It wouldn’t be hard to imagine if Southern California native Alec McCrea has a hard time relating to his teammates. While many of them once flocked to Tim Hortons for an after-school treat, he elected for In-N-Out. There were no such thing as ski weekends but a year-long surf season. Bundling up meant the thermometer was nearing 60 degrees — not sub-freezing temperatures.
But for one of the few times in his life, the Cornell men’s hockey senior defenseman will share an uncommon bond with the other skaters on the ice when Arizona State arrives in Ithaca for a two-game series this weekend: He and many of the Sun Devils know what it’s like to play in places where ponds don’t freeze over in the winter.
“It’s really cool,” an enthused McCrea said of playing a team from near home, one which even boasts several players native to the Southwest. “I hear rumors of more programs like Arizona State coming to play D-I hockey. I know there are some club teams in California.”
Born in Atlanta, sophomore forward Cam Donaldson also has a non-traditional path to college hockey. The Pittsboro, North Carolina, native is one of five Cornell players not from Canada, the Midwest or the northeast. In addition to McCrea and Donaldson, the Red has one player each from Russia, China and Colorado.
Not only will this weekend pit two top-20 teams against one another in a series that could have NCAA Tournament implications, but it serves as a microcosm for the evolution of hockey.
Cornell, a college hockey blue blood in existence since the dawn of the 20th Century (and one of 26 teams that joined Division I in 1947 for the unofficial first season of Division I men’s hockey), will take on a foe from 2,300 miles away that first joined Division I in 2016 — the newest program in the country.
“It’s good to see the college game continue to expand,” said Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86, the sixth-longest tenured coach in NCAA Division I men’s hockey, whose experience in the sport extends to his playing days. “Excited that they are opening up barriers for other college teams to also look at it and see if it’s feasible for little teams to have a college hockey team in their area. It’s great for the sport.”
When Schafer played his last season for Cornell in 1985-86, Ohio’s Bowling Green State was the southernmost team to make the NCAA Tournament in the decade. (The Falcons won their only title in 1984 over Minnesota-Duluth.) Seventeen teams have joined Division I since Schafer graduated (and others have left), including ECAC rivals Union and Quinnipiac.
In 2019, a brand new team from the desert is making itself known as a title contender. And its path to its first NCAA Tournament berth makes a stop at one of college hockey’s famed sanctuaries in upstate New York.
From pretending to contending
The Sun Devils were established as a club team in the 1970s — better known as the post-Ken Dryden ’69 era at Cornell. ASU began competing in Division I of the American Collegiate Hockey Association in 1993. Head coach Greg Powers, who played goalie for the then-club team as a student, led the Sun Devils to the 2014 national club title. A year and a half later, the team was playing independently in Division I.
In the 2015-16 season, ASU played against both Division I and club opponents, amassing an abysmal 5-22-2 record in games against Division I foes, before fully transitioning to the NCAA the next season.
Since the 2015-16 transition year, ASU put together a 10-19-3 record in 2016-17 before taking a slight step back for a 8-21-5 record in 2017-18.
Fast forward just one season, and by mid-January, the Sun Devils lead the nation with 16 wins at a 16-7-1 record.
“If you look back three years ago when we first started the program, there were a lot of growing pains as a team … going into places hoping not to lose by too many,” ASU junior forward Steenn Pasichnuk said recently. “And now we are going in fully expecting to sweep every weekend, and that shows a lot of maturity.”
ASU is the only independent team in college hockey, meaning it is without a conference. It’s joined by Alabama-Huntsville — which joined Division I in 1998 — as one of just two teams in the Sun Belt. Penn State, college hockey’s second-youngest program after joining Division I in 2012, is currently ranked No. 11/10 in the country and competes in the Big Ten with blue bloods like Minnesota, Notre Dame and Michigan.
Time will only tell if a full slew of teams join ASU to potentially create a Pac-12 hockey league. Until then, the Sun Devils will remain the only occupants of the men’s ice hockey tab on the conference’s website.
“You’ve got to get kids that still hold the game in a really high regard and don’t come to Arizona State just because of the weather and the palm trees and all that stuff,” Powers told The Bemidji Pioneer. “They want to be hockey players and they want to build this program the right way.”
So far, that has been a success. ASU’s roster touts skaters from both the traditional and non-traditional hockey regions. Four hail from within the state’s borders, one from Las Vegas, one from Missouri, several from the Midwest and Northeast and a handful from Canada. And the movement has grown overseas, as three Sun Devils are from Europe — two from Latvia and one from Sweden.
