How long should ASU remain independent?
When Penn State joined Division I hockey in 2012, it took one transition season before finishing the formality of joining the sport’s new Big Ten conference. Nearly 2,000 miles away lies a world of difference at Arizona State, which enters its second full year of playing Division I opponents from a dense spread of leagues.
The Sun Devils were once expected to follow a similar timeframe as the Nittany Lions, albeit not quite as quickly. They played a hybrid schedule of varsity and club opponents in 2015-16, then competed as an independent in 2016-17. It was expected that they would announce their conference affiliation this year, taking effect at a later time.
However, those talks appear to have halted indefinitely. On June 22, the program abandoned negotiations with the WCHA. This decision came after the NCHC declined ASU’s admittance.
As a result, the question lingers as to how long Arizona State can remain a viable, independent hockey entity. If history is any indication, there will inevitably be a time when the Sun Devils must align with a conference to continue to thrive at this level.
Nearly every program as we know it today had to pass through a period of independence before finding league membership. Recognizable powers such as Boston College, Boston University, Denver and Michigan spent early stretches without a conference, but inevitably joined other programs and enabled rivalries with nearby schools to endure until today.
But the most storied, time-honored teams do not lie in the same geographical isolation that Arizona State faces, though there are a few teams that have survived in Division I with comparable complications. Two of them lie in Alaska, but both Fairbanks and Anchorage have dealt with the Alaskan budget crisis that has shrouded their future as Division I hockey programs.
Perhaps the most similar program to Arizona State is Alabama-Huntsville. These are the only teams located in the Sun Belt, and ASU’s future figures to mimic the path of the Chargers more than the Nittany Lions.
Huntsville became independent after College Hockey America folded in 2010 and almost lost its Division I program in 2011-12. However, local fans ardently pushed for their team to find a conference. The WCHA obliged and unanimously admitted the Chargers in 2013-14.
UAH, much like the Alaskan programs, has paid travel subsidies to schools that undertake the long trek to Alabama as a way of incentivizing competitive schools to visit.
Unlike Huntsville, Arizona State has failed to reach the same compromise with a conference. Per the College Hockey News report in June, anonymous sources said the WCHA was asking for subsidies that ASU felt were unreasonable. They believed their money could be better spent investing in the team, recruiting players and freely scheduling good competition for a full season.
For 2017-18, the effects of that strategy are evident, as the Sun Devils are scheduled to play a wide variety of opponents from Michigan to Providence. Independence, for now, appears to be the best option.
Nevertheless, they would be wise to continue exploring long-term conference auspices. Independence has resulted in the disappearance of many men’s hockey teams, most notably Illinois, Syracuse and Villanova.
The only other current Division I program that has remained independent is the Sacred Heart women’s team, which has gone solo since 2006. The Pioneers’ independence has allowed them to schedule a wide array of opponents, including Yale and Penn State.
But with their location in Connecticut, the Pioneers do not have to travel as far as the Sun Devils, and that ultimately could determine whether Arizona State finds success in Division I. Isolation clearly doomed the neighboring Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.
The Lumberjacks had a varsity team that remained independent from 1979 to 1985 before joining the Great West Hockey Conference, a conference that included the college hockey misfits found at Anchorage, Fairbanks, U.S. International and Northern Arizona.
The GWHC and Northern Arizona collapsed for two related reasons, including a difficulty in scheduling opponents and the opponents’ inability to add extra games to their schedule, which was the case if they played the Alaskan schools. Not long after the GWHC folded, the Nanooks and Seawolves found refuge and long-term survival in the CCHA and WCHA, respectively.
Weighing those factors alone would have one believe the future looks bleak for Arizona State. However, there are a few reasons for optimism.
First, an March repot in the New York Times noted that there has been an increased surplus of talent available for college hockey to draw from. With hockey on the rise in the Sun Belt areas of Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, and with more players emigrating from Europe, Division III hockey and the ACHA are strengthening their programs with this new influx of talent.
Optimistically, some of these ACHA programs could grow to consider following ASU and PSU to Division I. In the same way that the Nittany Lions found a natural home in the Big Ten, which only came into being after their upgrade gave it a quorum of six teams, the Sun Devils could ultimately spearhead a Pac 12 hockey conference.
While a hockey Pac 12 would be a major step forward, it would not happen anytime soon. But Arizona State has continued to look for ways to grow. That growth could begin with a new rink larger than their 800-seat Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe.
Since their tentative partnership with the Arizona Coyotes wilted, they have continued to explore options to build a large enough rink by the 2019-20 season.
“We have additional options that we are pursuing, and we will do so aggressively,” ASU athletic director Ray Anderson said in February (per Phoenix’s ABC affiliate). “(As) part of bringing on our hockey program and elevating it to varsity NCAA Division I status, we made promises that we would provide a conference affiliation appropriately and we would (play) our home games in an appropriate Division I-caliber facility, so we are going to deliver on those promises.”
Not only does Arizona State hope to grow, but the NCAA has high hopes for itself too. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the club teams at Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Georgia Tech draw “several thousand fans” for rivalry games. Meanwhile, out in Las Vegas, UNLV has capitalized on the arrival of the NHL’s Golden Knights by moving from ACHA Division II to ACHA Division I.
The past would lead one to believe ASU has no chance of surviving independently, and that could still be true. But there are more reasons for optimism that the Sun Devils will chart a new course and eventually find a conference to call home, even if it has to create that league.