Arizona State University will become the 60th Division I hockey school, starting in the 2016-17 season, the school announced in a press conference Tuesday.
One of the most successful club teams in the nation, the Sun Devils will become the first Pac-12 school and the first school in the Southwestern United States to house a Division I hockey program. ASU won its first American Collegiate Hockey Association national championship in 2013-14, going 38-2-0.
"When I heard the news, I just thought that is a really cool thing," said Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who spent the past decade in the front office of the Arizona Coyotes before joining the Flames this summer.
"When the Coyotes first arrived in the desert there was one or two rinks. Now there are seven or eight in the greater Phoenix area. It goes without saying that you are breeding not only your next wave of fans, but future players."
-- Arizona Coyotes GM Don Maloney
According to the school, the elevation of the program was made possible by hockey supporters, including Don Mullett, the father of former Sun Devil hockey student-athlete Chris Mullett, who came together to donate $32 million.
"Head coach Greg Powers has built a powerhouse ice hockey program here in Tempe, and because of his work it was probably a matter not of 'if' but 'when' Sun Devil Hockey would be ready to compete at the highest level," ASU Vice President of University Athletics Ray Anderson said. "I am grateful for the generosity shown by our hockey supporters to make this move possible, and I am hopeful that more members of the extended Sun Devils Athletics family will help us grow this program for the future."
The announcement by ASU continues the growth of the college game, as seen in the recent elevation of Penn State University's program to varsity status, but it also underscores the growth the game has experienced throughout Arizona since the Coyotes arrived in the Phoenix market in 1996.
"When the Coyotes first arrived in the desert there was one or two rinks," said Don Maloney, Arizona's general manager since 2007. "Now there are seven or eight in the greater Phoenix area. It goes without saying that you are breeding not only your next wave of fans, but future players."
The growth of hockey in Arizona has been highlighted by several high-profile prospects coming from the state. Auston Matthews, who plays for the United States National Team Development Program and could be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, is a Scottsdale product. Henrik Samuelsson and Brendan Burke, both draft picks of the Coyotes, are sons of former NHL players and played much of their formative hockey in Arizona.
"There's a lot of ex-players around, interested in hockey, coaching their kids," said Maloney, noting how large the NHL alumni base is in the Arizona area. "There's a ton of ex-players that have their kids growing up here, and that just increases the quality of play.
"People don't understand, you may not have the numbers that you have in a cold-weather city, but the quality of play and the number of top-level players is growing exponentially and this announcement is only going to help that."
Arizona State will begin play in Division I -- which produces 31 percent of all NHL players and leads NCAA men's sports with a 92.1 percent graduation rate -- through a three-year hybrid phase. Beginning in 2015, the Sun Devils will play a mixture of both Division I and ACHA opponents. The following season, ASU will make the switch to playing a full Division I schedule as an independent. In 2017, the university will align with a conference. ASU expects to release more details on this plan over the next year.
"I applaud Arizona State University for creating new opportunities for student-athletes," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. "Thanks to today's announcement, more Sun Devils will benefit from the often transformative experiences and life lessons made possible by college athletics."
With the addition of Arizona State, along with the recent addition of Penn State and the University of Connecticut joining the Hockey East conference, 75 scholarships will be added to Division I hockey over the next five years, according to the same release.
"This is a game-changing moment for the advancement of college hockey in this country," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "ASU's recognition and commitment to the game should have a significant positive impact on the continued development of hockey in the Southwestern United States and should lead the way for more schools to add NCAA Division I hockey programs in the future.
"The growing strength and availability of college hockey for young players obviously benefits the National Hockey League directly but, just as importantly, it benefits the game and everyone who plays and participates in it."
Treliving said he believes the impact will be felt almost immediately, calling the university a "community driver." He said many kids in the area grow up wanting to be a Sun Devil in the same way kids in Minnesota grow up dreaming of playing for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Now, the area's elite hockey players will have the opportunity to play college hockey as a Sun Devil.
The Arizona State roster currently lists seven players from the state of Arizona.
"Two things, just from the growth of the sport; it's very popular," Treliving said. "You are seeing more and more kids playing. I think this is only going to add to that and the profile of the sport with the notoriety that the school has. Secondarily, I think it really has an opportunity to do well. No slight on anywhere else, but if you are a young guy trying to figure out where you want to play hockey, going to school in the desert is not a bad deal. I really think it is wonderful."