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How ASU men's hockey built a tournament team in the desert

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ASU goaltender Joey Daccord believes the benefits of having four weeks off (0:35)

ASU goaltender Joey Daccord believes the benefits of having four weeks off between games leading into the NCAA tournament outweigh the risks, especially when it comes to getting players healthy. (0:35)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- HANGING ABOVE A DOOR in the Arizona State men's hockey team's locker room at Oceanside Ice Arena is a clock.

It's digital and rectangular, with red numbers that count down toward zero. And every day of every week this season, it was ticking.

After the second intermission of games on Friday, Sun Devils coach Greg Powers had his equipment staff reset the clock so it'd begin counting down to Saturday's game. After the second intermission of Saturday games, the clock was reset to count down to the next week's opponent.

It was there for one reason: to keep the players focused on what's next.

Whenever they arrived at the rink, Powers collected their phones and locked them away. It didn't matter how good or how highly ranked Arizona State was this season, its fourth in Division I. The Sun Devils couldn't afford to look beyond their next game.

A loss at any point of the season could have served as a devastating blow to their NCAA tournament hopes.

"I'm not blowing smoke that that was our goal to make the NCAAs by the end of my time here," senior Dylan Hollman said. "I think that was the only tangible goal."

Powers' approach worked. ASU went 21-12-1, sweeping nine series, and became the first independent team in 27 years to make the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils will play Quinnipiac on March 30 as the third seed in the Midwest Regional in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They'll be just two wins from the Frozen Four in Buffalo, New York.

Just those words -- the Frozen Four -- seemed foreign to ASU the past four seasons.

The Sun Devils' journey to this point began in November 2014, when donors committed $32 million to create a Division I hockey program. Arizona State, which was a powerhouse club team, spent the next academic year, 2015-16, transitioning to Division I. In 2016-17, it was on its own as an independent.

The Sun Devils still had a long-term goal of making the tournament. They were realistic, though. They knew a start-up Division I program wasn't going to crash the tournament in its first couple of years.

Maybe by Year 3. Possibly by Year 4. When junior Brinson Pasichnuk was a freshman in 2016-17, his class set a goal to make the tournament by its junior year -- this year.

The Sun Devils who took a risk by joining a fledgling program were on the clock.

NO INDEPENDENT TEAM HAD made the tournament since 1992. As an independent, ASU didn't have the safety net of a conference tournament as a last-ditch opportunity to reach college hockey's big dance, so the Sun Devils couldn't set short-term goals like winning their league or winning their conference tournament.

For a program that won 18 games the past two seasons combined -- its only two seasons playing a full Division I schedule -- the tournament seemed like a far-fetched pipe dream.

"It was tough to really envision," sophomore forward Johnny Walker said.

There was no reason to believe ASU was on the verge of a 21-win season.

The team's goal for 2018-19 was to win between 15 and 18 games, senior forward Jake Clifford said. At best, be five games over .500.

As an opponent, ASU was widely considered a "layup," Powers admitted. Even other players, and sometimes the refs, let the Sun Devils know it.

"People would just talk to us so ignorantly," senior forward Anthony Croston said. "If we ever got a bad penalty, we would to talk to [the refs] or Powers would try to talk to them, they would just show us no respect. You can just tell it, they had no respect for us, like, 'These guys are just irrelevant.'"

The five seniors saw the worst of it. The juniors didn't have it much better. They lost 40 games between 2016 and 2018.

"I knew what I signed up for," Clifford said. "The thought of transferring never crossed my mind. It was very tough. Losing games is not fun and it's hard when you're losing to come to practice every day and really, as a group, maintain that positive atmosphere and having that will to come to practice and workouts and work at your very best to get better.

"When you lose, it's really easy to point fingers. I'm not saying that's what a lot of guys did, but as a group that's what you lean toward and you want to make excuses. As you got new personnel coming in, that started to change."

Before ASU transitioned to Division I, the world of college hockey was largely confined to the Northeast, Midwest and Colorado. Of the 59 other Division I teams, only Alabama-Huntsville is located outside that footprint. The Sun Devils are the new kids on the block.

THIS TEAM IS POWERS' CLOSEST Division I team, he said, and reminds him of the ASU club team that won a national title in 2014. He requires all his upperclassmen to live together and this season, more than others, Powers has noticed his seniors and freshmen growing closer than in the past.

But when Powers began building the Division I program, he was forced to make some tough, program-defining decisions in the early days. He had to whittle down 16 club players to make room for incoming recruiting classes. To this day, that's still Powers' top regret.

By cutting those players, however, he was able to recruit the team he has now.

His pitch was simple: Come play Division I hockey in sunshine.

A little more than three years ago, goalie Joey Daccord was driving home from a hockey tournament in rural Massachusetts with his father, Brian, a goaltending consultant for the Toronto Maple Leafs, behind the wheel, trying to navigate the blizzard surrounding them.

It was January 2016, and Daccord was a senior at Cushing Academy. He was being recruited by some of the traditional New England hockey powers. Then his phone rang. It was Powers.

"Hey, Joey, I'm calling you from sunny Arizona," Powers started the call.

But Powers wasn't in Arizona. He was calling Daccord, a highly touted goaltender at a New England prep powerhouse, from outside a Chili's in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was on another recruiting trip. Back then, with ASU's hockey program in its infancy, Powers made a first recruiting call to anyone and everyone. His very first call after passing his recruiting exam was to a young Arizona hockey player named Auston Matthews.

"There was nobody who was off the table," Powers said. "I wasn't shy about shooting for the stars."

