ASU hockey placing emphasis on academics despite months-long travel

The team averaged a 3.48 cumulative GPA last semester, the highest in program history

ASU men's hockey is doing what no other NCAA ice hockey program has done before: They are playing a 28-game schedule entirely on the road, spanning from the middle of November through the beginning of March. 

The team also travels thousands of miles across the Midwest while managing practice, training, and more importantly, their schoolwork; so much so, that the team recorded its highest cumulative GPA in program history in the fall semester โ€” 3.48 โ€” while spending 36 consecutive days on a 12-game road trip across five different states.

Junior forward PJ Marrocco, majoring in finance, has said the team's bubble environment helped him focus more on his education despite the fact it was all virtual.

"Honestly the online schooling really does suck," Marrocco said. "But when you look back at it, with us traveling all year, being on the road and being in the hotel room, having that online (coursework) through Zoom has really helped everyone on the team stay with it."

Freshman forward Benji Eckerle is in the same boat. As one of six members of the freshman class, he has yet to experience a normal college class or a normal college hockey game.

After graduating from high school in 2017, Eckerle took a few online community college classes while in junior hockey but was really introduced to college academic life last semester as a psychology major.

"You're learning and they are teaching it to you as best as the (professors) can in the situation," Eckerle said. "I think staying engaged and making sure you are getting all of your work done is so much on you."

Though his first experience with college life is not ideal, Eckerle is glad to be playing hockey with the team this season.

"We are still having a lot of fun and am enjoying every single game and every single moment that we have on the road together," Eckerle said. 

According to an NCAA report published last November, Division I men's college hockey produced a 93.3% graduation success rate in 2020, the third-highest percentage among any men's Division I sport. Division I women's ice hockey produced a 100% rate last year, the only sport in Division I โ€” men's or women's โ€” to accomplish the feat.

ASU has helped raise the men's hockey statistic since its rise to Division I status. Brinson and Steenn Pasichnuk, Brett Gruber, Tyler Busch and graduate student Max Prawdzik all graduated with at least one degree last May.

Head coach Greg Powers said it was "no surprise" the students performed well academically, saying the players understand how important education is.

"We've always been a high-achieving academic program," Powers said. "We try to bring in good students, because generally, if you are focused on life and you have your affairs in order away from the rink, you can focus when you are at the rink."

Away from the rink, though, ASU has predominantly been confined to hotels in a similar but nomadic bubble seen in the NBA or NHL this past season.

Marrocco and his teammates have found other things to do to pass the time in between studying, practicing and traveling, such as playing video games and watching movies. 

At the same time, the bubble environment has been tough on players mentally.

"Being in the bubble, it's a mental grind," Marrocco said. "Just the mental aspect of it, it's definitely a lot harder than any other year."

With 10 games left in the 2020-21 regular season, ASU's players are looking to maximize their opportunities on the ice and in the classroom, even if their learning is virtual.

"(Graduating with a degree) is huge," Eckerle said. "That's a big reason I wanted to play college hockey but the other reason is that you're set up for the rest of your life. It's not just a 'go play hockey' and be done and figure out what to do with your life, you're progressing your hockey career and the rest of your life at the same time."


Reach the reporter at aklatsky@asu.edu and follow @averyklatsky on Twitter. 

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