(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
Opening day. A chance for fans and us media-types to get a look at what our teams have been up to all offseason, the first look at how a team has changed for better or for worse. Unless the opening day you’re talking about is ASU hockey’s opener against Arizona, of course.
Unsurprisingly, ASU hockey took care of business in their opener against the ACHA-level UA at Gila River Arena. This year’s team — featuring a radically different roster from last year — did exactly what every post-Colin Hekle Sun Devil team has done: manhandled mediocre ACHA opposition.
Maybe things were a little smoother around the edges this time. Maybe with this roster strength, coach Greg Powers would be 41-0 against UA instead of 40-1. Despite whatever microscopic conclusions or sweeping overreactions I could make (definitely was willing to argue that Garrett Peterson is the greatest player to ever wear the maroon and gold after 10 minutes of action on Saturday), it really was business as usual.
“That was a game very similar to what we have gone through for years, where we have more talent and got to have a killer instinct and step on their throat when they’re down,” Powers said.
So we really won’t learn anything about this Sun Devil hockey team until we see them in action against NCAA opponents in Alaska. But my mother would be disappointed if I said I didn’t learn anything on Saturday, so let’s look elsewhere. In this case, it’s about the folks who paid their hard-earned money to see a good game of hockey (or their $150 athletics fee for “free” student sections) — the fans.
Fans didn’t get a good game of hockey – they got a blowout – but that’s OK. What happened in the West Valley on Saturday night was less of a game and more of an event – a pep rally, a season-opening banquet, a fan day. And that’s OK too.
It might be a minor overstatement to say that the lower bowl at Gila River was packed, but the sizable 5,385 in attendance played their role. The maroon-and-gold faithful (and a few folks wearing Wildcat red and blue) yelled, cheered and chanted like fans of a D1 hockey team are supposed to.
There was a pretty unique atmosphere to this event. Yes, there was a generic ASU rah-rah to it, but it still felt like a hockey crowd. Honestly, it felt like an ACHA ASU vs UA game in all the best ways. Instead of a few hundred dedicated hockey fans and Wildcat haters packing Oceanside, it was a few thousand packing Gila River Arena.
I can’t say I’m surprised that the folks in the stands were able to rise to the occasion. While Sun Devil hockey fans certainly had a bigger test than their team, it wasn’t exactly a tough game to get excited about.
It was the first game in D1 program history. It was against a hated rival. It was in a professional arena. There was both a marching band and Sun Devil Madness; both loud, obnoxious and beloved.
Like many in college sports, the fans had a cupcake in their first game. Still, they proved something important: There are enough people willing to buy a gold sweater and drive to the West Valley to make this work.
While it’s tragic that it takes, say, a 15-0 start for a team like ASU volleyball to get fan support, the program will go on with just a few people in attendance at Wells Fargo Arena. The same really cannot be said for this brand new hockey program – it would be embarrassing for the university if its newest plaything goes the way of the dinosaurs, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility in the next decade.
The relatively small donation that started the move to the NCAA has some consequences. It’s impressive that ASU was able to launch a hockey program for $70 million less than Penn State did 5 years ago, but that smaller figure also means some instability.
Playing NCAA games on the road and at Gila River works this year, because the team is playing a hybrid ACHA/NCAA schedule. If the future doesn’t hold NCAA teams playing at Oceanside Ice Arena (despite some renovations, it probably doesn’t), there’ll have to be some work done to find ASU hockey a permanent home. Works that costs money and needs fan support.
So ASU hockey fans have established a workable baseline – if people keep caring as much as they care right now, this program should thrive. But it’ll get harder before it gets any better. Before a permanent home is found for this team, fans will have to show the same support shown on Saturday at Oceanside. And in non-rivalry matchups. And deep into the season. And during losses.
Still, Saturday was a success. Nicely done, fanbase. Keep it up. No pressure — it’s just the future of the program you root for on the line.