TEMPE, Ariz.— The National College Hockey Conference (NCHC) will expand to nine teams beginning on July 1, 2024, as Arizona State will take its flourishing on-ice product to one of the NCAA’s premier hockey conferences.
The Sun Devil hockey program has quickly gained momentum since breaking from its club status during the 2015-16 season, and has competed as an independent Division-I hockey team since. Mullet Arena, now with one year under its belt, seats approximately 5,000 and rose to prestige among not only the college hockey landscape, but hockey in the West and its growth in Arizona.
The NCHC board of directors, composed of the respective school’s presidents and chancellors, voted unanimously this past weekend in favor of the addition of ASU, its first membership change in the history of the conference since its formation in 2011 and first season of play during the 2013-14 season.
“Over the course of the past seven years since elevating to NCAA Division-I hockey, Arizona State has continually raised its standards and demonstrated by word and deed their commitment to the same type of high quality college hockey,” said NCHC Commissioner Heather Weems. “Arizona State is recognized nationally for its innovation and academic quality. It also brings a strong national brand, robust alumni base, and growing southwest hockey market to the NCHC.”
The NCHC consists of:
University of Denver
Miami University (OH)
University of Minnesota Duluth
University of Nebraska Omaha
University of North Dakota
St. Cloud State University
Western Michigan University
With the nine team format and travel being a factor, the conference will continue its 24 game conference schedule, but under a new format. A three-team pod system within the conference was assigned geographically.
Arizona State will join Colorado College and Denver as a three-team pod with the potential for rivalries to brew, which goes without saying. So far, ASU is 7-9-2 against the future pod opponents since becoming a Division-1 program.
The new scheduling format will mean that the Sun Devils play Denver and CC in both a home and away series of two games (eight games total) every year. The remaining six ‘non-pod’ teams will also be played during the conference schedule.
“Our primary objective in joining a conference was to ensure that we acted in the best interest and welfare of our student-athletes. Period,” said Arizona State Athletic Director Ray Anderson. “Joining this conference puts our hockey program in the most elite conference in the country in our belief. It provides the best fit for our student athletes, our university at large and our fans on multiple levels.”
Since its inception 10 years ago, an NCHC team has won the NCAA Division-I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship five of the last seven years, including 13 Frozen Four appearances and 35 NCAA Tournament bids.
Back in 2016, the Arizona State hockey program had made the jump from club to NCAA Division-I team, however, the facilities and vision for the program was not adequately developed enough as ASU’s initial bid to the NCHC was rejected that same year.
Perhaps that was the best thing for the program.
In the four years that followed, ASU decided to play as an independent program claiming wins, gaining national recognition and garnering university support. After an NCAA Tournament berth in 2018-19, Arizona State began plans for a multi-million dollar arena, the culmination of the program’s dedication and support. The Program then reeled in $134 million and had all the right ingredients of building a dynasty in the desert.
“I think we’re a destination trip for any team that comes and plays us during the winter,” said head coach Gregg Powers. “To experience a game day environment like we do, provide for our student-athletes, our opposing team’s student-athletes, and then the opportunity to come to a destination city in the middle of winter is huge.”
During the 2022-23 season, the Sun Devils averaged 4,617 fans for home games with 17 consecutive student-section sellouts during the school year. ASU ranked 12th nationally in attendance with 110,759 fans across 24 games at Mullet Arena in the program’s first year in the building.
“Our mission here was to prove that this works,” said Chief Financial Officer of Sun Devil athletics Frank Ferrara. “Hockey when it’s done the right way — with the building, with the right facilitates, with the right competition, this can work. We have over $3 million worth in ticket sales in our first year.”
The Sun Devils attraction from a recruiting standpoint has also taken a significant step with the admittance of a conference. Regular talent will be on the ice in Mullet Arena for years to come with already eight NHL entry draft players wearing the maroon and gold sweater in the program’s brief history.
“It’s (recruiting) becoming more and more fun every year as we advance, grow as a program and become more established with a real facility to play in,” said Powers. “I think we’re a very attractive program for many players, and we have been already. Every student-athlete wants to compete for championships, and now, no matter what, we get to do that every year.”
The Sun Devils will begin their last season as an independent Division-I hockey program on Friday, Oct. 13 against Merrimack College in Mullet Arena, home of now the hottest hockey team in the West.