Disruptor on Ice

Gary SantanielloSeptember 5, 2022
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Former walk-on goalie Greg Powers has helped transform ASU hockey into a rising NCAA power. With a new arena debuting this season, the coach is ready for his latest power play.

ASU hockey coach Greg Powers. Photography by Steve Craft
ASU hockey coach Greg Powers. Photography by Steve Craft

Barely six months into former NFL executive Ray Anderson’s tenure as Arizona State University’s athletic director, a student reporter asked him in July 2014 what it would take for ASU to start a NCAA Division 1 hockey program. Anderson wanted to add more varsity sports at ASU, but hockey? Never mind that no other Pac-12 school competed in the sport, whose heartbeat lay in the Upper Midwest and New England. Or that Colorado College, Air Force Academy and the University of Denver were the only other hockey schools within 1,300 miles of Tempe. There was also the not-so-trivial fact that the university didn’t have a hockey rink.

Immediately after the story appeared online, a group of donors – led by one prosperous benefactor who preferred to remain anonymous, and Milwaukee businessman Don Mullett, whose son previously played club hockey at ASU – pledged $32 million to start the program.
Suddenly, the improbable fantasy of D-1 college hockey in the desert began coming into focus. “Once it became clear it could potentially pass,” Anderson says, “the first question I asked myself was, ‘Who would lead this?’”

Greg Powers grew up in Bloomington, Indiana – “the heart of the Midwest,” he says, taking a quick break between prepping practice schedules. The younger of two boys raised by a single mother who worked two jobs, Powers was a huge sports fan as a kid, especially of coach Bobby Knight and Indiana Hoosiers basketball. Playing any and every sport he could get his mitts on, Powers excelled at soccer and baseball, but the game he fell for the hardest was hockey. His grandparents, who had season tickets to the World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers, gave him his first pair of skates when he was 2 years old, and he spent much of his youth honing his skills both in rinks and on frozen ponds that dappled the wintertime foothills of Southern Indiana.

Powers started out as a forward, the scoring-oriented position played by hockey’s best-known and most glamorous stars, such as NHL greats Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, but at age 7 he made a fated switch. The goalie on his team got hurt, and the coaches selected his replacement by drawing names out of a hat. “I’d always wanted to play goalie, but I just never did it,” Powers says. When his name was chosen, the boy got his wish.

In 1979, right around the time 2-year-old Powers picked up his first pint-size hockey stick, hockey was making its debut as a “club sport” at ASU. Effectively run by the student-athletes themselves, club teams are self-funded, with little material support from the universities themselves, and are not sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In the earliest days of ASU club hockey, the team played the likes of the University of Arizona and UNLV in a motley collection of recreational rinks around the Valley, including Tower Ice Plaza (now Arcadia Ice) in Phoenix and Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe. Competing in Division 2 of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the team had only moderate success through the 1980s, but started to set its sights higher with the recruitment of hockey coach Gene Hammett, a Detroit native who coached high-level junior hockey before arriving at ASU.

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Greg Powers in his 1996-97 Arizona State University team photo
Greg Powers in his 1996-97 Arizona State University team photo

Prior to Hammett’s arrival in 1992, “if you had skates, you could play,” Powers says, referring to its lax coaching and management. Hammett was a different kind of coach. He recruited aggressively and held his players to a higher standard.

In late 1995, Hammett flew to Chicago to scout a showcase of high school hockey talent, and was immediately smitten with a certain Indianan netminder. By this time, Powers was playing for North Central High School, one of the largest schools in the state, where he earned all-state distinction from his sophomore through senior seasons.

Powers weighed offers from Ohio University and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, but Hammett was indefatigable as a recruiter. “In high school I used to go to bed at 7 p.m. so I could be ready for practice at 5 a.m., and Gene would always call around 10 p.m.,” the now-45-year-old Powers says with a laugh. “He was relentless. His passion for wanting to build the program struck a chord with me.”

Although Powers had never been west of the Mississippi, Hammett convinced him to visit Tempe before making a college choice. “I had never seen a place like it. Everything kind of clicked for me,” he remembers. “It was just so different. I called my mom right away and said ‘I gotta come here.’”

Financed by myriad student loans, his four years at ASU included hockey, studying for a career in broadcast journalism and riding the football bandwagon. Like thousands of his fellow Sun Devils, Powers stormed the field after the Sun Devils upset No. 1 Nebraska in 1996, setting the table for the team’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 years.

As promised, Hammett built a strong club program. The Sun Devils reached the national club tournament three times in four years, and Powers was a three-time All-American goalie. Penn State, which also played club hockey at the time, was a frequent opponent, and its coach, Joe Battista, remembers Powers well. “He wasn’t flashy. But he was very competitive. He kept them in a lot of games.”

