D-I in the Desert

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I was the last one out on the ice for practice and saw our general manager, Mike Hoffarth, talking to our head coach, Gene Hammett.

I didn’t like the tone of the conversation as I walked past. They looked pretty serious.

Coach called me over and said, “Hey, we got some bad news.”

It was 1998, my junior year at Arizona State. We were a very good team. It was two weeks before the ACHA Division I national club hockey tournament, and we had a chance to win the whole thing.

Then Gene told me the deal, and my heart just dropped.

“We got disqualified, Greg. We used an ineligible player. We’re out of the tournament.”

The salt in the wound was the fact that because we couldn’t go to the tournament, the first team out would take our place. It was a team we knew well.

The University of Arizona.

You have to understand the history.

When I got to Arizona State as a freshman in ’95, the goal when we played against Arizona was to avoid getting Whataburgered.

Whataburger is a fast food chain in the Southwest. At U of A, whenever they hung 10 goals on an opponent, the crowd got free Whataburgers.

Arizona had, I believe, a 68-game winning streak against ASU at the time. So ASU’s goal when I arrived in Tempe was literally to not get Whataburgered.

I was the goalie, the last line of defense against burgers for everyone in the stands.

Luckily, my freshman class was the first for which coach Hammett had proactively tried to recruit good players. Prior to that, the approach had been, It’s a big school in the Southwest. There were enough kids to field a hockey team, so they kind of dealt with whoever showed up.

Before Gene became head coach, if you had skates, you could play.

My freshman year, ASU beat U of A and snapped that 68-game streak. We also made the national tournament for the first time. My sophomore year, we made the national tournament again. Then my junior year was our best year by far. We swept U of A — beat them six times out of six.

We were going to the tourney with a shot to win it.

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When I got to Arizona State as a freshman in ’95, the goal when we played against Arizona was to avoid getting Whataburgered.

Then came the issue with a part-time student, a guy who was taking classes at nearby Mesa C.C who turned out to be ineligible.

Disqualified.

ASU out. Arizona in.

I’m almost 40 now, and it still kills me.

At the time, it devastated me personally. It made me kind of turn away from hockey altogether. When I graduated, I was just ready to get away from the game.

For 10 years, I kept up with ASU’s program but dove headfirst into corporate life. I climbed the ladder and became a VP of sales for a medical software company. Exciting stuff, right?

It became a grind. I was on the road so much that my daughter looked at me like a stranger.

So in 2008, I started my own executive recruiting company. And that was it. That was supposed to be my life.

Then that same year, I got a text that stunned me.

It was from Jeremy Goltz, who coached U of A while I was at Arizona State. The text chain went something like this:

Goltzy: Powers, did you hear who ASU hired to be the new head coach?

Me: For what?

Goltzy: For hockey.

Me: No, I didn’t even know they were looking. Who did they hire?

Goltzy: Me.

Me: Why the f— would ASU hire a U of A grad to coach its program?

Goltzy: That is why we need to meet.

He knew my passion for the ASU program. He asked me to be his assistant coach. It might pay … something … eventually. He wasn’t sure yet.

I was in. All the way in.

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When I got back on campus, the program was worse off than it had been when I left as a player. It had never fully recovered from the ’98 DQ. The team was under .500 most of the time after I graduated and missed the national tournament more times than not.

It was bad. It was really ragtag. There was no culture. There was no expectation of winning. There was no tradition.

For our first road game that year we took six different flights to save money. The players didn’t have tracksuits and didn’t even have matching bags. I was mostly embarrassed, and more times than not I thought I was wasting my time.

So things had to change. We quickly began to recruit like crazy.

In 2010, I took over as head coach and all our work the previous two years began to pay off. We went 129-23-8 over the next four years.

To be successful at club hockey, you have to give a shit. You have to really, really care about your program and your players because nobody is coaching club hockey to get rich. And really, not many guys coaching club hockey have any delusions of grandeur that their team is going to end up as a Division I program.

To be successful at club hockey, you have to give a shit, because nobody is coaching club hockey to get rich.

At that time there wasn’t anything not in my job description. If it needed to be done, I did it.

I was the traveling secretary, the equipment manager, the recruiting coordinator and even the exterminator, all at once (I would chase mice out of our crappy, old locker room). A few times I would try and order pizza or pay for a meal with our team card and it wouldn’t go through. Then I would have to use my personal card, well aware of how annoyed my wife would be when she saw the bill. When I saw I had an incoming call from Canada I would stop whatever I was doing — even bathing my child — to take the call so I didn’t have to call back and get dinged with the international rates.

What I learned about building organizations from the top down in the corporate world is that everything is driven by the human fit. There are a lot of candidates out there who qualify to be a CEO on paper, but at the end of the day, if they’re not a fit with the culture of a company, it’s never going to work.

It’s the same when building a hockey program. If you have a need on your roster, there are thousands of kids who probably play a position the way you need that position to be played. But if they don’t believe in your vision, and they don’t believe in your culture, they’re not the right kind of kids.

I tried to make sure we recruited the right kids. This has not — and will not — change.

