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How a reporter played key role in Arizona St. hockey's move to D-I

House of Sparky beat writer Justin Emerson explains his role in Arizona State's national club championship ice hockey team moving to NCAA Division I status.

I was on my computer live-tweeting an Arizona State men’s hockey press conference when my Twitter notifications exploded. People were actually thanking me for helping the Sun Devils make the jump to Division I. I was floored.

While covering Arizona State the last three years, I’ve attended my fair share of press conferences. But this one, on Nov. 18, 2014, was different. In addition to announcing the elevation of ASU’s club hockey team to the NCAA Division I ranks, school officials were singling me out for making it happen.

That morning I had received a curious call from Sun Devils’ coach Greg Powers. He and other athletic department officials wanted to make sure that I would be at the press conference. I had no idea that I was about to not only attend the press conference, but also be a key player in it.

But let’s backtrack …

It all started on July 14, when I walked into ASU athletic director Ray Anderson’s office. The Sun Devils had just won the men’s club-level national championship and I wanted to ask Anderson what challenges the team would face if it made the jump to Division I. I expected a convoluted answer with many complicated reasons for why ASU wasn’t prepared to field a Division I hockey team. I was fine with that. I wasn’t advocating for the move, I was merely looking for an answer to a question that many others had been asking.

But instead of a filibuster, I got a straight answer. Anderson said that all the team needed was money. He said it so casually, I believed it without question. I called Powers on my way out of Anderson’s office and asked how much money would hypothetically be needed. He said between $30 million and $40 million.

So I did what any reporter would do. I went home and pumped out 1,119 words on detailing how the Sun Devils could have a Division I hockey team if more than $30 million appeared out of the blue. It would take something crazy.

Then crazy called.

Two hours after my story went live, Powers received a call from a member of a donor group led by Don Mullett, a Wisconsin-based businessman whose son played hockey at Arizona State. The group was prepared to pledge $32 million to the school for the creation of a Division I hockey program.

To my surprise, Powers and Anderson said that my story was the reason why the group wanted to make the donation. While I was willing to concede that I may have accelerated the process by making the information public, I never truly believed that my story had made anything happen.

Which brings us back to the press conference.

(From left): Chris Mullett, Don Mullett, Greg Powers, Ray Anderson

(From left): Chris Mullett, Don Mullett, Greg Powers, Ray Anderson

It was Anderson who singled me out. Before he introduced Powers as the team’s coach or Mullett as its chief benefactor, he introduced me and told the world what had happened at our July meeting.

“You put a lot of pressure on me,” Anderson said at the press conference. “Because then a week later or so came that call, and that call came from coach Powers, and it went something like this: ‘Do you remember that article you did with Justin? You talked a lot? Really? I know some guys, and I know some guys who want to support this program.’ ”

Then came the article in The New York Times, followed by the Point After Sports Illustrated. Still, I never felt like I deserved this level of recognition. I was appreciative, of course, but I didn’t agree that my contributions were as important as the efforts of some others.

My response to everyone who credited me for hockey’s D-I status was the same: The move was going to happen because of Ray Anderson, Greg Powers, Don Mullett and many other people behind the scenes, not me. All I did was write a story.

When I went into Anderson’s office last July, it was in direct response to the Sun Devils’ national club championship in March. As the team’s beat writer, I had fielded countless questions about why ASU was not a Division I program. I wanted to answer them. Surely Powers and Anderson had been asked the same things, right?

I had a follow-up interview with Powers in January and one with Anderson a week later. I asked both men if there had been any conversation about a jump to Division I before my article appeared.

Powers: “No.”

Before my story, had you talked to the donor group about making the jump?

Powers: “No.”

Had there been any substantial internal talks within the hockey team?

Powers: “No.”

If you ask Powers, he’ll say that everything started with my story. He told me that the only previous discussions he was aware of were with a donor who had contacted former AD Steve Patterson about his interest in adding hockey. Patterson had none.

Anderson said the current regime had mentioned the possibility, but had never really considered it.

“It had been brought up before, but not with the earnest passion that you presented,” Anderson said to me. “The bottom line is, it was the timing and the passion you had for it, and also the timing and our commitment here, frankly, under my leadership, to try to figure a way to add sports.”

As a reporter, I write the news. Being the news was something entirely different. Every writer wants to know his work is making a difference.

I just had no idea how much mine would.


Justin Emerson is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This story is the product of a partnership between the Cronkite School and Sports Illustrated.