At Oceanside Ice Arena, head coach Greg Powers’ office is lined with photos next to his desk.
The framed shots fill the whole wall and serve to remind Powers of what came before this year’s Sun Devil hockey team that is on its way to play in its first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
Before Powers makes the quick move from his office space to practice, the wall reminds him of the players who played in the facility before ASU’s NCAA teams, highlighting former players on his 2014 ACHA National Championship team. It’s the club team that jumpstarted the NCAA Division I program that Sun Devil fans see today.
“Every one of those pictures will never go away as long as I am here,” Powers said. “Every single one of those guys helped lay a brick in the foundation to get us where we are today. This is a program, that our success at the club level, has led to where we are today. That foundation will never be unlinked. We will always link ourselves to that and never forget where we came from. That’s why those guys are up on the wall and they will never come down.”
The story of how ASU got to the Division I level has been told before. It’s a story of how an ambitious student journalist at ASU, Justin Emerson, asked Athletic Director Ray Anderson what it would take to move the hockey program from the club level to NCAA Division I after ASU won an ACHA title in 2014.
Then a donor put forth $32 million. The rest is history. If you haven’t heard the tale, it’s worth the read. Emerson, who covered the team for three years at the club level, went into detail on the situation in Sports Illustrated.
However, what can be lost in the NCAA move was the club team itself - The players who won the 2014 title in dominant fashion. They were 38-2 and torched their competition. If not for them, who knows where the state of ASU hockey would be.
It was a group full of speed and skill. They were led by Colin Hekle, Kale Dolinksi, Danny McAuliffe, and Jordan Young. Up front, Dolinski recorded 71 points in 33 games played. He was superb.
“I still tell everybody that I believe the only three guys that could still play with our (NCAA) program are Kale, Heckle, and Danny McAuliffe,” Powers said. “I think they could all play on this team right now. That’s how good they were. Kale for sure. He was a good Division I player that played in the Saskatchewan League and slipped through the cracks. He was over two points a game his last year. He was special.”
On the blue line, ASU had Young, Brett Prechel, Alex Temby, Jarrod Levos, and Brett Blomgren. Both Prechel and Young were local Arizona players.
“Arizona has great hockey,” Young said. “People might not think that but...It was really good hockey around here and the coaching was great.”
On the back end, Robert Levin was ASU’s netminder. He went 18-1 with an absurd .956 save percentage and a 1.11 goals against average.
All the talent and elements strung together seemed to harmonize. ASU had depth, speed, skill, solid goaltending and the work ethic that culminated in a championship run. However, the most important ingredient might have been chemistry.
“It was kind of a unique situation that you don’t feel in every locker room,” Young said. “We kind of clicked right away and it was a self-sustainable atmosphere. Everybody knew their job and knew their role...I think that was kind of the main reason we were able to be as successful as we were.”
So, where did all this talent come from?
At a level where ASU had to fund themselves, Powers was an expert recruiter. He made a living off of it in his previous job where he was completely away from hockey. He worked as a recruiter for businesses.
His pitch to snag high-skilled players came from his experience. His biggest competition was often Division III NCAA schools where the line was drawn between players wanting to go on scholarship or come to Tempe.
The question to recruits was simple: Would you rather play at a small, Division III liberal arts school with a small student population in cold weather? Or come to one of the biggest universities in the country with warm weather that features major athletic programs? At that point, the verdict was left up to the player.
“I didn’t make a recruiting call until after the National Tournament every year. I didn’t even bother recruiting because I wanted the best. I wanted the very best players that were still trying to get Division I deals,” Powers said. “When nothing happened for them, then it was to pounce on them. It was basically going against high level Division III schools for all those kids. I thought we made a really good case for kids to go to Arizona State.”
Players like Young, Sean Murphy, Eric Rivard and a variety of others even fielded small scholarship offers to Division III schools and walk-on offers to Division I programs. ASU still held the upper hand over the other destinations.
With the talent in place, the program only continued to grow. There were no let downs and ASU was getting players from legitimate North American junior leagues to come play ACHA hockey in Tempe.
In the case of Dolinski, he transferred from Minot State, a fellow ACHA power that often competed with ASU.
It was almost utter domination in 2014. Nevertheless, no championship run comes without adversity. That night for ASU came on February 1, 2014.
In Powers’ tenure as club coach, ASU was 41-1 against in-state rival Arizona. He completely flipped the script from his playing days in the late 90’s when his ASU teams tried to avoid getting “Whataburgered,” which is a term that Powers documented in his personal Players’ Tribune article in 2016.
On the Sun Devils’ senior night in 2014, they fell 2-1 to their arch rival despite out shooting the Wildcats by a 53-28 margin. Arizona scored its game-winning goal on a five-on-three power play. Late in the season, the small hiccup only lit the fire for the rest of the way.
“I don’t know what’s worst, losing in a championship or losing to U of A. It was literally like their mini championship. It was literally like they won the Stanley Cup when they beat us,” Dolinski said. “The feeling that we had in the dressing room after, I wouldn't say we were worried. I would say we were just a little disappointed in ourselves because we know the type of rivalry that takes place and how it kind of grew over the years.”
With a bitter taste in their mouths, the mood turned. It was a feeling of motivation and hunger in what had been nearly a flawless season.
“It was heartbreaking for our seniors because they wanted to go through their four years undefeated against U of A,” Powers said. “But what was special about that, I wasn’t upset. I went into the room and I saw how upset they were and I said, ‘Guys, now we are ready to win a National Championship.’
Now you have felt the heartache that you feel when you lose that last game of the year and you fall short from winning a ring. Bottle this up and make sure you don’t feel this when you go to nationals.”
They used that energy for good. ASU went on to roll in the National Tournament. Nothing got in their way. Not even the defending National Champions from 2013, Minot State.
Dolinski had seen his former team win a title after transferring to ASU in 2013. Dolinski’s goal was to win a title and it had to was difficult for him to see his old teammates hoist the Championship trophy.
All those feelings were abandoned in 2014. ASU shut out Minot State 4-0 in their second game of the postseason. The Devils beat Rhode Island, Minot State, Stony Brook, and Robert Morris to cap off their postseason run.
The group returned home from the championship in Newark, Delaware to celebrate in Tempe. Powers can recall the program trending on Twitter and the celebration that ensued. A club hockey team had made big noise.
Little did he know what would ensue not long after. Come full circle, and Powers was with some of his ACHA players last Sunday when ASU was selected into its first-ever NCAA Tournament.
In October, the team was recognized during an intermission of ASU’s matchup with No. 1 Ohio State.
Powers still keeps in touch with his former players when he can.
“I know what every single one of them is doing for a living, where they live, how they are doing,” Powers said. “It’s really cool seeing these kids develop as people and start to grow families and lives. That’s what this is all about for me.”
Dolinski will be at Heckle’s wedding this Summer. He is back in Saskatchewan and said he is trying to make a few consistent trips back out to Arizona every year.
It was a special group of guys who made history in 2014. The year they brought home the title was in Powers’ fourth year at the helm of the club program. Another four years later, he has his NCAA program in the postseason.
It seems eerie, and it would only be fitting if he is able to run the table once more.
“Without that championship, we are not here today,” Powers said. “If we didn’t win that championship, we would not have a Division I program. All these players wouldn’t have an opportunity to play Division I hockey at Arizona State. It’s because of that team.”