The Big Read: A virtual tour of Arizona State University's new hockey arena

Sun Devils, Mortenson Company afforded me the opportunity to truly experience the multi-purpose venue, which is still under construction

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Some stories are better served with lots of visuals and few words. This is one of those stories.

ASU and Mortenson Company invited me to visit the site of Sun Devil hockey’s future arena last week. They offered me a tour of the construction site, which would have been enough to lure me. Then they offered me a virtual tour of the inside of the arena, using a VR hood and controls.

I wrote an in-depth piece on the arena back in December, complete with renderings and scores of details which you can read by following this link, but this was an entirely different experience. Not only did I get to see the updates and tweaks that ASU and Mortenson have made in the ensuing eight months, I got to stand in the midst of them.

I pulled up to the construction trailer just as ASU coach Greg Powers was arriving. Once inside that trailer, I met in an appropriately shaped conference room with Powers, senior associate athletic director/chief financial officer Frank Ferrara, Sun Devil Athletics communications manager Paige Shacklett, Mortenson’s senior integrated construction coordinator Josh Horenstein, senior project manager Ben Spencer, and senior marketing manager Katie Davison.

If you have driven past the construction site in recent days, you will notice that they have made an enormous amount of progress. I have no idea how construction workers brave Arizona’s summer heat to do what they do, so a shout-out to all the people who are helping this arena take shape.

My dad owned a steel business outside Chicago while I was growing up, so I did a fair amount of nerding out over the fine points of the structure, once Spencer, Horenstein and Davison took me inside the site. Before we set foot in the site, however, they walked me to a cleared space in the center of the construction trailer. They handed Powers and me our VR hoods and controls, and then they blew my mind with the details that Horenstein had modeled for this simulation.

I stopped playing video games when I was a kid so I let Powers do all of the driving (more on that later). I don’t know any other way to say it to Sun Devil fans but this: You’re going to love this arena and all of the touches that you will find within it.

When Powers and I stepped into the virtual world, the first view he wanted to show me was from center ice. The video below gives you a 360-degree view of the bowl, complete with the 942-seat student section, the club levels, the red seats that just pop, and a cool, recent touch: the upper row forms a gold band around the entire bowl. Originally, ASU was thinking about making the bottom row gold, but this visual is so much better.

I think Powers asked me three times if I was ready to move on to other parts of the arena before I finally realized he was talking to me. The virtual experience was so good that I was completely immersed in it.

The VR experience is a fantastic addition to Mortenson’s bag of tools. For those wondering, it was built by Virtual Insights, Mortenson's internal virtual reality development team, and this model was built in a professional video game engine. For practical purposes, it allows clients (in this case, ASU) the opportunity to experience the finished product, make tweaks and changes, and then see what those changes look like in the proper setting and scale, whether it’s sponsorship and branding options, or the aforementioned row of gold seats.

It’s also a fantastic recruiting tool. Multiple recruits (and their parents) have already had the same experience that I had. I’m guessing many of them came away sold on ASU.

I don’t remember where Powers took me next, but here is a shot of the dressing room, which took its inspiration from the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning’s room, as well as other team rooms that Sun Devils officials toured.

Affixed to the walls are key words in the program’s messaging to its players, and affixed to the ceiling is a ginormous pitchfork. All hockey media members will appreciate the reason Powers chose to put the emblem on the ceiling instead of the floor, where many NHL teams put theirs.

There is an unwritten rule that anyone entering the dressing room is supposed to avoid stepping on the team logo. It is considered a great affront to the team if you do so, and you will hear about it from players, with some teams taking it to great lengths.

Powers thinks the whole practice is silly and immature (he’s right), but rather than creating a potential problem, he solved it by putting the pitchfork up high.

The workout areas, training area, showers and other team areas are all accessed via the doors in the dressing room.

The last major view that Powers showed me was the view from the club suites. You can get a fuller sense of the suites and club areas from the video at the bottom of this story, but these shots include the 24-foot by 24-foot scoreboard. As a hockey geek, I also love the barn-like angle of the ceiling, because hockey arenas are often called barns.

The pitch of the arena is basically as steep as is allowed by code. The benefit is that you are so close to the ice from virtually every viewing angle. That simple fact is going to make this arena both intimate and raucous.

By the way, the pitchfork logo at center ice will be much bigger than the one in this video.

Before we finished the tour, I was offered the opportunity to one-time passes from the corner into the net in a game that Mortenson created just to spice up the virtual tour (I’ll bet recruits loved this, too). Powers had done this several times before, so he managed to ring several pucks off the post into the net, or straight in.

Before he has the chance to call out my cowardice, I will admit that I passed on the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of all of those officials. Again, I haven’t played video games since I was a kid. I would have irreparably damaged my reputation if I had taken the controls and whiffed on pass after pass.

As most of you know by now, the 2021-2022 season will be ASU’s last at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe. The Sun Devils will move into their new arena the following summer/fall; a venue which also includes a community ice rink at the east end of the building with its own dressing rooms.

There are few things cooler in sports than a new arena/venue, and as so many others have noted, this one will be a game-changer for a program that has already exceeded early expectations. ASU already has the resources, it sits in a major market with an NHL team, it is the only true warm-weather Division I program in the nation, and it already boasts a collection of NHL bloodlines. The arena was the only thing holding ASU back. In one year, that impediment will be gone.

Alright, here’s a sped-up version of the entire tour that I took. This is what you all came for, so enjoy.

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