Penn State hockey rises with grand new Pegula Ice Arena
To paraphrase a line from a film about another sport: If you build it, they will come. The "it" in this case, though, isn't a dusty baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. It's a gleaming new ice arena nestled among the gentle hills of State College, Pa., an area known for producing linebackers, not blueliners. "They" are the devoted fans of a university renowned for raucous live support of its athletes. Combined, they are the cornerstones of a successful Division I hockey program, the result of the dreams and efforts of a few hockey lifers and the young men that subscribed to their singular vision.
A few other things have also come to Penn State: Wins, recruits and pilgrimages of alumni who wanted to see in person that the Nittany Lions finally have a DI hockey team of their own. Their second varsity season begins with the first home game in that new arena on Friday against Army.
And to think, there's a chance that none of this would have happened if Joe Battista had decided to stay home for dinner.
Battista is the Associate Athletic Director for Ice Arena and Hockey Operations at Penn State University, a mouthful of a job title befitting of someone who has played many roles in the school's winding road to NCAA recognition. He graduated from Penn State in 1983, having been the captain and officer of the school's club hockey program, a team known as the Icers. The Icers were part of the school's long, if fitful, association with hockey: Penn State had hosted games as early as 1909, and from 1940 to 1947 boasted a varsity side. In 1981, had the university made a push to field a DI squad by building the Greenberg Ice Pavilion. According to Battista, the rink was supposed to be a 4,500-seat facility that would have conferred DI-status on the team, but due to the economy and lack of fundraising at the time the project was downscaled to 1,300 seats. The failed bid marked one of what Battista refers to as the "close calls and near misses" that left varsity hockey just out of reach, decade after decade.
Battista would come back to coach the club team from 1987 until 2006, during which time the Icers were dominant. Penn State would haul in six national club hockey championships over the course of his tenure and become a power in the ACHA, the club hockey organization that Battista co-founded in 1991 and that now oversees more than 400 schools across the nation. "Penn State hockey was just this incredibly successful cult sport," says Battista. "We'd get 1,350 people at every game. It was this quiet success story. Well, it caught the attention of Terry Pegula."
It was Pegula who called Battista's house one evening in the fall of 2005. A multi-billionaire natural gas magnate and Penn State alum, Pegula is also an enormous hockey fan. In 2011, he purchased the Buffalo Sabres for $189 million. Eight years ago, though, he was just a voice on the telephone inviting Battista to dinner. "My wife handed me the phone, and she said, 'Somebody wants to talk to you about the hockey program being a varsity sport,'" says Battista. "And trust me, I'd gotten thousands of those calls. And we were getting ready to sit down and have dinner, and he said, 'Hey, you're not going to remember me, but my son came to hockey camp [in State College]. Now why aren't we playing Michigan and Minnesota and Wisconsin, and what's it going to take for us to become Division I?' And I didn't recognize his name, I just chuckled and said, 'Well, that's a long story.'"
Battista went with his instincts and met Pegula at a steakhouse nearby. "Soon as I saw him, I recognized him," Battista recalls. "He used to bring his family to see the Icers play. It was a minute into our conversation and he said, 'Let's cut to the chase, what's it going to take?' And I said, 'At least $50 million.' And he said, 'Well I think I can help with that.'"
Five years later, in September of 2010, after wrangling with both the university and the NCAA about the amount of money needed to sustain scholarships and build a worthy arena, Pegula gave Penn State $88 million dollars -- later increased to $102 million -- by far the largest single donation in the school's history. The money would be at once the starter fluid and the lifeblood of a new hockey program that fielded both men's women's DI teams, and which would put Pegula (who declined to be interviewed for this article) and his wife Kim on the level of T. Boone Pickens and Phil Knight as a benefactor of college athletics. Most of the money would go towards the Pegula Ice Arena, a $90 million shrine that houses two sheets of ice and can hold more than 6,000 fans. The rink ranks right up there with the finest in the college game. "The student section in here is incredible," says Battista. "[The seating there is] the steepest allowed by code. That's the end we shoot at twice, so they're going to be right on top of the opposing goalie."
