For ASU hockey, it's a national championship or bust: Part I

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- The stage was set. It couldn’t have been laid out any better.

Two months later, it is still hard to imagine it ending any worse.

Arizona State had reached the ACHA Final Four for the first time in program history. After top-seeded Adrian fell in the prior round, the Sun Devils were the highest remaining seed among the semifinalists, and ninth-seeded Lindenwood was all that stood between ASU and the national championship game. 

Then it all came crashing down.

The Lions stunned the Sun Devils by opening up a 4-1 lead after the first period. It was a deficit from which ASU would not recover, ultimately ending their season with a 6-4 loss.

“I felt we should have won,” ASU head coach Greg Powers said about the loss. “I thought we outplayed them. We almost doubled them up in shots, but we dug ourselves a bit of a hole and they got hot for a couple of minutes.”

In that brief span, the greatest season in Sun Devil hockey history came to a painful end. Those Lindenwood goals closed a season that saw ASU reach heights never before seen in the desert. It was those successes that gave Powers a mixed feeling as the season’s final seconds ticked off the clock.

“It was bittersweet,” said Powers. “Immediately, Coach (Adam) Blossey and I looked at each other before we even stepped onto the ice, and it was like ‘Wow. What a great season.’”

By any subjective or objective measure, Powers is correct. The 2012-2013 season was a great season for his Sun Devils, filled with achievements that five years ago would have seemed folly to imagine. Despite the premature ending, he not only considers the year to be a triumph, but also views it as a springboard towards the future.

“It was a success. Most wins ever, we beat an NCAA Division I team, we went undefeated against U of A again, we made the Final Four,” said Powers. “It was a benchmark season. I think we’re at the point now where anything short of a championship will not be a success. We could probably get away with that for probably one more year. I think we had the best team in the country last year from a talent standpoint, bar none. But we went into Nationals a shorthanded from an injury standpoint, and that hurt us. We’ve just focused on getting deeper, so that when we do suffer some injuries, depth will never be an issue again.”

During his tenure, Powers has shown that he is not the type of leader who will dwell on a moment—positive or negative—preferring to keep his team’s focus and momentum moving forward. Even the greatest season the program has ever seen only got a 60 minute memorial.

“Probably an hour,” Powers said of the length of time from the Lindenwood loss before he shifted his focus towards the next season. “It never stops. It can’t ever stop. You can always get better. A lot of the kids you see commit and sign with us were already in the fold before last season ended. It’s always looking forward to the next thing. Not getting lost in the moment. The goal is to go undefeated and win a championship.”

With Powers behind the bench, that goal is more attainable than ever before.

During his playing career at ASU, Powers was a three-time ACHA All-American goaltender, and still hold all of the school’s major goaltending records. However, team success did not reach an elite level. Following his playing days, Powers joined the Sun Devil staff as an assistant coach, and began the arduous process of building a perennial contender.
Over the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 seasons, the Sun Devils managed just 25 total wins. However, the hard work began paying dividends the following year, when, with Powers as the top assistant, ASU improved to a program-best 26 wins. Powers would then assume the head coaching job beginning in 2010, and not conicidently, the drive from “good” to “great” truly took off.
Over his three seasons as head coach, Powers has led ASU to a 91-20-8 record and a spot in the ACHA National Tournament every year. The key to this remarkable turnaround is basic, but that by no means makes it easy.
“It’s been a focus on recruiting and changing the program around to make it player-centric,” Powers said. “What will draw top players here? What do top players want? How do they want to be treated? What kind of schedule do they want to play? It’s been an overall scope of work. The one common piece is that you can never stop recruiting. That’s true of all college sports. The most successful programs are able to get the best players. That’s been my focus: Getting the best possible talent through the door as we can.”
What makes the recruiting success all the more remarkable is the ability of Powers and his staff to pluck players away from traditional hockey hotbeds in the United States and Canada and bring them to the desert. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Powers has even turned players away from NCAA scholarships to come to sunny ASU.
“It’s just selling the experience. I’m an ASU alum. I believe in the culture at ASU. I believe in the education. I believe in the life experience,” said Powers. “The campus is unique. The uniqueness of going to a school like ASU and being able to play high-level college hockey and contend for a championship, there’s just no other option out there. We’re the most unique, in my opinion, option for a college hockey player. It’s just reaching out, talking to kids, and presenting the situation. Everyone that plays for us is looking for more than just hockey. They want the experience that ASU gives, and we want our kids to experience ASU for all it has to offer. 
“Along the way, let’s win some championships.”
Check back on tomorrow for part two of this feature