Powers on the ice with ASU teammates before a 1999 game
Powers on the ice with ASU teammates before a 1999 game

After graduating in 1999, Powers stayed around the team another year as a graduate assistant coach, then got into sales and started an executive search firm in 2008, the year after he and his wife, Jessica, had their first child, Isabel. Shortly after starting the business, he got a call from new ASU hockey coach Jeremy Goldstein, a former University of Arizona assistant he knew from his playing days. Goldstein needed more than just part-time help. “We need some ASU blood,” Powers says Goldstein told him. Powers asked his wife about the offer. “You should do it!” she encouraged.

Powers with his family at an ASU softball game in the spring of 2022
Powers with his family at an ASU softball game in the spring of 2022

Struggling to juggle the responsibilities of part-time coaching with his full-time job, Goldstein left the program after two years, in 2010. His replacement lasted only one year. Frustrated with the lack of stability, a group of players asked to meet with Powers – still serving as the assistant coach – at a local restaurant, and told him they wanted him to take over the program.

“Being the head coach had never crossed my mind,” Powers says. But he took the job.

Like the other ASU club sports, hockey was self-supporting. Each player paid a $3,000 annual fee, and the balance of the $300,000 budget came from fundraising ventures such as golf tournaments. Like other club sport coaches before him, Powers was a “one-man band,” he says.

With his wife’s help, he arranged for planes, buses, hotels and meals, stretching every dollar as if it were taffy. He raised money in his spare time, and reached into his own pocket regularly for equipment and meals for his players on the road. His business partner, former teammate Sean Eggert, willingly indulged the myriad demands on his time, but Powers – whose son, Jake, was born in 2010 – felt like his business and family were paying the price. “I was putting off doing things for the business that would have provided a good life for my family for something that doesn’t pay anything,” he says. “It cost me a lot of money over the years, and all the time I was asking myself, ‘What’s the end game here?’ I wanted to win a national championship, and then hand the club team off to someone else.”

Powers did just that – sort of. Over the next four years, ASU went 169-23-7, capped by a 38-2 record and the school’s first American Collegiate Hockey Association championship in 2014.

While the Sun Devils were back in Delaware, skating their way to a championship, athletic director Anderson was behind the scenes, setting the stage for the program’s imminent leap to D-1. Besides securing the necessary funding, Anderson also had to launch a new women’s varsity sport to ensure the gender-equity provision in Title IX was met. “It’s just a matter of figuring a way, financially and [while satisfying] gender equity, how you do that,” Anderson told sports blog SB Nation.

Ultimately, plans were set in motion to endow women’s lacrosse and triathlon at ASU, using a portion of the $32 million hockey gift. Finally, eight months after ASU’s first hockey championship, Anderson stepped to a podium on November 14 and presented its first varsity hockey coach: 37-year-old Greg Powers.

Powers at a home game vs. Long Island University during the 2021-22 season
Powers at a home game vs. Long Island University during the 2021-22 season

Before choosing Powers, Anderson briefly considered coaches with Division 1 experience. But the more he got to know Powers and his background, the more he realized the coach was an apt fit for “a really unique situation.” Powers was an ASU alum, had played hockey, was adept at recruiting and fundraising, and had started his own business – in short, exactly the kind of top-down manager ASU president Michael Crow and Anderson envisioned for their pro-model athletic program. “It was something about his whole package,” Anderson says. “It would have been crazy to hire anyone else.”

Powers’ first years as a D-1 coach were hardly smooth skating, however. Despite the lavish $32 million donation – which allowed the program to offer athlete scholarships, including nine in 2015-16 – the program found itself at a recruiting disadvantage relative to hockey powers like Boston College and the University of Minnesota.

The main reason for this: The team still played its games at Oceanside Ice Arena, perhaps the foulest facility in all of D-1 hockey.

Opened in 1974, the Tempe arena had been the on-again, off-again home to ASU club hockey since the 1980s, but was “in no shape, in any way, to host a Division 1 program on a daily basis,” Powers says.

Located 10 minutes from campus across Tempe Town Lake, wedged between a FedEx facility and an outdoor marketplace on McClintock Drive, Oceanside presented Powers with constant challenges. Players could barely see each other through the fog when Oceanside’s aging compressors couldn’t keep up with the temperature outside. When holes appeared in the ice, Powers covered them with tires so no one broke an ankle. Rats would scamper across floors. It got to the point he avoided showing Oceanside to recruits, “and nine out of 10 times we got away with it,” he says.

