Last year, I wrote about how the growth of U.S. hockey is heavily dependent on the expansion of the game through the country’s western half, with Arizona being one of the more important markets.
The benefits of the Arizona Coyotes’ relocation to Phoenix in 1996 are extremely evident. Just look up rookie points leaders for this season and you’ll find the name of a 19-year-old, No. 1 overall pick who grew up in Scottsdale.
The NHL’s expansion to the West Coast and its surrounding areas has made immeasurable contributions to the growth of USA hockey. In 2015, there were a record 50 California-born players skating for Division I NCAA schools. Not to mention the record number of players from other non-traditional hockey hotbeds such as Florida, Arizona, Texas, among others.
This trend has only continued with the rise of Arizona State receiving Division I status for men’s ice hockey for the beginning of the 2015-16 season. The Sun Devils have already hosted games in Tempe against college hockey powerhouses such as Harvard, Michigan and Northeastern to name a few.
And with the Coyotes announcing plans for a new multi-arena facility to open in conjunction with ASU, the level of interest and intrigue should look to skyrocket in the near future.
The first thing this means is that the Coyotes are likely not going anywhere for some time, which should help some Valley residents rest easy for the foreseeable future. Second, it means bigger and better things are destined for Arizona, and by extension USA, hockey.
A 16,000-seat facility for the Coyotes gives it a new-look home with a similar seating capacity and a more cordial City Council, but a new rink for the Sun Devils is a giant step forward from its current residence. It’s nothing against Oceanside Ice Arena, but a new, legitimate facility will help attract recruits as well as high-profile opponents.
In my 2015 piece, I examined how a successful ASU hockey program could have the potential to jumpstart a Pac-12 conference in college hockey. Let’s think about it for a moment. If you work in the athletic department of a school like USC or UCLA, and you see how many Californians are playing in NCAA hockey with no in-state college to skate with at the D-1 level, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Moreover, with the Sun Devils now in the picture, how would you feel seeing those players lace up for a Pac-12 rival, instead of you? Before ASU, the westernmost college hockey destination was Denver. Make no mistake: Arizona State has already changed the game.
Now let’s take it a step further. Should those schools feel inclined to inaugurate their own NCAA hockey programs, the effect it would have on amateur hockey would be immense.
Not only would it produce more talent from non-traditional hockey playing areas, but it would draw amateur players from other regions of the country. And why stop there? It could even entice more Canadian and international players to choose NCAA hockey as their path to the pros over the various Canadian Hockey League affiliates that have traditionally dominated the amateur hockey scene.
Granted, this is thinking way ahead. It’s wishful thinking.
But still, college hockey in its current state is only utilizing one section of the country. The NCAA is so dominant in its other sports because it has elite programs that span coast to coast. Why can’t college hockey do that?
For a while, the question was, “Why can’t U.S. hockey do that?” Well, it is doing that. Just look at the success of Western Conference NHL franchises, look at the 2015-16 AHL western expansion. And now, look at the Arizona Coyotes securing its footing by partnering with a collegiate program to better the future of USA hockey.
If the Coyotes grow as a franchise, it only supports the NHL’s movements to firmly plant their feet in western territory. It will grow public interest and foster homegrown talent.
The same can be said for Arizona State. A competitive image and a unique offer could lead ASU to the upper echelon of NCAA hockey. If that happens, we could be in for a college hockey western expansion.
Sure, a lot of dominoes need to fall. The Coyotes could be mediocre forever. Recruits might never take to the desert. But the announcement today keeps momentum going in favor of Arizona hockey.
The future of U.S. hockey is in the hands of the West Coast to develop and churn out talent equal to the output from the Northeast and Great Lakes/Midwest. Arizona now has a forward-thinking NHL franchise to go with a juggernaut college hockey program.
Together, they might freeze over the desert.