In 2014, it all came together. We won ASU’s first ACHA Division I national championship. In the title game we beat Robert Morris of Illinois, a fully-funded club program with a really, really good coach, Chico Adrahtas.

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I just remember reading Twitter when it was over and ASU hockey was trending. I watched videos of fans at viewing parties back in Tempe. The sight of people going nuts, celebrating our championship at bars really crystallized my vision of what ASU hockey could be.

Without that national championship, none of what has taken place since would have been possible.

That summer I was eating lunch when I got a call from an ambitious student journalist who covered our team, Justin Emerson. I remember it was 118° outside.

Justin said, “Hey, I just had an interview with the athletic director, Ray Anderson, about hockey. How much money do you think it would take to take the program D-I? What would be the bare minimum?”

I’ll be honest, I said what immediately popped into my head: $30 million to $40 million.

He put that in his article. Hours after it was published, that was the amount that showed up.

Maybe I could have asked for more. Who knows? But I said $30 million to $40 million — and we got $32 million. A group of donors called me to see if ASU was serious, and then they pledged the money.

I never really thought the day would come. When I played, guys would always joke and we’d shoot the shit about how unbelievable it would be if ASU ever got a Division I team, how sick it would be and just how good it could become.

Now it actually was going to happen. Arizona State Hockey was going to be D-I.

One of the thousands of questions that had to be answered in short order was, Who was going to be the coach?

Ray Anderson knew who I was from the article. He knew we were very successful at the club level. He knew we had just won a national championship. But I was a club coach so we had never spoken directly or even met.

A lot of people were skeptical about how fast we made the move. We announced Division I college hockey at Arizona State on November 18, 2014.  We played our first Division I game on October 9, 2015.

Essentially, I had about five months to hire a full time staff, try to build a schedule and – oh, yeah – recruit a roster that could hopefully compete on some nights.

There was no time to think. We just did it.

So there were a lot of moments this past season when it hit me that we really were a Division I program.

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The first was when we faced U of A, still a club team, to start the year. We played the game out at Gila River Arena, the Arizona Coyotes’ arena, and drew a crowd of 6,000.

I remember when we went out for the morning skate I was kind of stunned that there wasn’t anything I needed to do. We had a staff of equipment managers who loaded up all our gear. It was hanging up in our stalls and I had my tracksuit and a personalized skate mat in my own stall. Everything was laid out. Everything was done. All I had to do was show up, throw my skates on and run a game-day skate.

I’ll be honest, I was kind of like, Holy shit. This is crazy. This is real.

There are a lot of guys out there and a lot of people out there that see this program as promising. And they’re right.

We beat Arizona 8–1. Nearly a reverse-Whataburger.

Of course, that was just an exhibition. And by this time I was accustomed to beating U of A (we were 41–1 against them during my tenure as head coach).

We knew wins were going to be hard to come by at the D-I level. Unfortunately, we let one slip away in our first game. We lost 3–2 at Alaska-Anchorage in overtime — a heartbreaker. We were all devastated.

The next day, we played Alaska-Fairbanks and got outshot 17–5 in the first period and were behind 1–0. My coaches and I got to the locker room and just looked at each other, sort of like, Jesus. But then we turned it around in the second period and managed to tie it up.

Our senior graduate-transfer from Notre Dame, Garrett Peterson, ended up taking one of the dumbest penalties I’ve ever seen in my coaching career early in the third period. He was the last guy I would have expected to do such a thing, but he got a five-minute major for spearing a guy in his nuts. (Sorry, Garrett — honesty above all.) During the five-minute major we got another penalty, so they had a five-on-three for a long time, and somehow we killed it off.

When we killed off that five-minute penalty, I forget which coach I turned to, but I said, “We’re going to win the freaking game.” And we did. We won. Ryan Belonger scored with 32 seconds left.

To do it the way we did, scoring in the last seconds … I remember after the game I was just taken back by everything. It was a whirlwind.

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A big reason I came back was because there was always a big hole inside of me because of what happened in ’98, and I felt like I was kind of incomplete. To be in the position I’m in now as the NCAA head coach of a D-I program at my alma mater, it’s surreal.

I think it is the ultimate statement that college hockey needed as a body to expand out West, and we have a responsibility to do things right and be successful so that more schools follow suit.

There are a lot of guys out there and a lot of people out there that see this program as promising. And they’re right.

If you ask some of the so-called experts in the hockey world about Arizona State you’ll often hear something like this: Man, that program has a chance to be a powerhouse as soon as the club coach is gone.

What I told Ray was, “Don’t hire me if I’m just the right guy. Hire me if you think I’m the only guy.” And he did. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him down or anyone else at ASU who believed in me.

Everybody has a different path to their ultimate destination. Nobody has the same path.

Most people have no idea of all that I went through personally and professionally, or what I sacrificed to get to where I am and to get the program to where it is.

I told my very first club team one day long ago, “This program is a rocket ship, and if you want a seat on it you better grab one fast.”

Me? I’m not giving up my seat for anything or anyone.

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