The right Guy
Once Battista got the green light he needed, the search for a coach began. He was the head of the search committee for the man who would helm the Nittan Lions' first varsity squad in over six decades. "It was amazing how often people brought up Guy Gadowsky's name," he says.
At the time Gadowsky was 43 years old and the coach at Princeton, the latest in his long, winding journey through hockey's back roads. An Edmonton native and acolyte of the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers of the '80s, Gadowsky had played professionally in Europe, represented Canada on its national team and coached roller hockey in Oklahoma. As a college coach he had turned stagnant programs at Alaska-Fairbanks and Princeton into contenders, and Battista considered him a perfect fit for the job. For his part, Gadowsky recognized that he had the chance to be part of something special. He took the job after meeting with both Battista and Pegula, drawn into their vision of molding a brand new program in a newly formed power conference and boasting state-of-the-art facilities. "I was very happy at Princeton -- trust me, our whole staff had several opportunities to move from Princeton," he says. "But this is just a very different deal. The excitement, the student body, it was extremely attractive. The association with Mr. Pegula, you just knew he and his arena were going to be first class, and when the student body goes in there, I think the atmosphere is going to be so much fun. And I think the Big Ten conference is going to be exceptional. All those factors together, it was just too good to pass up."
Gadowsky had his work cut out for him. Penn State would spend one more year at the club level before making the jump to DI in 2012, giving him a full season to recruit and mold the core of his team. While hockey is well-represented among State College's population -- "Around campus you see so many hockey jerseys," says Gadowsky. "It was already a pretty hockey-rich community, which was something that was pleasantly surprising to me." Still, the Nittany Lions didn't exactly boast the kind of on-ice tradition that would draw top recruits from the United States and Canada.
The pitch that Gadowsky fashioned asked players if they wanted to be hockey pioneers, creators of a new legacy at a school inextricably tied to its sports teams. Top-notch programs had thrived in odd places before -- North Dakota, for instance -- and Gadowsky sought to use the pull of the arena and the eventual move to a new Big Ten hockey conference as additional incentive. One of the players he spoke to prior to taking over was Tommy Olczyk, a forward with the USHL's Sioux City Musketeers and the son of former NHLer and current announcer Eddie. "Originally the only thing that pushed me away was playing the one year of club hockey," Olczyk remembers. But Olczyk banished that concern after he saw up close the vision shared by the Pegulas, Battista and Gadowsky; it only took one visit to State College before he told his family his decision. "We're some of the luckiest guys in college hockey, and in the world in general," he says. "Being able to move into this brand new facility, being treated like kings so to speak, it's pretty exciting and it's a very humbling experience to be a part of something like this."
Olczyk, a junior, is now the captain of the team, and his commitment to the keystone seasons for the Keystone State's only major college hockey program is exactly what his coach was looking for in prospective Nittany Lions players. "Some guys wanted to come and arrive some place," Gadowsky says. "And then there were people that were hungry to build something ... Those were the type of athletes that we were looking for and that's what we sold."
The Nittany Lions have targeted high school players who might not have been as heavily sought-after as others who went to more traditional power programs, but who still want a chance to play big-time college hockey. Most had no idea that Penn State had gotten the go-ahead to field a DI team, and many of the Canadian players were unaware of the school's sports tradition. But their visits to Happy Valley, and Gadowsky's promise of cementing a legacy, made for a tantalizing combination. also enticing was the image of construction workers swarming the site of the new rink, and the promise of games packed by white-clad fans chanting "We Are! Penn State!"
Although it did not affect the team directly, the nascent hockey program was still shadowed by the specter of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that hung over Penn State athletics like a cloud. Any misgivings that Gadowsky or his players might have had disappeared quickly though, replaced by an admiration for the school, its students and the role that a new team could play in the healing.
