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Forward progress: A Q&A with ASU hockey head coach Greg Powers

Arizona State Sun Devils defenseman Joshua Maniscalco (24) skates with the puck during the college hockey game between the Clarkson Golden Knights and the ASU Sun Devils on December 28, 2018 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The story of the young Sun Devil Hockey program has already been altered by a major world event. The coronavirus put the pause button on a season that seemed promising.

For the program’s seniors, the 2019-20 season represented another building block on what’s been a long journey in a short time for ASU. The Sun Devils went NCAA Division I in 2015-16 with its first full NCAA schedule coming the season after. They’ve since quickly ascended to reach the NCAA Tournament last year and were in line to do it again this year before COVID-19 altered those plans.

Arizona State ended the season 22-11-3.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” senior defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk said. “We truly believed in our locker room this year that we had a very good chance at winning a National Championship. I said it on the first media day of the year. So yeah, we were definitely heartbroken. But like I said earlier, we all feel we can look ourselves in the mirror and be happy with how much we’ve helped build the program.”

Indeed, the program has come a long way. Even Pasichnuk recently agreed to terms with the San Jose Sharks. His old teammate, goaltender Joey Daccord, is with the Ottawa Senators. Things are trending up.

“It’s taken massive leaps since the first day I got here,” Pasichnuk said. “When my class was coming in we knew it would be an uphill battle, especially the first couple years. But looking back, when I got here freshman year to where it is now, I can look myself in the mirror and truly be happy with where me and my class are leaving the program.”

The Sun Devils still play at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, an adequate facility but one that’s leaps and bounds behind those found at major hockey programs on the East Coast. ASU is also still an independent program as the Pac-12 doesn’t have hockey.

Head coach Greg Powers discussed the pursuit of a new arena and a conference home, among other topics, in a Q&A with Arizona Sports:

How is the program adjusting to the unique circumstances caused by coronavirus?

“We’re doing the best we can, just like everybody. Doing our part, making sure our guys are doing their part by doing what’s asked of all of us to kind of stay in and isolate a little bit so we can get past this and move forward. The staff’s productive. We’re planning for next season like we would if we were in an office every day, and we’re communicating regularly with each other and with our players and with our incoming class, and making sure the guys are doing what they can within reason to stay in shape and all that good stuff. So we’re trying to approach this as business as usual as possible, if that makes sense.”

Does this create a challenge for recruiting?

“Yes and no. Everybody’s under the same rules right now where you’re kind of in a recruiting dead period where you can’t have anybody visit, they just extended that another month, the NCAA. So you can recruit, you can call kids and have conversations. It’s, I think, an advantage for us because the entire country and essentially world is basically on quarantine and everybody knows how nice the weather is here right now. So for us, we’re the lucky ones. We at least get to go outside and get some nice fresh air and some sun, where I have a buddy that lives in Fargo [North Dakota] just texted me this morning, and they got eight inches of snow. So we’re making the most of it, and using it to our advantage the best we can.”

How did you feel like this year went and how disappointing was it that you didn’t get to see how it would’ve ended?

“The year went great. We had a tremendous year. I think we had a better season than the year prior. Obviously we won one more game than we did the previous year and when you can put together back-to-back 20-plus win seasons in college hockey, I think that’s a huge accomplishment. It’s hard to get to 20. There’s not many teams that do it. I think we have the sixth-most regular season wins in the country over the last two years. So for a new program, we’re really proud of that, and this year we had some really big-time quality wins both home and on the road against big-time programs. So we loved our body of work, we were very confident heading into the tournament and felt like we were really poised to beat anybody that we played.

“It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to end on our terms. You want to have your season end, obviously, on the ice. Not any other way. This is a unique circumstance for everybody in sport across the board. So we can’t hang our heads and feel sorry for ourselves because everybody’s in the same situation. The biggest bummer of it all was obviously just our five seniors that did so much for our program that didn’t get to put on the jersey one last time as they intended and planned to and earned. So for those five kids, it’s really unfortunate. For all the rest of us, we just have to get through it and move past it and move forward.”

At the beginning of the season, you started your season in China with the Fu Xing Cup. What was that like, and what did you think that did for your players?

“Unbelievable experience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take our guys to a place where I don’t think any of them, other than our Chinese-born player, Peter Zhong, would ever go. That was what I really wanted to do was take our team to a place where if we didn’t go together, they probably wouldn’t go on their own. The cultural experience of going to a country, the people over there were unbelievable to us, incredibly nice and warm and accepting. Just the experience was amazing. To go through that as a team before the season, the camaraderie it built, the team-bonding that was done, you can’t put a premium on it. It was incredible in every way.”

How pleased are you with the progress your program has made since it joined the NCAA?

“I think everything that we can control as a program and as a coaching staff, we’re very pleased. We were the fastest startup program to ever make the NCAA Tournament in just our third full year. We were poised to make a second one in a row in just our fourth full year. Our recruiting is at a all-time high with a projected top-five recruiting class coming in next year. We just had our second player agree to an NHL contract in four years.

“So everything’s going really well and according to plan and maybe even a little bit faster than we even planned or intended for it to go. So what we can control — and that’s all you can do in our situation, is focus on what you can control and what’s in front of you and make the most of everything that you’re given. And I think we’ve done that.”

Have the expectations and the direction changed at all as the program has grown? Have you expanded or raised your standards for what you think is next?

“Yeah, I think now that we’ve technically qualified for two NCAA Tournaments in a row, that’s the expectation. We’ve proven we can do it, proven we can do it even without an arena and without a conference. And those two things are going to get solved very quickly for us. So moving forward, things are only going to get better. We feel like we’re only scratching the surface with what we’ve accomplished in these first four years. And in NCAA Division I hockey, 16 teams get in, it’s a single-elimination tournament where if you get in, anybody that gets in has a chance to win. There’s been a couple times in the last five years where the last team in has won a national championship. Providence did it, Duluth did it. So you just have to get in. And then anything can happen. So that’s the goal moving forward, it’s NCAA Tournament or bust.”

You alluded to my next question, which is the arena and the conference. What can you say about the progress of those two items?

“The arena, I leave that to administration and all the great people on campus to get into the details. But I can tell you that it’s anticipated that this offseason is going to be a very exciting one in regards to that. And I’m looking forward to more concrete information and news coming out. I’ll leave it at that.

“But the conference is something that we’re taking very serious and addressing probably every other day at this point, internally, and just kind of developing a plan on the direction that we’d like to see ourselves go in and probably here by midsummer start to pursue that direction and start to have those serious conversations with a couple of different options.”

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