And while NHL draft picks aren’t always the best indicator of talent nor future success, the Sun Devils have lured professional prospects to their roster, including starting goalie Joey Daccord, who leads the country in shutouts with six.
Just in its third full season of Division I play, “they’re a legit top-10 team in the country right now,” Schafer said of ASU before this weekend’s matchup.
“I think we’ve got everybody’s attention.”@asucoachpowers has taken @SunDevilHockey from an “urban legend” in the desert to a powerhouse that’s on track to make its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. pic.twitter.com/b159DJVrw5
— ABC15 Sports (@abc15sports) January 8, 2019
“We’ve kind of up until this point been an urban legend-type program, ‘Oh my god they have a Division I program at Arizona State, they don’t have an arena, they don’t have a conference, yeah one day they might be pretty good,’” Powers recently told ABC15 Sports. “And now I think we’ve got everybody’s attention. We’re legitimate, we’re real and we’re not going to be able to sneak up on anybody.”
California Dreamin’ (for more hockey)
Ask any NHL fan who the most worth-the-money ticket is in the game today and the most likely answers will be Russian goal scorer Alexander Ovechkin, Canada’s golden boys Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid and, among a few additional names, a kid from … Arizona?
Sedona, Arizona, native Auston Matthews, the face of the star-loaded Toronto Maple Leafs, has served as the most palpable indicator that hockey is no longer suited for just the purebred Russians, Canadians or Americans from far above the Mason-Dixon line. Hockey has come to the desert, and it has made itself known.
So maybe the success of Matthews shouldn’t make the NCAA’s leading scorer a surprise. It’s none other than Phoenix native and ASU forward Johnny Walker, who has lit the lamp 12 times — twice more than anyone else. (Walker also leads the nation in total shots on goal (89) and shots on goal per game (5.56).)
Just about halfway into second college season, Walker has already eclipsed his point total from his rookie year. Part of this success stems from watching and playing alongside pedigree that grew close to him, as Walker and Matthews have spent summers playing together in the West Coast selects among other summer leagues, according to Sporting News.
“It shows the growth of hockey especially in the areas where you don’t think it’d be as big,” McCrea said of ASU’s success. “Being from California I’ve been a first-hand witness to it with the emergence of the San Diego Gulls —the [American Hockey League] team— and the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.”
And it’s when the Kings won two Stanley Cups in three years this decade that McCrea saw ice hockey fully begin to blossom in the Southwest.
— Sun Devil Hockey (@SunDevilHockey) January 10, 2019
“The youth programs out there — whether it be the Gulls in San Diego … or the L.A. Junior Kings or Anaheim Ducks junior programs — we take pride being there and wanting to represent and show people that hockey is big nationwide,” McCrea said. “It’s not just in the Midwest or in the East.”
In 1985-86 — Schafer’s final year as a student-athlete — 4.2 percent of NHL players hailed from one state (California) not in the Northeast or Midwest, according to QuantHockey.com. In 2018-19, that number has grown to nine states and 11.4 percent of the American-born playing population.
Founded in 1998, the Nashville Predators are perennially one of the NHL’s top teams and have helped popularize hockey in the South. Alabama-Huntsville, which faced Cornell last October, signals the opportunity for the growth of hockey in Alabama alongside a place like Arizona.
“The fact that Alabama has a hockey program creates hockey fans,” Schafer said last year before his team faced the Chargers. “And those hockey fans end up watching the NHL. And you look at the spread of the NHL into places across the country in Florida and California that happened many years ago, those areas are now producing [more talent]. It’s the same thing with the NHL. They want to produce lifelong fans.”
“You wouldn’t expect anywhere down in the South to have a hockey team, but it’s expanding further south,” former Cornell forward Jared Fiegl ’18, a 2014 Arizona Coyotes draft pick, said last season. “Everyone’s always surprised to hear about that but the more people you tell about it and they get exposed to it the less surprised they get.”
ASU’s success — the Sun Devils are currently on a path toward their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance — signals hockey in the Sun Belt is here to stay and perhaps expand.
“I’m glad that the program is building and becoming a good contender because I hope in the future that more schools adopt programs like that,” McCrea said. “I’d like to see a USC or UCLA or Stanford or something like that. … And I think they’d be able to get some good recruits out there, too.”
Maybe then McCrea lining up against or alongside a player from west of the Rockies or south of the Mason-Dixon Line will be not such an anomaly.