"I don't want to focus too much on the scandal," says Olczyk. "As a student body, I think we're over it. We know who we are, we know we're more than just a football program. We definitely support those guys and some of the things that happened to them were definitely not fair, but having a Division I hockey team gives the student body another sport to be excited about, another sport that's going to be super competitive and is going to be competing for championships in the very near future here...We're going to support the football team and hopefully they're going to support us."
Gadowsky echoed his captain's sentiments and praised Olczyk's classmates: "I was speaking to one parent the other day who said that the student body is even more hungry to prove what they're all about," he says. "It truly is the best student body that I've ever seen. They've got a great work ethic, it's not just that they have fun. They really make the environment here."
Out of that same environment would come another resource for Gadowsky's recruiting to tap: The former Icers club players. Mike McDonagh, who came to Penn State with the intention of playing club hockey in 2010, was one of the few holdovers from that era left on Gadowsky's first roster. The Winchester, Mass. native had been recruited by some Division III programs out of the Winchendon School following high school at Phillips Academy Andover, but he had no illusions of playing DI hockey. "I figured if I could play club hockey and just go to a school like that it would be unbelievable," he says.
The Pegulas' gift was announced a few weeks into McDonagh's freshman year, and his entire outlook changed. "I was only one of four freshman [on the team] at the time, so in my head I was like, Oh, there might be a chance to play Division I hockey," he says. "Even the thought of being a part of something like that would be incredible." One of the only seven club guys to make the varsity edition of the team, McDonagh is now entering his second season of Division I competition.
Penn State would go 29-5 in its final year of club play, as Gadowsky formulated a fast-paced, creative style of hockey influenced by his Edmonton upbringing. He also gained a new respect for the club game: "I think it was probably a higher quality than our staff anticipated," he says. "At the same time, the athletes that go to Michigan and Michigan State and Wisconsin and Minnesota and Ohio State, the hockey players going to those institutions are a much different animal."
The new ice age
Entering the 2012-13 season, their first as a varsity program, the Nittany Lions had no idea what to expect. "I think we all wanted to make sure we didn't go out there and lay an egg," says Battista. "A lot of hockey experts said we'd be lucky to win three or four games all year."
"I think there was a concern that we just wouldn't be able to compete at all for four years," says Gadowsky.
But the experts were wrong. Penn State finished its inaugural season 13-14 playing as an independent, and served notice to college hockey's elite along the way. On Dec. 29, the Nittany Lions topped Ohio State 5-4 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh in their first meeting with a Big Ten opponent. They beat Vermont 4-2 at Philadephia's Wells Fargo Center in front of 19,500 delirious fans during the Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff. A 3-2 win over Michigan State followed a week later, and Penn State capped an improbable debut campaign with a 3-2 overtime victory over then-No.16-ranked Wisconsin in Madison.
The Nittany Lions' stunning success was validation for the Pegulas' generosity, for Battista's doggedness, for Gadowsky's preaching and for the players' will to win.
"I think we surprised the college hockey world," says McDonagh. Olczyk agrees, saying "it was pretty amazing, and something that won't be forgotten anytime soon."
When asked if he would have believed before the season that his team would reach the heights it did, Gadowsky gives a concise, honest answer: "No. Not a chance."
Now, on the cusp of a second season, and with an idea of what to expect against the stiff competition in the Big Ten, Penn State is looking up. "I wouldn't be surprised that if in the next two or five years that Penn State will be a North Dakota-type powerhouse," says sophomore forward Casey Bailey, who led the team with 27 points last year and scored the program's first-ever goal in a 3-2 overtime loss to American International Oct. 12 of last year. "With the facilities and the academics they have there I think it's going to be hard for the young recruits to say no to the school."
And so come Friday, when Gadowsky and Olczyk lead the Nittany Lions out onto the Pegula Ice Arena surface to take on Army in front of their home crowd, the next chapter in Penn State's hockey saga will begin. The prologue took decades, and that last victory over Wisconsin provided a cliffhanger of sorts, leaving the page blank to be filled in by whatever the new season holds.
"All eyes are upon us," says Battista. "We've made it to the big time, and now we've got to perform."
-- By Eli Bernstein