Before the team’s first varsity season, ASU spent $250,000 to build locker rooms that met NCAA standards, but Oceanside remained a sub-standard facility in all other ways.

Dylan Hollman, who transferred to ASU from UMass-Lowell for its first NCAA season in 2015-16, when it played a hybrid schedule of club, D-3 and D-1 teams, says it was “embarrassing” to call Oceanside home. But the fledgling program offered something else to its players – an esprit de corps and sense of destiny. “There wasn’t any confusion about what we were signing up for,” Hollman, now in his second year at the University of Alberta Medical School, says.

More taxing than the moldering arena was the team’s travel schedule, which was near-constant and onerously far-flung, a side effect of ASU’s geographical isolation relative to other D-1 programs. In anticipation, Powers sold his share of Hanna Shea Consulting to Eggert a month after being named head coach. Rather than lightening his load, coaching hockey full-time while preparing for ASU’s first NCAA season in 2015-16 expanded it. “It was crazy,” he says. “I was working 80-hour weeks, and that was probably on the light side.”

ASU played its first two NCAA games in Alaska, winning the second affair, 2-1, against Alaska-Fairbanks. “We took the red-eye home after the game,” remembers Powers, “and [the next day] we were back on the road to Connecticut.”

Ultimately, the team played three games in three nights against three different teams. “We had to take what games we could get,” he adds. And so it went for years, a program taking shape at 30,000 feet and two or three time zones away from home.

The Sun Devils won just three games against D-1 opponents that first season, improving to 10-19-1 in 2016-17. After losing eight of their last nine games to finish 8-21-5 the following season, the team stunned college hockey by earning its way into the 16-team NCAA tournament with a 21-13-1 record in 2018-19 – a testament to Powers’ ability to game-plan and execute in lieu of star players. How improbable and disruptive was ASU’s success? Consider that traditional D-1 hockey powers Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin – which have 38 NCAA titles among them – didn’t even qualify for the tournament.

The Sun Devils were on their way to making the tournament again in 2020 when COVID-19 dropped a curtain on college sports. COVID restrictions forced it to play its entire schedule on the road against Big Ten teams last season, but the team’s disappointing 17-17-1 record was made bearable by knowing that when ASU took the ice again in Tempe, it would be in the first rink they could truly call home.

This October, the Sun Devils will play their first games in the new $115-million, 5,000-seat Mullett Arena. Named after the program’s angel donor, the multipurpose facility is so well-appointed the National Hockey League has given its blessing to the Arizona Coyotes to play there for the next four years until the presumptive completion of a new NHL arena. Both general season tickets and the 942-seat student section sold out in April for all 24 games on this season’s home schedule. ASU athletics financial manager Frank Ferrara estimates hockey will generate $2.5 million in revenue in its first season in the new building from ticket sales, luxury suites, sponsorships and advertising, immediately making it ASU’s third-largest revenue-generating sport, behind only football and men’s basketball.

Powers no longer has to share a room at Oceanside with custodial staff. The door to his roomy office at the new arena is purposely situated between the weight room and the rink. “Now, when a player walks by, I can say, ‘Hey, c’mon in, I want to show you some video,’ or just ask, ‘How’s your day going?’”

“We now can eat, sleep and work out at the place we train,” he adds. “We never had that luxury before.”

Powers, who was rewarded with a contract extension through the 2026-2027 season in July, is not alone in envisioning big things for the program. Longtime NHL star Shane Doan, who played 20 years for the Arizona Coyotes, became a booster after his son, Josh, opted to play for ASU after two years of junior hockey, a network of leagues for elite amateur players. Last year, the Coyotes used their 37th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft on the younger Doan, making him the highest drafted player ever to skate for the Sun Devils. Holder of the Sun Devils’ single-season scoring record, Josh Doan is among 15 returning players this season, including five of the top eight scorers, to go with eight freshmen and five transfers. (Drafted players remain property of their NHL club for four seasons after being drafted.)

“Now they’ll have as good a chance as anybody to play in the Frozen Four,” Shane Doan says. “That’s the goal – being one of the powerhouses in college hockey, now that they have the infrastructure.”

Sitting in his office at Sun Devil Stadium in August, waiting for the certificate of occupancy that will allow him and his team to take permanent residence in the home for ASU hockey he’s dreamed of since his days as a club goalie, Powers takes pride in the uniqueness of his alma mater’s rise in college hockey. “Absolutely, we wanted to be the domino that hopefully leads to more college hockey coming out West,” he says. “We didn’t have everything figured from day one, but now we want to take this program to heights unknown. That’s the challenge.

“We had to figure it out as we went along,” he says. “We did everything outside the box in almost every way.”

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