|Pegula Ice Arena: The mansion on the hill
Tonight, at 8:00 p.m., Penn State's NCAA men's hockey team will face off against Army at Pegula Ice Arena, their opening game in the glittering $90 million facility due on campus for roughly 100 years. It will kick off the second season of the modern varsity era for the Nittany Lions, after a first memorable for a level of competitiveness well beyond what even the most optimistic observers expected.
The NCAA women's season already got off to a rousing start last weekend, with a tie and a win at Vermont fueled largely by the exploits of an outstanding freshman class. While the men battle Army, Josh Brandwene's squad will be in Hamden, CT to take on Quinnipiac, with a rematch to follow tomorrow afternoon.
On this historic day, it's impossible to avoid a peek back to where things stood back in the fall of 2010, the beginning for both this blog and the transition of Penn State's storied ACHA Division 1 teams to NCAA status.
Back then, Pegula Ice Arena and varsity status were but blips on the horizon - noticeably out there and worthy of excitement, but with little tangible effect on the 2010-11 hockey season. The Icers struggled and finally emerged with a late charge to qualify for an unprecedented 20th consecutive ACHA National Tournament, although a first-round loss to Rhode Island made it a short trip. On the women's side, the Lady Icers saw a promising season fall short of nationals when the pollsters punished the team - unfairly, in my opinion - for the fact that both of its goalies went to Erzurum, Turkey in the middle of the season to represent the ACHA and USA Hockey at the 2011 World University Games.
Once that first season wound down, it didn't take long for the developments to barrel in with enough pace to run together into a blur of progress. The arena was officially named and renderings were made public in January 2011. The Big Ten finally ended the speculation and adopted men's hockey for this season that March. A month after that, Guy Gadowsky was hired and brought assistants Keith Fisher and Matt Lindsay with him. Former Icers player and assistant coach Bill Downey took on the men's hockey operations role in July after serving in the same position at Harvard. The women's coaching situation was addressed as well that summer with former Icers captain Josh Brandwene, who had gone on to great success leading ACHA and prep school programs. Brandwene moved quickly to bring in former Boston University star Gina Kearns as an assistant coach, while Casey McCullion came on board one year later.
|Tommy Olczyk scores as a freshman in 2011-12 against Rhode Island
Recruits brought in specifically for NCAA hockey started to make their way to Penn State as well. Tommy Olczyk and Division I transfers Nate Jensen, Taylor Holstrom, Bryce Johnson and Justin Kirchhevel all arrived in the fall of 2011, while women's players Taylor Gross and Jess Desorcie followed at the semester break.
Through it all, the 2011-12 season presented an awkward backdrop: eventual NCAA coaches Gadowsky and Brandwene steering the Icers and Lady Icers through their final ACHA Division 1 seasons, which doubled as an extended varsity hockey tryout for many. The women won the ECWHL regular season title but again fell short of nationals - and again, in an act of questionable collective judgment - when they were rated by their brutally tough NCAA-laden schedule and not by wins over eventual national champion Northeastern and Massachusetts, a team that wound up with what should have been PSU's tournament bid.
The Icers, predictably, dominated ACHA competition for much of the year - an 11-0 trouncing at two-time national champ Illinois standing out in that department - with Olczyk, Holstrom and Kirchhevel leading the way. However, PSU seemed to weaken a bit down the stretch, as a November loss at Delaware was later joined by a shootout shocker against Central Oklahoma, and a pair of miraculous comebacks were required to beat Oklahoma. The latter of the two came during the ACHA National Tournament quarterfinals in Strongsville, OH, but it wound up being for naught as Oakland closed the Icers era in stunning fashion the next day in the semifinals.
That one hurt, more than any other loss during TYT's existence. I desperately wanted one last ACHA national championship on the way out the door.
