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When the Big Ten announced a conference-only season on Oct. 6, there was a problem. With only seven teams in the conference, that meant one team would be off every weekend.

Enter Arizona State.

“Seven teams is really hard to operate with,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I don’t think any of us wanted a weekend where we weren’t playing.”

The Sun Devils became a Division I team in the 2015-2016 season and chose to play as an independent rather than join a conference. The program has already achieved success in its short history, making its first NCAA tournament in 2019. 

With all of college hockey playing conference-only schedules in order to have a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Arizona State was worried it would have to cancel its season. The team was hoping to find a conference to latch onto so they could have a shot at the tournament. 

“Once we realized that it was probably going to go to conference-only play for pretty much the entire body of college hockey, the Big Ten was a great option,” Arizona State coach Greg Powers said. 

The Wolverines have played the Sun Devils three times, winning all three of the contests. Most recently was in the 2017-2018 season when the teams played a weekend series at Yost Arena where Michigan won both games 5-3. 

But since then Arizona State has improved drastically. Even though they will be playing all of their games on the road, they are ready to put the Big Ten — and the rest of college hockey — on notice. 

“We know how challenging this is going to be playing 20 road games and no home games against really really high competition,” Powers said. “But our guys are excited for it, we think we’re up to it.”

Games against the Sun Devils will be counted as non-conference games. They won’t affect the Big Ten standings, and Arizona State will not compete in the Big Ten playoffs. Instead, it’s an opportunity for the Wolverines to see how they measure up with one of the best teams from the other side of the country. 

“They have a good team,” Pearson said. “They were gonna be in the NCAA Tournament last year, so you’re just adding another team with good skill, good players, very competitive; so it’ll only help make us better.”

The Sun Devils effectively joining conference play means there will not be any bye weeks during the season, something Pearson sees as a positive. After last season abruptly ended in March and the start of this season was delayed, the more games Michigan can play, the better — regardless of who the opponent is. 

“We’re pretty confident as a team,” freshman forward Thomas Bordeleau said. “We don’t really care who we play against, we just want to play games. We’re just so hungry to play, it’s been so long.”

There is no agreement for Arizona State to play with the Big Ten beyond this season. While the conference could benefit from having an eighth team, geographically it does not make a ton of sense to permanently add the Sun Devils to the league. However, this season may help establish Arizona State as a regular non-conference opponent in future years.

“It is nice to at least have some sort of affiliation with such a great league this season,” Powers said. “I guess we’ll see where it goes from here.”

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