ASU hockey looks to take advantage of opportunity with Big Ten in 2020-21

The Sun Devils will experience a conference-based schedule for the first time since becoming a Division I team

While the pandemic forced ASU hockey to shift the way it practices and added uncertainty to its season, the circumstances provided the team a unique opportunity it has never had since becoming a Division I team: playing a schedule within a conference.

Players and coaches on the team aim to take advantage of the contractual, season-long partnership with the Big Ten conference formed on Oct. 6 and use it to strengthen the team now and in the future.

"We believe that this was the best option presented to us to give our players a meaningful season," head coach Greg Powers said in a Zoom conference following the announcement.

ASU, who will play each team in the conference four times, is optimistic about what the opportunity presents this season.

"We are all definitely excited for the opportunity to compete against such high (caliber) hockey schools in the Big Ten," junior forward PJ Marrocco said. "Just hearing that we are going to play, it was definitely a lot of excitement to know that all the hard work is for something and it wasn’t just going to be thrown away."

Every one of ASU's 28 games will be played on the road, something that may sound like a daunting disadvantage for most teams. However, Marrocco is convinced being on the road the entire season provides a considerable upside for the team.

"When you are on the road, it’s an amazing environment for team bonding, and it’s a lot different," he said. "I think just being closer to the team and everyone getting together, I think it is going to be huge for us."

The Sun Devils have played several Big Ten schools over the past two seasons, totaling a 4-8 record against Big Ten opponents since the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

ASU senior forward Sean Dhooghe, who transferred after playing the last three seasons at Wisconsin, was not expecting to be matched up against all the same opponents this year but welcomes the challenge.

"When I did transfer, it was super early in the (pandemic)," Dhooghe said. "I knew there was a chance we were going to be playing some teams (I previously played). Arizona State usually gets one or two Big Ten matchups just being independent. But playing a full Big Ten season is not something I expected, but it's definitely something I am excited for."

Joining the Big Ten's schedule for 2020-21 also has much broader implications for ASU outside of this season. It gives Powers and the rest of the program a sneak peek into what playing a conference-based schedule could be like.

With a new stadium currently under construction, the arrival of a strong recruiting class and recent team success, the Sun Devils may soon look to join a conference full-time after playing as an independent, one of just two such teams currently in NCAA Division I men's ice hockey.

"It’s huge what this year means for the future of the program," Marrocco said. "The way the program has been going ever since I got here, we’ve made huge jumps and strides. If we have a great year this year, it’s going to open a lot of doors for our program."

The return to play — which begins as soon as Nov. 13, according to ASU's announcement — will have been a long time coming for the Sun Devils, who are all very thankful they have a season to look forward to.

"There have been programs that can’t (practice) or have been shut down, teams that still don’t know what is going to happen," Dhooghe said. "Huge kudos to our staff and our athletic director (Ray Anderson) and everyone involved in ASU of really getting that scheduling with the Big Ten and the Big Ten being proponents of trying to return to some normalcy."

After several long months, ASU's men's hockey team finally has a season ahead of them, and they will strive to continue what was left with the cancellation of last season.

"I can’t even put it into words, to be honest with you, how grateful I am that we are able to have a hockey season this year," Marrocco said. "We have a lot to prove and we are grateful that we get to play and are able to compete.

"When you are playing a sport, you’re always a competitor and you always want to play; we are all just itching for the day that we finally get to play."

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