NEWARK, Del.— From little league on up to the big leagues, Arizona has long been a baseball state.
ASU and UA have each won multiple national championships, the Arizona Diamondbacks have the state’s only professional sports title and other MLB teams have had spring training in Arizona for almost 100 years.
But baseball isn’t the only sport in Arizona. Hockey is growing, and growing fast.
The ASU hockey team doesn’t have the history of the baseball team or the popularity of the football team, but it is quickly becoming an ASU athletic superpower, and that rise in popularity is helping the sport as a whole in Arizona.
ASU freshman defenseman Drew Newmeyer grew up in Scottsdale and went to Chaparral High School. He’s played hockey his whole life and left high school midway through his senior year to play junior hockey in Indiana before returning to the desert for college.
“Over the years, (hockey) has been getting bigger and bigger, and I think if we were able to pull something like that off, it would be that much more of a big difference about kids trying to get into hockey,” Newmeyer said.
Newmeyer credited one big reason why hockey is growing.
“The Phoenix Coyotes have definitely shown a lot of people what the sport is all about,” Newmeyer said. “I know a lot of kids my age were growing up right when they were just getting here, so I think going and seeing a professional team and being exposed to the game helped it grow.”
The then-Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996, when Newmeyer was two years old. He grew up with an NHL team in his home state.
But the Coyotes have gone through a period of instability in recent years, and it was unclear if the team would stay in the Valley. A lack of ownership almost relocated the team on more than on occasion, but last season an ownership group stepped forward and promised to keep the team in Glendale.
Junior defenseman Jordan Young agrees that having an NHL team in the region helps, in more ways than one.
“I think it’s a combo of the Coyotes doing a little better and also just having more talent come to the Valley,” Young said. “We get a lot of retired NHL players that live down there and their kids are obviously pretty good players. Once players go away to play college, then their friends get in the game and hear a little bit about it.”
Young grew up in Cave Creek and went to Cactus Shadows High School. He spent three years playing junior hockey after high school, one in Washington and two in Ohio.
But as far as college goes, he said he was always a big ASU fan, and when he found out the Sun Devils had a good team, it was a no-brainer.
“I love Arizona too much not to live here,” Young said. “It makes you proud to see seeing that still-growing sport in the desert. It kind of feels good where you can keep playing where you love to live.”
ASU’s hockey program is also doing its part to bring in more fans. The Sun Devils beat Penn State, an NCAA Division I team last year, as well as making a tournament run last season and are the top seed in this year’s tournament.
“I think ASU hockey is something that kids growing up in Phoenix should really pay attention to,” Newmeyer said. “I think kids need to know it’s a great opportunity to go to Arizona State to play good hockey.”
Freshman defenseman Jarrod Levos brought up another reason to stay in Arizona to play: money.
There just aren’t that many hockey scholarships in the US. According to sportsscholarship.com, there were only 1,044 last year. So most college hockey players have to pay tuition. The Arizona-born ASU players get to pay in-state tuition.
Levos was born in Chandler and has spent most of his hockey-playing career in Arizona. He even played at Oceanside Ice Arena, his current home as a Sun Devil, when he was with the Phoenix Firebirds of the Desert Youth Hockey Association.
He left to play in Vermont and Texas, then returned to Arizona and joined the Phoenix Knights of the Western States Hockey League.
Levos said he always knew he wanted to play at ASU.
“That was one of my top choices, because I grew up here, I grew up playing here,” Levos said. “It’s kind of a bigger deal.”
Young agreed that the ASU team is gaining in popularity.
“We’re such a big school so everyone kind of knows about us,” Young said. “I think us doing well definitely helps everybody get involved and another reason to cheer on Arizona State.”
As Young said, with more than 75,000 enrolled students, ASU is a nationally well-known school. But its hockey program is not. Levos said he did not know ASU had a good hockey team until he talked with a friend, former ASU assistant captain and Ahwatukee native Brian Parson, who recruited him to ASU.
Levos said this year’s squad is trying to change that perception.
“A lot of people don’t know about us yet, but if we make some moves and win a championship, I think we’ll open some eyes,” Levos said.
Arizona isn’t a typical hockey market. ASU isn’t known for being a hockey school. But it was still able to lure in home-grown talent like Newmeyer, Young, Levos, senior defenseman Brett Prechel (Phoenix) and senior forward Danny McAuliffe (Phoenix).
All five were born in Arizona, and all five are in Delaware, intent on bringing a national championship back to the Grand Canyon State.
And with it, more respect for hockey in the desert.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @J15Emerson
Correction: Because of a source error, a previous version of the story misidentified Lucas Felbel’s hometown.