Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Middle of Somewhere

...or not.

With all the talk of outdoor games, PSU and otherwise, it seemed only natural that the age-old (not really, it just seems like it) idea of a Winter Classic at Beaver Stadium be brought up again. Brother of Nick Seravalli recently did exactly that with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and...
"Through the course of discussions, probably every conceivable option has likely been raised, even if it's discussed for 2 seconds and kicked aside. Or sometimes, it's 20 seconds, or sometimes, there are more legs to something. Because of what it does for the host market, we're pretty much going to stay close to a team's market. Instead of being absolutely in the middle of nowhere, it doesn't make sense when we think we can be connected. I'm not talking about a stadium that's not downtown. But not being in either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, I'm not sure it makes a whole lot of sense - at this point."
Womp, womp.

To be clear, there are reasonable arguments against a Beaver Stadium Winter Classic. For a league still trying to find its legs to a large extent (hence the rotation of the event between the same few teams), it's a risk to venture away from large cities. The PSU community hasn't proven able to draw six figures for hockey. The Penguins or the Flyers have been involved in every single Winter Classic except 2009's Wings-Hawks tilt at Wrigley Field. Last but certainly not least, there's the alcohol issue. NHL fans demand beer, and beer isn't sold at Beaver Stadium.

Contrary to popular belief, that's not due to an NCAA rule or a state law. The NCAA does prohibit alcohol sales at championship events, like the Frozen Four. But neither they, nor the athletic conferences, prohibit sales at regular season games (or at professional sports events held in college facilities). Big Ten schools Iowa and Wisconsin sell beer to the masses at their football games. Illinois, Purdue and fellow state-related school Pitt take the more measured approach of only selling it in premium seats, which generally keeps it away from students. Minnesota tried to join that latter group when TCF Bank Stadium was built, but a resulting spat with the state legislature resulted in the whole stadium being dry.

In all, roughly three dozen of the 120 Division I - Football Bowl Subdivision schools sell alcohol at home football games in some capacity. It's a school-based decision, and given the notion of this being a one-off (and one that stands to bring quite a bit of money in), hopefully Penn State would be willing to be flexible. Then again, knowing PSU administration and culture like I do, an NCAA rule might be easier to work around.

When this happened, half of the people in State College bars went crazy, and the other half wanted to fight that half.

Regardless, to dismiss the idea of the game out of hand, as Bettman seems to have done, demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of demographics.

Penn State's not in the middle of nowhere, it's in the middle of somewhere. Two somewheres actually, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. That's the whole point. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a pervasive east-west rivalry that uniquely collides in that small central Pennsylvania town called State College. Everyone there, even the out-of-staters like myself, chooses up sides (not about to alienate half of my readership by disclosing, sorry). And with the Steelers and Eagles in opposite conferences, the Pirates sucking since forever, and Pittsburgh not having an NBA team, the NHL is where it comes to a head most frequently and most passionately. Pens-Flyers games are a big deal at PSU. Playoff series are gigantic. The Winter Classic would be off the charts. It just needs a few people with guts at both the NHL and the university to give it a shot.

While we wait for that to happen, maybe we should try something else to get a six-figure hockey crowd on campus. B1G Ice Hockey recently solicited suggestions for outdoor games involving conference schools. Guess which program was the only one to be mentioned in two separate potential games?
Ohio State has been building a rep for themselves as a school that can indeed compete with the big boys, making six NCAA appearances including four in the past nine years and putting up some big rankings in both major college polls this year. Now as Penn State looks to close out its ACHA run at the end of this season and featuring its outdoor game debut before making the jump to NCAA Div.I in 2012-13, why not pair up with a team that tends to get lost in the mix from time to time.
I really believe that, given the large following of both schools and the border rivalry, this one would fill either school's football stadium. And face it, with Michigan tending to pair off with Sparty over Brutus for hockey purposes (and of course Minnesota-Wisconsin), both need a hockey rival. Here's another suggestion:
Ok I know, little talk has been discussed about the possibility of Illinois moving up to Div.I status and thus being eligible for Big Ten hockey, but this is coming from my partial American Collegiate Hockey Association biased (Cyclone Hockey original). In my four years working with Cyclone Hockey from 2006-10, few teams were better than Illinois and Penn State. The Nittany Lions have hoisted six ACHA National Titles (1990, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003) as the Fighting Illini have captured two in 2005 and 2008. Toss that in with the fact that--hypothetically speaking if Illinois gains NCAA Div.I sanction-- both were able to establish their programs as a Div.I team, why wouldn't you want to see them go back to their roots and compete?
A little off in hypothetical territory for my taste, and I'm not sure that it would have the same widespread appeal as PSU-OSU, but as someone who will always have a soft spot for the ACHA era, I'd certainly appreciate this one as well.

The major downside to a Penn State hockey game at Beaver Stadium: while it could prove the drawing power for hockey at PSU (both in terms of fans and sponsors) to the NHL, it may also preclude getting a Winter Classic, as I'm not sure that the NHL's willing to go sloppy seconds on a venue. It's partly for this reason that I'd expect a Detroit-hosted Winter Classic to be at Comerica Park and not Michigan Stadium...also the Ilitch family owns both the Wings and Tigers.

Upsides? Numerous. You can start with the eyes of the entire hockey world being on Penn State in a way that just doesn't happen with an ACHA team playing an NCAA Division III school. Especially if a Beaver Stadium game takes a run at Michigan's attendance record.

It's certainly something that needs to wait a couple years, until a) whatever outdoor fatigue resulting from Penn State-Neumann is gone, b) we're certain we're ready to compete and c) (ideally) just after the newness of the program and Pegula Ice Arena wear off, but why not? I don't think there's any reason to shoot down ideas at this point (after being discussed for "20 seconds"), before they've been appropriately studied or required any kind of commitment.

Then again, I'm not Gary Bettman.


  1. Check out what JoeBa has to say just before the 25 minute point.

  2. Great stuff - hadn't had the chance to watch that one yet! To be sure, it's a dream right now, but then again, so was the rest of this not that long ago!