How ASU hockey's local recruits are part of a growing sport in the desert

The Sun Devils' Arizona natives are staying home to help grow the sport they love

Ten to 15 kids. Each with a pair of roller skates.

In the heat of Arizona, that’s all ASU hockey sophomore defenseman Connor Stuart and his friends had. Time at the rink was expensive, and frozen ponds were nonexistent.

The options are limited when you’re a hockey-obsessed 6-year-old in Arizona.

“There were a bunch of older kids who lived up the street from me in my neighborhood,” Stuart said. “I had the only flat driveway in my neighborhood, so everyone came to my house to play roller hockey.

“My parents bought me a pair of roller skates and I used my neighbors’ hand-me-downs and I just picked it up.”

Arizona is a desert state known for its cacti and 100-degree summers. Not its ice rinks and hockey pucks. 

Yet Stuart fell in love with the sport. It didn’t matter that the kids he was competing against were four years his elder, or that he was playing every day in shorts.

“Our neighborhood just adapted to the hockey culture,” Stuart said. 

In that same neighborhood was ASU junior forward Johnny Walker. In fact, Stuart remembers Walker growing up. The two even went to kindergarten together. 

For Stuart, Walker has always been the same.

“Class clown. That’s how he’s been his whole life,” Stuart said. “I’ve known him for way too long.”

But like Stuart, Walker had a burning passion for the game. 

Walker would get up at 5 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays to get an hour-long skate in before school. For the Phoenix native, time on the ice was expensive. But with his stepdad, Jim Livanavage, by his side, Walker was determined to get work done.

“I ended up doing online school so I could be able to skate more often,” Walker said.

Walker was that committed. Hockey is in his blood.

His father, Jeff, was a goalie at Boston College from 1986 to 1989. His half brother, Jake Livanavage, plays for the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes U15 team with Jim serving as an assistant coach.

Walker tried other sports, like baseball and football, but nothing ever came close to hockey.

“When I started, I fell in love with it,” Walker said.

But Stuart and Walker weren’t the only skaters picking up the puck and stick in the desert. Along with Jaxon Castor, a freshman goalie at St. Cloud State, and Michael Boyle, who played forward at Bentley, there have been four Division I hockey players within the same mile and a half radius of each other.

“I worked out with Castor a bunch. That was my guy,” Stuart said. “He and I did everything together.”

From the Toronto Maple Leafs' star forward and Arizona native Auston Matthews to forward Sean Couturier, a leading scorer of the Philadelphia Flyers and a Phoenix native, the sport of hockey is growing across the state and producing players who reach the highest levels.

Shane Doan, the legendary Arizona Coyotes forward who retired in 2017, has a large part to do with that growth.

“He’s a big one,” Walker said. “He was a real honest worker and someone I tried to model after.”

Stuart echoes Walker's feelings, saying Doan was someone he admired and saw as his favorite player when growing up. 

“My brother was fortunate enough to have him coach him with his son a little bit as well," Stuart said. "So, I’ve gotten to know him more on a personal level.

“He’s just everything that you would expect him to be. He’s just the greatest guy you can think of.”

Now, like Doan was to them, ASU hockey, and especially its native players, holds a unique torch in helping grow the sport in the Grand Canyon state. 

“I think that’s why I came back,” ASU sophomore forward Demetrios Koumontzis said. “It’s to help build this program and to help build that hockey market here in Arizona.”

When ASU announced that its hockey team would be elevated to Division I in 2015, Walker made his mind up on where to continue his career.

“As soon as they announced that they were going to have a Division I team, everything else was out of the question,” Walker said. “I wanted to come and build something here in my hometown.”

And after a historic appearance in the NCAA tournament in just their third full season of Division I hockey, a second straight year in the field of 16 would only aid that progress.

“I think it’s pretty important trying to establish yourself as a hockey school and I think we’re doing that now,” Walker said. “I don’t think an appearance is enough anymore. We’re looking for more.”


Reach the reporter at kbriley@asu.edu and on Twitter @KokiRiley.

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