On a more positive note, Penn State was able to participate in an outdoor game in Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park against NCAA Division III Neumann on January 4, 2012. While the contest went to the Knights, it was certainly an unprecedented experience that won't soon be forgotten. Construction on Pegula Ice Arena began about six weeks after that, and the site near the corner of Curtin Rd. and University Dr. became the focus for a great deal of attention all the way through today.
|Potent scorers like Shannon Yoxheimer have the Nittany Lion women poised for big things
In hindsight, 2012-13 was a much more "normal" season than many anticipated on the women's side. While still playing out of the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, the
The Penn State men took a somewhat different approach, delaying their conference entry and playing last season as an NCAA Division I independent, although ten games against NCAA Division III and ACHA Division 1 teams were also part of the schedule. The Nittany Lions quickly gained some notoriety for unexpectedly winning games as heavy underdogs. The first strike in that category was made on October 20, 2012 with a 3-2 win in RIT's homecoming game in front of 10,556 orange-clad fans, with big wins against Air Force (5-1 at the Ice Pavilion), Ohio State (5-4 at the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh) and Michigan State (3-2 in East Lansing, MI) following. Those were all prelude to a season-closing 3-2 overtime win at Wisconsin that ended with Holstrom's gritty score to complete a rally from a 2-0 hole. The Badgers, after a 2-7-5 start to the year, were in the middle of going 20-6-2 the rest of the way while capturing the WCHA playoff title and making an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, so taking them down was no insignificant feat.
Those big wins were awkwardly balanced by a few clunkers: losses against Division III teams Buffalo State and Neumann, as well as to ACHA Division 1's Arizona State. Still, the legacy of the 2012-13 men's season is an overwhelmingly positive one, as it showed that Nittany Lion hockey would not be roadkill for established programs while also setting the table for successes to come.
Milestones, both small and large, continued through the offseason, culminating with Penn State hockey's move into Pegula Ice Arena in early September and the facility's public opening a couple weeks later. In June, current freshmen Eamon McAdam (Islanders) and Mike Williamson (Canucks) became the first players selected in the NHL Entry Draft while affiliated with PSU. They join transfers Max Gardiner (Blues) and Patrick Koudys (Capitals) as draftees on the Nittany Lions this season. Penn State's long-awaited Big Ten membership for men's hockey became official in July.
Doing this has allowed me to learn a lot about both programs, as well as their coaches, student-athletes, and support staffs. I want to make one thing perfectly clear: Penn State will have two of the finest NCAA hockey programs in the nation, and it will happen sooner than people think. That's not artificial fan bravado, it's my sincere belief. Early in the life of TYT, I would get angry at disrespect towards PSU's NCAA programs, a largely defensive reaction. Now I just smile and shake my head, because I know I'm right.
In the ACHA, Penn State already has two of the best teams in the nation in the Ice Lions and the Women's Ice Hockey Club.
While the Ice Lions fell just short of the ACHA Division 2 National Tournament in 2010-11, thanks to a loss to Maryland-Baltimore County at regionals, PSU bounced back in force the following year under new coach Josh Hand. Led by captain Jim Recupero and star goalie Tom Badali, the Ice Lions took Mid-Atlantic College Hockey by storm, winning both the North Division regular season title and the league's overall tournament title. A 25-game winning streak helped forge a 30-3-0 overall record and an autobid to nationals before Grand Valley State squashed PSU's dreams in a winner-take-all contest for advancement to the semifinals.
A redemption-driven squad got back on the horse immediately, going 27-6-1 in 2012-13 and collecting another MACH North Division championship, as well as a return trip to ACHAs behind players like power forward Creek Lewis and Brandon Russo, an All-American defenseman who would transfer to Canisius' NCAA Division I team after the season. However, an opening loss to Illinois State would prove too much to overcome at the national tournament, and the Ice Lions once again went home after the group stage. Ryan Behnken, who previously coached the team in 2010-11, returned this season and has Penn State off to a 4-0-0 start.
|Players like Franky Reluzco have been important to the Ice Lions' recent national title push
Formed in the vapor trail of the Lady Icers program that elevated to NCAA status, the Women's Ice Hockey Club started up last year and faced less than optimal conditions, including a light schedule weakened even further by game cancellations and featuring exactly one home contest... in Altoona. Nevertheless, the team persevered, somehow snuck into the ACHA National Tournament in Ashburn, VA, then proceeded to take down top-seeded Alaska and defending champ Wisconsin-Stout (twice) en route to the title game before falling to West Chester. With nearly all of the squad back this season, a new membership in College Hockey East guaranteeing a healthy slate and a 2-0-0 start after a pair of wins over Liberty, expectations are high for the WIHC to contend for Penn State hockey's first national crown since the 2002-03 Icers took down Ohio in the final.