Powers pitched the idea of getting in at the ground floor of a program, starting a tradition, developing a culture. He invited Daccord to visit the campus. Looking at the snow in front of him, Daccord was intrigued. The idea of going to school and, most importantly, the rink in shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops was almost too good to be true, especially at that moment.

When he visited Tempe, Arizona, between the coaches, the school and the weather, Daccord was sold.

But what most struck Daccord was the opportunity to help start a tradition.

He, like many of the Sun Devils' other recruits over the past three years, embraced the opportunity to build a program.

"Coming here, there was no culture because we're a new program," Hollman said. "It's definitely a different dynamic, but I knew we were trying to work toward something like that. So, it's kind of cool where we were trying to get and then start from scratch."

The idea of creating a legacy, of building a culture, of starting a program at a place where ice -- outside of indoor rinks -- doesn't exist, was worth more to a group of young men than donning the sweater of one of college hockey's blue bloods.

EVEN THEN, ASU WASN'T AN ATTRACTIVE OPTION to many in its first year or two after joining Division I.

"It was hard," Powers said. "And there were a lot of short conversations when we started that recruiting process without anything on the schedule."

But even when they were still losing, the Sun Devils started getting players who wanted to start a culture, begin traditions and define a program. In the process, they were turning down some of college hockey's blue bloods.

When Pasichnuk committed to ASU with his brother, Steenn, without even seeing the campus, the pushback from those close to him came fast.

"Everyone would always ask me, 'Yeah, Arizona State's awesome but are you giving up on your hockey career? Why are you going there?'" Pasichnuk remembered. "It's funny how no one's asking me that anymore. We're ranked 10th in the country and now they're all, like, definitely jealous."

In the early days of the program, however, some NHL teams weren't keen on their draft picks going to ASU because they felt the program wasn't going to develop them enough.

Pasichnuk, who was ranked 115th in juniors, had four teams interested in drafting him. When he decommitted from Vermont and signed with ASU, all four told him they weren't drafting him anymore.

There's also the flip side of that.

The Ottawa Senators, who drafted Daccord in the seventh round, loved the idea of him going to a program that would put him in net and help him get experience. Daccord believes he saw 40 shots a game early in his ASU career, more than double what he thinks he'd have faced at any other school -- if he even played.

But it's still a stigma that sticks with Powers. He knows that until ASU produces an NHL player, there'll always be a concern that the Sun Devils can't produce professional talent. He tried to quell some of the concerns by hiring Alex Hicks, who played seven seasons in the NHL, as an assistant coach.

Powers also tries to reassure recruits who have concerns by telling them that NHL scouts would rather visit Tempe in the winter than Canada.

Over the past two years, Powers has brought in program-changing recruiting classes.

Austin Lemieux, the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, picked ASU because it was an up-and-coming program and he saw the potential.

"It's surprising how good we became in just three short years," he said. "You couldn't ask for a better spot to play hockey when you grew up in Pennsylvania."

But it's this season's freshman class, headlined by 18-year-old Demetrios Koumontzis, that helped shift the program. Koumontzis heard all the standard lines about ASU: He was going to lose, why not go to a school that will guarantee a top-10 team. But the idea of playing for a new program was intriguing.

Powers likes to pose this question to his recruits: Would they rather their photo be on a wall of NHL players, or would they rather the wall be named after them?

"A lot of us want to be the guys that built this from the ground up," Koumontzis said.

"Everyone would always ask me, 'Yeah, Arizona State's awesome but are you giving up on your hockey career? Why are you going there?' It's funny how no one's asking me that anymore. We're ranked 10th in the country and now they're all, like, definitely jealous."
Arizona State junior Brinson Pasichnuk

The country is taking notice.

"I think it's great for college hockey in general," Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. "Certainly, we would all like to see this sport continue to expand, and I think that's the most important thing. If it can happen there, could it happen out west even farther?"

FIRST, THOUGH, IS THIS YEAR'S TRIP to the tournament, which slowly came into focus about five weeks into the season.

The turning point for the program happened last January, when ASU won the 2018 Ice Vegas Invitational. The Sun Devils had four wins at that point but none had come back-to-back. Then ASU beat Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech to win the tournament. On paper it gave the team wins Nos. 5 and 6 for the season, but it also injected an air of confidence into a program that was never sure of itself.

And even though the Sun Devils won just two more games the rest of the season, just knowing they could beat teams of that caliber was enough.

That led to this season. Training camp "just felt different," Pasichnuk said. After two losing seasons against a full slate of Division I teams, mostly on the road, this season's edition of Sun Devils hockey tried to redefine itself.

"We'd say, 'We're nasty,' like, questioning it, like, 'We're nasty?' Or like, 'Are we actually nasty?'" Walker said. "Like, what are we? And then five, six games in, then it turned into, 'We're nasty. We're actually nasty.'"

A hot start set the pace. ASU started 6-2 before splitting a series at No. 6 Penn State. Two more wins over Michigan State led to ASU's first-ever ranking, No. 18 in the USCHO coaches' poll -- and put it on the path toward the NCAA tournament.

When the Sun Devils take the ice in Allentown on Saturday night, they'll have gone four weeks between games. How they'll perform is anybody's guess, but during an impromptu team meeting while the guys were hanging out during spring break earlier this month, the Sun Devils looked at what was in front of them, looked back at what they had gone through and decided there was only one way to handle the next few weeks.

Dry, of course.

"Everyone's bought in," Walker said. "There was no argument. Get to bed early. No booze. No, none of this.

"You're here to be a hockey player. You don't come here to party and booze. You come here to win hockey games."