Monday, October 18, 2010

The ACHA at Penn State: A Sort-Of Requiem

I'm in a reflective mood this Monday afternoon, after a weekend of Icers hockey with Central Oklahoma that resembled a Michigan-Dearborn series from days of yore.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that a very, very rich man and his wife recently gave $88 million to Penn State so that the school can start NCAA Division I hockey programs in 2012 and move into a sparkling new facility sometime in 2014. But this post isn’t so much about that as it is about something else that happens in 2012: the end of the American Collegiate Hockey Association's (ACHA) run as the top level of hockey played at Penn State.

You know what the ACHA is to me? It’s sitting in a tiny, freezing rink watching John Carroll play Youngstown State, trying to figure out if my wife and I are the only people there who don’t have a son on the ice. It’s saying “no, not THAT one” after telling someone you’re going to the national championships and then being asked how Boston College looks to take the whole thing. It’s being laughed at by your brother when you tell him Penn State was eliminated by Central Oklahoma last year (a school I admittedly have never heard of outside of ACHA hockey), and of course the inevitable “No, Ohio University, not Ohio State. No really, they’re good.” It’s also taking everything that makes being a hockey fan in the United States hard and multiplying it by 1000. Or more.

And that goes a long way towards explaining why it’s been such a blast.

There’s something in me that likes being a little different. It allows me to survive as a Penn State fan in Ohio, and as a hockey fan in an area that has two seasons: football season and off-season. I think part of it is that I like feeling like I’m in on something that nobody else gets. Not that there aren’t others – Penn State’s Section E is well known, as is Gang Green at Ohio University. Several other teams have great support from their universities and community as well. Outside of the right circles though, the entire thing is a complete non-entity.

But not to me. I’m in on the secret. I’ve been having a blast following it for years, and hey, the quality of hockey ain’t so bad either.

Without the ACHA, my now-wife and I never work for Hockey Management Association at Penn State and establish a bond with the team and the sport that remains strong to this day. I served as program editor in 2001-02, and the long nights at the Pollock computer lab (and the neglect of my classes that fall) paid off with a finished product that I still treasure today. That job will be handled by professionals in the athletic department starting in 2012, and while I’m sure the result will be a more polished program, it will also be a lost opportunity for hundreds of future Penn State students.

Without the ACHA, the memories aren’t quite the same either. How many of these would have happened with an NCAA program?
  • Staying up late every Friday and Saturday hoping that someone, somewhere would remember to e-mail the ACHA listserv with the scores of the big CSCHL games, the only reliable way to get game results back in the day, after all.
  • Don Coyne (my first favorite player) surprising me to introduce himself in the lobby of the Fred Rust Ice Rink in Delaware while I was stuffing my face with Cheez-Its at nationals in 1999.
  • My being thrilled when Penn State played Ohio for the national championship in Ames, IA in 2004, because Ohio was the only school that reliably had broadcasts on the internet back then. I also remember instant messaging play-by-play to my best friend at work since he couldn’t get audio.
  • The rinks being evacuated because of a toxic gas buildup at 2009 nationals (those PPs aren't for "power play"), then witnessing the Illinois-Oklahoma quarterfinal, one of the great games I’ve seen at any level once the schedule got back on track (although it being a work night, I just was hoping SOMEONE would score).
I’ll close this post with the following advice: Penn State is not starting hockey in 2012, it is simply opening an exciting new chapter of an already great hockey tradition. I urge you to get out there and embrace the team we already have. Get to nationals or the ACHA Showcase if you can and experience wall-to-wall hockey (it’s a truly wonderful thing, all day long, two rinks). Enjoy the quirks, like the trademark orange-ness of the Ice Pavilion or the debates about how Lindenwood manages to recruit USHL kids to play club hockey. And let’s close this chapter of Penn State hockey with an 8th national championship, because there’s nothing quite like going out in a blaze of glory.

While 2012 will be a very exciting time for all of us, we’re going to miss what we have right now, trust me.

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