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the Commonwealth Campus teams that also wear the blue and white with great distinction. The clubs at Penn States Altoona, Behrend, Berks, Brandywine and Harrisburg are, on balance, off to a fantastic start this season as well. In particular, always-tough Brandywine, high-flying Altoona and stoutly-balanced Behrend look primed to make serious plays for conference titles and ACHA Division 3 nationals appearances.
Doubters have already looked rather foolish, and while most have softened their tone in recent months - sometimes tripping over themselves while backpedaling - let's not forget that many out there predicted that PSU hockey would be a losing proposition for a decade or more, playing in front of an empty barn. Those people, simply put, did not count on our people, specifically the efforts of Penn State's players, coaches, staffers and supporters who have laid the foundation for greatness.
In short, to say the future of Penn State hockey is "bright" is a little like saying that Pegula Ice Arena is "nice." It's obvious, almost to the point of redundancy.
But it's a future that will proceed without this blog.
After 1090 days and 1166 posts, it's time for me to end Thank You Terry and what has been a wonderful chapter in my life.
In my mind, the timing of this departure makes sense on numerous levels. My first post was October 18th, 2010, almost exactly one month after the announcement of Terry Pegula's donation. I'm leaving on October 11, 2013, a date marked by the opening of the arena made possible by that donation. In one sense then, TYT can be seen as documenting Penn State's transition from ACHA superpower to full Division I program. I hope I've done an adequate job filling that role, and I have every confidence that others covering Nittany Lions hockey will do more than that as we move forward. As much as anything else, over the last three years I've learned that Penn State produces the finest collection of journalists and bloggers on the planet, one that has my eternal gratitude for pushing me to be better. In many ways my work, at least as it pertains to the NCAA Division I men's team, is no longer necessary. It's my hope that the NCAA women and other teams receive that level of attention at some point as well.
I strongly believe that there are only two ways for blogs to end. One involves posts of decreasing frequency that usually begin "sorry I don't post more." Eventually, the gap between posts hits infinity, and the blog dies awkwardly, usually with something like "Season Preview, Part 1 of 2" at the top. Because I want to avoid that all costs, I've selected the other option: a planned departure (there may be a third option, specifically "don't end at all," but that's generally available only to blogs with more than one person working on it).
Life is the archnemesis of volunteer bloggers, and it always wins at some point, just as surely as death beats life. Or as surely as the Icers beat Washington & Jefferson. I've had a fantastic set of life circumstances that have allowed me to pour more of myself into TYT than most could have. But as my tenure as a full-time grad student winds down and I prepare to (re-)enter the real world, I know that in the long run, a surviving TYT would be a shell of what it's been, and simply put, I've invested too much into doing this to be willing to accept that outcome.
To be brutally honest, I'm not sure that all the time in the world would be enough. This past year, it's been a tremendous struggle just to keep my head above water while singlehandedly addressing the heightened news volume that comes with varsity hockey and the expectations I have for myself to produce a steady flow of high-quality content that isn't merely a copy-paste of, or a link to, a "real" reporter's work. As things move forward and ramp up even further from where we sit today, I simply don't believe that it's possible to do what I consider a satisfactory job while sitting four hours away from Hockey Valley in Ohio.
In short, I know I'm making the right choice, although it is one that breaks my heart. My biggest regret today is that I know a lot of people have really appreciated what I've done here, and I feel like I'm letting those people down by stopping. To those who have offered their words of encouragement, either in person or digitally, thank you. You're a huge part of why I was able to plow through some rough patches, and I hope that you're able to forgive me for not carrying the flag any further.
So, now what?
Well, I'm probably going to keep a pretty low profile for a bit, at least through the 2013-14 season. The struggles of the past year have, if it wasn't as obvious on the blog as I think it was, made me quite jaded about a lot of things, and I don't like feeling that way. My hope is that by dialing back my obsessive nature a bit, getting over my competitive streak and my Pavlovian "oh $#&% I have to write a post" reflex whenever news comes up and just enjoying what promises to be a special season the way "normal" people will, I can re-program myself.
Eventually, I'd like to write a book about the history of Penn State hockey in all of its glorious forms, from the beginning to the opening of Pegula Ice Arena. I mean, why not? I've done much of the research, it's a topic I really enjoy and with an editor, my writing may even become passable. The primary issue at this point is that for it to be the best possible product, the athletic department's support would be required and I know I don't have that right now. Time heals all wounds, as they say, so once I feel up to it I'm going to stay under the radar, work at it behind the scenes as time allows, and hope that the climate is different in the future. Maybe someday, I'll sign a copy for you at a game. That's the plan, anyway. Unless paper books have been completely obliterated by the time it comes together.
