Friday, June 1, 2012

Breakout Past: 1975 Pittsburgh Invitational College Hockey Tournament

Morris Kurtz, a Fred Shero disciple who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the 1972 Canada-Soviet Union Summit Series, was 24-6-1 in two seasons behind the Icer bench from 1974-1976. He went on to become the athletic director at St. Cloud State University in 1984 and will retire from that position on June 30th. Kurtz helped orchestrate SCSU's jump to NCAA Division I hockey in 1987, and the Huskies have appeared in eight NCAA DI tournaments under his watch.

When Penn State plays in the Pittsburgh College Hockey Invitational at the Consol Energy Center in December, it certainly won't be the first time PSU hockey has graced an NHL venue in the Steel City - that distinction belongs to the unofficial team of 1909, which played in Duquesne Gardens (home of the NHL's Pittsburgh Pirates from 1925 through 1930).

It won't even be the first time Penn State has played in a tournament in Pittsburgh's NHL arena with the words "Pittsburgh," "College," "Hockey" and "Invitational" in the name of the event. This year's Nittany Lions were beaten to the punch by the fourth Icers team, in 1974-1975. That team closed its season on April 5th and 6th in what was then called Civic Arena for the Pittsburgh Invitational College Hockey Tournament (the tournament, as with most tournaments from history times, wasn't referenced with a consistent name - "Pittsburgh Invitational College Hockey Tournament" is actually an amalgam of four or five different titles that I saw used).

The University of Pittsburgh served as the tourney host and handed out invites to Navy, Carnegie Mellon and Penn State, a field that certainly has a similar feel to this year's PSU, Ohio State, Robert Morris, Miami setup. Much like the latter group brings together the best NCAA programs of Ohio and Pennsylvania (sorry, Mercyhurst and Bowling Green), the former by all available indications involved some of the best club programs of PA - western or otherwise - in that era, plus a very strong Navy team for some east coast flavor.

The Icers were still two years away from having a conference title to shoot for and still seven from the beginnings of a club hockey national championship. Given those realities, it seems only natural that Morris Kurtz's gang looked to this tournament as the culmination of their season's work. Unlike most in-season tournaments, where teams are selected ahead of the season, a PSU bid apparently wasn't assured until early February, when the Daily Collegian reported that the team had "won" a trip to Pittsburgh by virtue of their 8-1-1 record to that point. After that, there were concerns about looking past the remaining schedule, at least according to assistant coach Phil Gonet a couple weeks after the slot was assured.

It's hard to blame the team if they did in fact peek ahead - even with a sparse crowd reported as 1,200 witnesses in the 16,940-seat then-home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, this was probably the biggest stage taken by the Icers to that point in history. Let's go to the recap, from the April 7, 1975 Collegian.

Click to enlarge.

As mentioned in the article, Carnegie Mellon beating PSU in the final was a bit of an oddity, given that CMU had lost to Pittsburgh five times in a row and that the Icers walloped the Panthers in their tourney opener behind Mike Giampapa's four points. Giampapa finished as the Icers' leading scorer that season.

The Tartans (not "Titans" as used in the recap, gotta give a great nickname a proper mention) were a bit of a bogey team for Penn State in 1974-1975 - they supplied the Icers with two of their three losses against 11 wins and a tie, including previously on January 31st when CMU rode four second-period goals (three on the power play) to a come-from-behind 5-4 triumph.

Carnegie Mellon always seemed to be lurking in the background for the 1974-1975 Icers, including at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena in early April.

Perhaps more than the actual results of the tournament, what makes it interesting almost 40 years later is the way it almost served as a gateway to the next level for the fledgling club program. By 1976-1977, the Icers were in a league, the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Conference, and had moved on to playing nearly all of its games against other colleges and universities instead of the junior and senior teams that were prominent in PSU's early schedules. Four years and six combined titles (and two home rinks) later, the Icers outgrew the MACHC and began putting together schedules that were national in scope. They were even capable of playing NCAA Division I Army within two goals by 1980.

Will this year's tournament also be seen as a launching point to great heights - except now in DI - 40 years from now? Well, they do say that history repeats itself...

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