Shortly after Arizona State transitioned from club to Division I status in 2015, the Sun Devils applied for membership to the WCHA. Although their entry was tabled, league commissioner Bill Robertson kept the communications lines wide open between his office and Tempe. A forward thinker throughout his career in hockey, the man known as “Billy Rob” knew that ASU represented a vital gateway to the West.
“I believe there will be a large growth over time in the western part of the United States,” said Robertson, “and I want the WCHA at the forefront.”
As the Sun Devil hockey program made rapid strides toward DI respectability — including a berth in the 2019 NCAA tournament — they realized that hosting games in Tempe with their own collection of local referees might raise a red flag in their quest for legitimacy.
“We don’t want anyone to think this is the wild, wild west,” said ASU coach Greg Powers. “The last thing we wanted was visiting teams not being comfortable with how officials were selected.”
Commissioner Robertson and his chief of officials Greg Shepherd had been laying the groundwork to assist with ASU’s officiating since the Sun Devils applied for WCHA membership. Shepherd recalls one of many conversations he had with Robertson on the topic of ASU officiating.
“Bill, why don’t you ask them if they want our officials to do their games,” Shepherd said. “When the [ASU visiting] teams come in, they know who our referees are, they know we’ve been through an NCAA clinic, they’ve taken NCAA tests.”
“So I sent a note to Frank Ferrara (ASU Associate A.D.) and to Greg Powers,” said Billy Rob, putting the wheels in motion.
The last series of games ASU played under their old system of local referees was a two-game set against Omaha late last October. The cumulative power plays were 16-3 in favor of the hometown Sun Devils.
This was the breaking point for ASU coach Greg Powers, who didn’t want officiating controversies to take away from what could be a historic season.
“We approached [the WCHA] and said, ‘We’ve got to go third party,’” Powers said. “We want to be held to the same standards — on a level playing field — as it pertains to the rules.”
The ASU administration agreed.
“The last thing we wanted to do was make the officiating part of the story,” said Ferrara, who knew that the Sun Devils had the makings of a national tournament team. “Listen, we want to be accountable just like every else is. We were not subject to any supplemental discipline. We thought it would be the best approach to make sure that everyone that came to play here, at Arizona State, was treated fairly.”
And as is typical of Billy Rob, he went beyond the call.
“We’re providing the on-ice referees, supplemental discipline, and guidance on NCAA interpretations,” he said.
So when the occasional major and match penalties arise, there is a process in which justice is meted out, even though ASU remains an NCAA independent.
“I send video clips to the other league supervisors,” said WCHA officiating honcho Shepherd. “We get their feedback, talk to commissioner Robertson, and say, ‘This is what I’ve come up with.’ I talk to the coach and then move on.”
For coach Powers, it brings stability and legitimacy to a program that stunned the college hockey community by qualifying for the NCAA tournament in its third season of Division I play. He is grateful to the man who is known for going the extra mile.
“He’s a good man and he’s taken great care of us,” said Powers. “Us being without a commissioner, certainly having that relationship with Billy has been a big plus.”
From Robertson’s standpoint, he’s eager to help hockey gain a foothold west of the Mississippi.
“I told them I would help them in any way as they continue to grow their sport,” Billy Rob said. “Not now, but they would eventually like to host NCAA regionals and a Frozen Four in their market.”
- The rich get richer in the WCHA, as the consensus No. 1 team Minnesota State also has the top newcomer in Nathan Smith, according to both the coaches and the media. Smith has a new-age American hockey bio, hailing from Tampa and learning the game on rollerblades. The 6-foot center racked up a combined 100 points over the last two seasons in the USHL and is known for his offensive creativity. His biggest challenge might be finding ice time in a very crowded room in Mankato.
- Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan said that he needed more size on his backline, so he picked up 6-5 freshman Brendan Datema. With 60 points and 88 PIMs in the NAHL last season, he should make an impact for the Huskies. Shawhan also found a 6-5, 227-pound winger in David Raisanen, two seasons after retiring from hockey. “I wouldn’t say he fell in our lap,” Shawhan said. “But he fell in our lap.”
- Northern Michigan has an enormous hole to fill in goal after the departure of Atte Tolvananen, and coach Grant Potulny is leaving no stone unturned. Connor Ryckman, the undefeated stalwart of Division III national champions Wisconsin Stevens-Point, is in Marquette seeking to win the job between the pipes for Potulny. “He’s never lost a game — to be determined how that will transfer to the Division I level.”
- Go-to web resource Elite Prospects lists Michigan Tech transfer sniper Gavin Gould as playing with Bowling Green this season. But according to Falcon coach Ty Eigner, that will be up to the NCAA. “We’re in the process of getting his information together, and we’ll present that to the NCAA shortly.”
- The biggest discrepancy between the WCHA coaches poll and the media poll is that Bemidji was projected to have home ice in the playoffs (third) by the coaches, and not the media (fifth). Both polls had Lake Superior, with 23 wins last season, finishing sixth in the WCHA regular season.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.