Should my self-imposed hiatus from "beyond just a fan" stuff be successful, I'd even consider blogging again. If a Penn State or college hockey blog approaches me down the road with an offer to cover the hockey programs in spite of my baggage, I'd at least give it serious thought. I may be delusional, but I believe that a less taxing responsibility, as in sharing the beat with someone else or limiting my scope, while not having to concern myself with back-end problems, would allow a fresh start and be something a bit more sustainable than the present reality of an unpaid full-time job.
|Women's Ice Hockey Club captain Carly Szyszko has her eyes on a title in her senior year
If you haven't noticed, I began working with the Women's Ice Hockey Club midway through their inaugural 2012-13 season, and I plan to continue doing that because I'm having a blast. The irony of the situation isn't lost on me - for years, I couldn't wait to ditch the ACHA for the NCAA, but after that happened, I wound up going full circle and helping out an ACHA team. The WIHC gives me the same joy that I got from Hockey Management Association as a Penn State undergrad, a sentiment that later helped produce TYT. Unlike that first go, my involvement with the WIHC doesn't have to end when I graduate, so I'm going to keep chasing that feeling as long as it's there, as long as I'm capable and as long as they want me around.
I hope to see you at one of their games this season. I promise that you'll enjoy it if you like Penn State hockey, because that team is what Penn State and the sport of hockey is all about. Here's their schedule (the next home game is against Michigan State on the 19th, at 8:00 p.m. in the PIA Community Rink).
I'll still be a frequent guest at Penn State hockey games - both men's and women's, NCAA and ACHA - as my schedule allows, and if you recognize me (I'll probably be wearing a number 3 Icers jersey or a number 24 Lady Icers/Women's Ice Hockey Club jersey with my name on it the most of the time), feel free to start a conversation or simply say hi. I may actually have time to talk now.
And hey, if you really like who I am and what I'm all about, or at the very least think you do, I have a personal Twitter account and would love to connect with as many of you as possible. If this is the end, no hard feelings, I get that your interest in Penn State hockey doesn't mean that you have to care whether I'm having sushi for dinner. Fair warning: As should be obvious from what I just said, tweets on that account will be those of a regular guy who happens to be a Penn State hockey fan, because that's what I'm going to be now. It's not going to be @TYTBlog, just with my real name on it.
In closing, I would like to say thank you:
- to John Dufford, Art Davis, Larry Lightbody, Pop Golden, Herb Baetz, Hugo Bezdek and all who chased the dream of varsity hockey at Penn State but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- to visionaries like Roy Scott, Larry Hendry, Joe Battista, Vance McCullough and countless other players, coaches and support staffers who also played a part in founding and then building the seven-time national champion Icers, the best program in the history of both the ACHA specifically and non-varsity hockey generally.
- to Ellen Bradley, Kathy Beckford and Vinnie Scalamogna, who said "hey, we need a women's team around here too" back in 1996 and jumped all the hurdles to make it happen, and to all who followed them as Lady Icers.
- to Mary Kate Tonetti, Katie Vaughan, Carly Szyszko, Allie Rothman and Patrick Fung, who went through the same struggle 16 years later and then gave me the opportunity to be a part of something special.
- to Altoona-turned-Ice Lions manager Bridgette DaSilva, who convinced me to come out for a game between two Commonwealth Campus teams back in January and opened my eyes to a previously undiscovered realm of Penn State hockey, and to Tom and Amy Lantz, whose hospitality made my trips to Toontown a lot of fun.
- to Hockey Management Association, which served as my introduction to Penn State hockey after I arrived on campus as a freshman unaware that there was a team at PSU, and to the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, which I'll always remember fondly.
- to all of the players, coaches and parents involved with all of Penn State's hockey teams that I've met and covered in the course of TYT, each of whom, without exception, has earned my unwavering support even independent of our common university. If I've done nothing else here, I hope my efforts have been worthy of the pride you've given me in Penn State every single day.
Thank you to each and every one of you for taking this journey with me.
And of course, thank you Terry.