Arizona State hockey coach Greg Powers walked into the community ice arena adjacent to Mullett Arena last Friday and thought he was experiencing a senior moment. There was Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan preparing his team to skate.
“I was honestly confused,” Powers said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I thought we played BC tonight.'”
If you’re wondering how hard it is for Powers to lure teams to Tempe to compete in the Desert Hockey Classic, there’s your answer. The tournament begins today at Mullett Arena, but Michigan Tech arrived last Thursday (Dec. 29) and both Boston University and Air Force, the tournament’s other two participants, arrived on Tuesday.
“It’s a destination tournament,” Powers said. “We live in a desirable climate for teams to come to over over the holidays and conference play doesn’t really start back up until next week.
“These guys are on cloud nine. They’re skating in a beautiful facility all week, the set-up is great and they’re walking to the rink in nice weather so it’s awesome.”
The forecast for Tempe this weekend calls for temperatures in the high 60s and mostly sunny skies. The highs in Colorado Springs and Boston will be in the low 40s while Houghton, Michigan is looking at highs in the high 20s to low 30s.
This is the fourth edition of the Desert Hockey Classic. It began in the Sun Devils’ inaugural and hybrid season of 2015-16. Connecticut, Michigan Tech and Yale participated in that event at Gila River Arena in Glendale.
ASU moved the event to Prescott Valley the following year because Gila River Arena was too big for the expected crowds. St. Cloud State, Connecticut and Brown took part in that event which included a 9-8 Brown win against ASU in triple overtime.
The tournament took a one-year hiatus then came back in 2018-19 at Gila River Arena with four top-10 teams: ASU, Clarkson, Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth.
Among the big-name players who have competed in the tournament are Connecticut’s Tage Thompson (now with the Buffalo Sabres), Clarkson’s Nico Sturm (San José Sharks) and Duluth’s Carson Soucy (Seattle Kraken). BU’s Ryan Greene (Chicago Blackhawks ) and Lane Hutson (Montréal Canadiens) were both 2022 second-round picks.
Because there are draft-eligible players competing, there will be a fair amount of NHL scouts in attendance at the event this weekend.
COVID-19 and logistics shelved the event the past three years, but it’s back with an obvious benefit: ASU has its own, on-campus arena now so there are no challenges with empty seats or travel distance for fans and students.
“It was just disjointed at those other places,” Powers said. “It wasn’t our facility so it was hard to take good care of the people that came in and that’s important to us. We did all we could and Gila River Arena did all they could but it just didn’t feel right. The crowds were weak. The first year was pretty good, but after that, you’d get 2,000 people in a 17,000-seat building so the atmosphere was terrible and the drive to both places was tough.
“Both of our games this weekend are already sold out for the event. I don’t know how many will show up to the 3:30 (p.m.) games, but we’ve got four good teams and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
One of the advantages for teams competing in this event is playing opponents that they would not play otherwise. It also provides a tournament atmosphere for teams as they prepare for conference tournaments or the NCAA Tournament. ASU is an independent so this is the only tournament it will compete in all season before it hopes to compete in the postseason.
Air Force will face BU (No. 7 in the Pairwise rankings) on Friday at 3:30. ASU faces Michigan Tech (No. 20) at 7 p.m. The losers will play in the consolation game on Saturday; the winners will meet for the title. ASU will play at 7 p.m. regardless of the opponent.
Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong’s son Jamie is a senior forward for BU so Armstrong let BU use the Coyotes’ dressing room in the newly built annex. Tech will be in the annex’s visiting team space and Air Force will be in the Mullett Arena visiting team space. ASU hopes that set-up will serve as a preview of the events that Mullett is capable of hosting now that it has four high-end dressing rooms. The Sun Devils would love to host NCAA regionals.
UMass Lowell and Harvard will compete in next season’s tournament with the third team still up in the air between a couple of schools. The following year, UMass, Princeton and Robert Morris will round out the field.
For tickets to this event or other Sun Devil games, visit this linked site.
Top photo via Getty Images: Former Sun Devil Johnny Walker crashes the net against Clarkson in the 2018 Desert Hockey Classic