told me to get back to it. Once I started doing that, I found success again.”
As for Sanchez, he took the time to sharpen his skill set as well.
“I just tried to broaden my game overall with just being more of a forward and shooting the puck and skating more,” Sanchez said. “I definitely tried to change my game a little more to become the power forward that I know I am.”
Flash forward to this season, and the benefits of taking a year back in the USHL have paid off. Knierim scored the team’s first goal of the season and has four points in six games.
Sanchez has been on the Sun Devils’ top line, and is second on the team in points with eight. Both players had goals in their last game against Air Force on Oct. 19.
“They were such high-level, elite recruits coming out of juniors,” said head coach Greg Powers of Sanchez and Knierim. “They probably just weren’t quite ready for college hockey and the jump that it is...Now they are ready, and they have embedded in our culture from day one, and they are just unbelievable to have around.”
With 13 years of knowing each other comes a lot of chemistry, too, which is something the Sun Devils are still developing following an NCAA Tournament run last season. Just listening to the way Sanchez and Knierim talk about one another, you can tell they’ve been friends and teammates for a long time.
They live together and cook at their living quarters along with grad transfer Max Prawdzik, and they dabble in playing video games, although Sanchez noted that their talent on the video game sticks doesn’t nearly compare to their skill with a hockey stick.
Additionally, they constantly bust each other’s chops, exchanging friendly trash talk, and conversations about the popular reality TV dating series, ‘Bachelor In Paradise.’
“Willie is in love with Hannah G.,” said Sanchez with a chuckle talking about the reality TV star. “I’d like to make that go public.”
Above all, the two teammates share a special bond, and it implements into the family dynamic that ASU is trying to create with a different team compared to last year’s.
“From when we were 8-years-old to 21, nothing has changed,” Sanchez said. “We are still chirping each other and having a good time.”
From college hockey to juniors, and back to the Division I level, both transfers have matured and grown. They took a chance and bet on themselves, and it’s landed them at a growing program that is continually proving itself.
Everything has come full circle, and the two journeymen are living out a dream that they laid out when they were playing hockey as kids in Chicago.
“I am just really thankful with how things turned out,” Knierim said.
Oddly enough, Sanchez registered his first collegiate point against ASU as a member of Michigan. As he looked back on it, it was a weird feeling, but if that’s what it took to lead him where he is today, then he’s more than okay with it.
“You have to start somewhere, and we played them (ASU) early on during my freshman year, and now they have blossomed into a dynasty that is going to be growing. Everybody wants to be a part of the tradition,” Sanchez said. “It was fun to play against them, but it’s more fun to be with them.”