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College hockey warmly welcomes Arizona State

Winter musings from a cold weather state.

Not Tempe.
Not Tempe.
Nathan Wells

"Maybe go somewhere warm for a change. That'd be nice."

Ask anyone in the college hockey world about Arizona State joining its ranks and you get the same goofy smiling response along the lines of, "oh it'd be nice to play there in November or January."  The opening response, which comes from Minnesota forward Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres), is dead on the nose. Indoor ice can be made anywhere. When it comes to college hockey the same is true outdoors.

The sport is regional to the point where Omaha is considered warm weather. Short of Alabama-Huntsville and technically Miami the only schools sponsoring Division 1 men's hockey are north of the Mason-Dixon line.

"That's going to be pretty cool. I think (ASU has) a pretty good recruiting advantage being in the sun there," said Connor Reilly. "I've been seeing a lot of people tweeting that it's only a matter of time before they're a top team just because pool parties and all that stuff."

Players joke about pool parties. Fans wonder about how expensive it would be to ship their golf clubs to Tempe. And reporters? Let's just say I've seen a few more tweets asking if the Sun Devils need a beat writer than elsewhere.

Not that I blame them. Trust me. I'm sitting here writing about warm weather with temperatures that recently were dancing on either side of zero. It was 45 degrees outside not too long ago. That seems like paradise mixed with a tinge of misguided sadness the previous 12 days or so below freezing were in vain and not resulting in early outdoor rinks. The cold does strange things to the mind.

By the time this column posts there will be snow in the forecast and temperatures working up to freezing. Somehow that doesn't sound too bad.

That's the norm in Minnesota and likely elsewhere. (Minnesota is used as an example since that's where I'm based.) There will be ice and snow throughout the college hockey world.

At least for now.

Arizona State's announcement three Tuesdays ago that the school would become the 60th to sponsor Division 1 men's hockey because of a $32 million donation came faster than a freak November snowstorm. Rumors aside, many in the know weren't aware it officially happened beforehand. It certainly changes the weather equation.

Well for most. As the lines of tradition and new blur even among college hockey, the number of players from warm weather locales increases alongside the teams. California has 50 players in D1 hockey this year, according to College Hockey Inc. Only Illinois has more among states which aren't represented in Division 1. Arizona, meanwhile, produced 11 D1 men's hockey players last season.

"You're seeing a lot more players coming out of the Southwestern states, like California, Utah, Idaho, Texas, stuff like that," said Auston Matthews, a Scottsdale, Arizona native born a year after the Jets moved to Phoenix. "So I think it's a really big part of USA Hockey that we're growing the game. I really look forward to the future of players coming out of those types of places."

Matthews, who is expected to be one of the top draft picks in the 2016 NHL Draft. plays with the US National Development Program. He's the youngest player named to Team USA's pre-tournament World Juniors roster and has drawn comparisons with Jack Eichel.

On his U-18 team are players from such non-traditional locales as Iowa, Texas, Missouri and Washington D.C.

"It's definitely very exciting we're going to have Division 1 hockey in Arizona. I think it's going to be huge for the state of hockey there," the 17 year-old said.

Of course, the irony in all of this is that the Sun Devils come along a year or two late for Matthews. Arizona's high-end in-state talent plans to make a choice for his future after this upcoming season - split 50/50 between going to Everett (WHL), who holds his WHL rights, and the NCAA path (Matthews told SB Nation last month his five schools remain Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, Denver and North Dakota)  - before ASU's full-time jump to Division 1 in 2016-17. While everyone talks about the weather helping recruiting, there still is the issue of getting high-end recruits.

Maybe it's a case of the grass being greener on the other side. Warm weather in January isn't the same luxury for someone who lives there. Matthews has experienced what Northerners dream, but to continue his rise (case in point: he's already moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the USNTDP) he's looking for the best place to develop, whether that is Arizona, Ann Arbor or Alberta.

Matthews isn't alone.

At the same time, there are other things about Tempe than the weather, jokes aside. College hockey has come a long way in the nearly three decades since Minnesota head coach Don Lucia went with his Alaska team to play Northern Arizona in a converted football field.

(Northern Arizona, along with San Diego-based US International - coached by former Gopher head coach Brad Buetow - played and went defunct in the 1980s. Those two, along with Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, played in the four team Great West Conference from 1985-1988. Only the two Alaska schools survived.)

This time the trek to the desert comes with, like the previous school (Penn State) to add the sport, the backing and resources of a Power 5 conference. It's not a gimmick. Starting up is no one-time promotion.

And it's that start up which is where everyone gets serious. The grinning, the weather jealousy are easy and superficial. What isn't is the second half of the "typical" college hockey response to warmly welcome Arizona State. A warmth full of seriousness, one that contains hope of success and cheers from their friends in the North.

"It's interesting to hear and it's very exciting hockey is able to spread all over the country," said Fasching.

There are no guarantees. Arizona State has an advantage that sounds great right now. Even if the Matthews of the world may not there, there are plenty who like the West Coast and warm weather and appreciate both being opened. To get the next elite non-traditional USA area player - and with how hockey has developed in the US, there will a be a next one - to stay involves more than just better weather.

Regardless, where ASU goes will be interesting to see how the details, the hard work and recruiting play out in the coming years. Even more so is if anyone else gets welcomed to a game those involved want to share.

"It's a great experience for college hockey and hopefully more teams eventually jump on," Reilly said. "I think if college hockey is so successful and competitive it can grow and grow.

"That would be amazing."

It would. For now, I'm going to spend December thinking more about sunshine.


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --