Last weekend, Ohio State hockey fans watched the Buckeyes skate against the No. 2 Penn State Nittany Lions, a team in college hockey’s national scope less than five seasons as an NCAA Division I program.
The Nittany Lions dropped to No. 4 this week after a weekend split with OSU.
This Friday, the No. 10 Buckeyes (10-4-4, 2-2 Big Ten) welcome another one of college hockey’s newcomers in Arizona State (7-16-1), currently in its second year of Division I status.
The Sun Devils were created in part because of the work of ASU beat reporter Justin Emerson. He had a conversation with ASU Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson in July 2014 about the obstacles facing the team if it wanted to move to Division I, following its club-level national championship just a few months prior, according to an article published by Sports Illustrated.
All the program needed was money, somewhere between $30 million and $40 million.
A donor group, headed by Don Mullett, a Wisconsin-based businessman and the father of an Arizona State hockey player, was quickly formed after the publication of Emerson’s chat with Anderson. That group pledged $32 million to the program.
In their first season, the Sun Devils went 10-23-5, playing a schedule comprised of club teams, a Canadian opponent in the University of Alberta, Division III teams and Division I teams.
This year, outside of Division III Southern New Hampshire and Canadian opponent Simon Fraser, Arizona State has a loaded Division I schedule. The Sun Devils have already played current top-20 opponents in No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 2 Harvard, No. 8 Boston College, No. 4 Penn State and No. 1 Denver. Arizona State has the luxury of comprising a difficult schedule being an independent program and not a member of a conference.
Arizona State went a combined 0-9 against those teams, not to mention they face another top-20 adversary in OSU this weekend, No. 15 Quinnipiac and No. 14 Western Michigan before the season is over.
Starting up a Division I program is not the easiest thing to do. Just ask OSU head coach Steve Rohlik, who was behind the bench when Nebraska-Omaha launched their Division I program in 1997.
Teams around the nation stepped up and scheduled Omaha at the time, which made it a no-brainer for Rohlik to return the favor this season.
“I think it’s good for college hockey,” Rohlik said. “I think the exposure to have them all over the country is good for everybody.”
It could be a pipe dream, but a prominent ASU program could also be the first domino towards Pac-12 hockey.
“They’re the face of expansion. Everybody is watching them. It could be the door to out west. I think all of us in college hockey are hoping for their success because we’d love to see this game grow,” Rohlik said.
“I truly believe there are some schools out west that are watching to see what happens here. It’s viable that it could happen. I’d love to see something like that happen.”
For OSU sophomore forward Mason Jobst, the feeling of college hockey adding a presence in the desert is an exciting one.
“Any time you can add a well-known college like Arizona State, it’s a big step for (college hockey).” Jobst said.
The Buckeyes, a bit shorthanded last weekend against Penn State, have a strong chance at getting the services of freshman phenom Tanner Laczynski back on Friday, fresh off winning a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Montreal.
He and his teammates expect the effort of a program trying to get a statement win.
“I’m not familiar with the team, but I know that they’re going to come ready to work,” Laczynski said. “They’re going to try to come in here and beat us just like everyone else. This is a big game for them, they’re going to be ready to play and we can’t take them lightly.”
Puck drop between the Buckeyes and the Sun Devils is set for 7 p.m. on Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Schottenstein Center.