When North Dakota men’s hockey coach Brad Berry called Sun devils men’s hockey coach Greg Powers a couple of years ago, the hope was to stage the US Hockey Hall of Fame Game between the two teams in territory ripe for college expansion.

“I think originally the idea was to have this in Seattle, kind of Pac-12 territory with the Kraken coming into the [NHL],” Powers said.

While a game at Climate Pledge Arena could still happen at some point in the future as ASU and the college hockey world dream of a western-based NCAA conference, the chosen option works just as well. The Sun Devils will face off against No. 6 North Dakota at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday in what is always billed as a showcase event for college hockey.

“They are the blue blood of college hockey,” Powers said of UND. “Not a blue blood; the blue blood. We’ve gotten wins over schools like Boston College and Boston University and Denver so we have beaten a lot of the quote-unquote blue bloods. We tied Michigan at Yost [Ice Arena]. We beat Ohio State, beat Mankato here a few years ago at the Desert Classic, but this is one game that we can always remember and we’re gonna go into it and kind of treat it like a Game Seven in the Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s a rare weekend where we have only one game so you’ve got to empty your tanks because you get one shot at it.”

There are two main goals with the US Hockey Hall of Fame Game, College Hockey Inc. Executive Director Mike Snee said.

“One, it’s to fund the activities of the US Hockey Hall of Fame; that’s the financial purpose of the game,” he said. “But then the intent of it, too, is to celebrate the sport in our country and do exactly what’s happening in Tempe: highlight how much the sport has grown in our country, how successful it is, and how much more opportunity for growth there is.”

That focus extends down to the youth ranks where the Coyotes have spurred so much hockey growth that Arizona has produced NHL stars such as Auston Matthews and top-flight prospects such as Matthew Knies and Sun Devils forward Josh Doan.

”Maybe 24 out of 25 times, wherever hockey goes it succeeds, and it succeeds in a number of different ways,” Snee said. “Hockey in Vegas is a big thing and it’s not just the Golden Knights now. It’s girls and boys playing hockey. It’s organizations feeling like it makes sense for them to build ice sheets. It started with teams like the San Jose Sharks, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators and many other examples. I think when the hockey world first started to have more confidence in their sport, they realized that if you build it, they will come. 

“I mean, look at what you just witnessed last weekend in Tempe with ASU opening its new arena. Who would have envisioned that 10 years ago; Division I in hockey in Arizona?”

Snee said that more than any other sport, hockey needs a kick in the pants to get it going. 

“The reality is that there’s more mental barriers to the game,” he said. “It’s played on an odd surface. It’s played with a lot of equipment. It’s not running based. If you’re not a hockey family and you’re living in the Phoenix of 1994, it’s pretty foreign to you. 

“But now that the Coyotes moved out there a generation ago, and now that the Sun Devils started hockey several years ago and just opened their building, it’s not foreign so your son or daughter might say, ‘That’s what I want. I don’t want tennis shoes or basketball shoes. I want hockey skates.’ We just need to keep repeating that pattern over and over.”

ASU will have its hands full with a partisan North Dakota crowd at T-Mobile Arena. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

The Sun Devils players understand what sort of challenge they will face against a team whose fans travel well; against a team that has played in this event a dozen previous times.

“You don’t get an opportunity like this very often. It’s once a year, the Hall of Fame Game, them and us in Vegas,” said Doan, ASU’s captain. “When you play a team like North Dakota, that should get you pretty amped up, but then you throw everything on top of it, it’s even bigger.

“We know they’re going to have 16,000 fans that are going to be in green and they’re going to be screaming at us. You can’t let the emotions of the game get to you because it’s gonna go both ways very quickly with that many people in the building. Not a lot of us have played in a rink with that many people so it’s gonna be interesting right out of the gates to see how guys react. We have to make sure we don’t take any stupid penalties or get flustered over stupid things and just stick to our game plan.”

Apart from the desire for a win, Powers understands the importance of this game to the program’s profile.

“The exposure in front of that many people on a national stage is awesome,” he said. “It’s what we’ve been working towards. We’re grateful for the opportunity that they invited us to play in it, and we want to make the most out of it.”

On the far end of the macro continuum, Snee understands what this game means for college hockey and the sport.

“The US Hockey Hall of Fame Game is being played in Las Vegas, Nevada, and one of the schools participating is Arizona State,” he said. “Just saying that says so much about how far the sport is coming in our country and why there are so many reasons to celebrate it.”

Top photo via Getty Images

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