Arizona State announced their intention to move their hockey program to NCAA Division I this afternoon. It's incredibly exciting news to see a new hockey program added to Division I, and even more encouraging to see a program from a non-traditional hockey market. I've long said that American hockey has grown so much over the last 10-15 years at every level from youth, to juniors, to even the pros, that it is shame that college hockey--at least at the D-1 level, club hockey has seen a tremendous boom-- hasn't been able to expand in the same way.
But at the same time, making the move to Division I college hockey isn't an easy one, and there were more than a few reasons for concern in today's announcement about the viability of the program going forward.
If Penn State provided the blueprint for how a big school should make the transition to Division I hockey, Arizona State deviated from that blueprint in a number of ways. None may be fatal on their own, but there are certainly enough causes for concern to say success is not a slam-dunk.
Among the concerns:
When Penn State announced their move to Division I, they also announced their plans to build the beautiful Pegula Ice Arena, immediately giving the fledgling program one of the finest facilities in college hockey. Arizona State's new home is less clear.
More than likely they will begin play at the US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix. New head coach Greg Powers said his hope was to get Arizona State playing on campus as soon as possible, but that would require major renovations to either Oceanside Arena or the Wells Fargo Arena on campus; renovations that would likely cost upwards of $10 million.
When Penn State started their program, they went out and hired Guy Gadowsky, who was well-respected in the college hockey world for turning around programs at Alaska-Fairbanks and Princeton. With all due respect to Greg Powers, I have no idea how he will do as a Division I coach, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that his resume wouldn't earn him an interview at another Division I school.
Among the hottest takes I saw in the reaction to Arizona State starting up their program was how easy it would be to recruit to Tempe with their beautiful weather. But in my experience, players have no qualms about moving to awful locations(Hi, Prince George, BC) if they think it gives them even the slightest advantage in advancing their hockey career. Arizona State's coaching staff will likely be used against them when it comes to recruiting players.
Penn State announced their hockey program on September 17, 2010 and their first Division I hockey game wasn't played until October 12, 2012, over two full years. Arizona State will play their first Division I hockey game in roughly 11 months.
I have a ton of respect for the talent on Arizona State's club roster. There's some former Division I players on there, and some names that I definitely thought could have played Division I hockey. But there's a huge difference between a guy being capable of playing third or fourth line minutes on a D-1 team, and having a full team that can compete against Division I programs.
Arizona State is going to need a near-complete turnover of their roster before they're ready to be close to competing on a consistent basis at the NCAA level, and they don't have a lot of time to do it. Penn State is just starting to approach that point this season, even with all the advantages they started with. A few terrible seasons could be enough to kill the initial excitement of the program and hurt their long-term chances at success.
Like I said, hopefully none of those differences are fatal. Penn State did things about as perfectly as a team could do things when starting up a program and certainly there is room for a team to do less than that and still be successful. There are also a lot of positives with Arizona State as well, and reasons to believe that they will be successful. But the school still has an uphill battle to becoming a successful D-1 college hockey program.