Friday, August 24, 2012

The "Icers" Question

One of the more common questions I receive from TYT's non-Penn State readership is whether the name "Icers" will continue to be used. The short answer is "no." This post is the long answer.

Before going any further, I should mention that the name situation was brought to the forefront Thursday by a tweet from Jeremy Fallis, PSU's assistant communications director responsible for (among other things) women's hockey and retweeted by (among others) the official Twitter account of the women's team, as well as by Greg Kincaid, an athletic communications assistant.

Unnecessary, tactless, somewhat pushy...yep, he's definitely read the public relations chapter in the Penn State employee handbook. Regardless, it seems clear that the party line has been drawn. But let's take a closer look at things anyway.

Historical Background

The term "icers" as associated with Penn State hockey goes all the way back to the first game played by the informal team that eventually led to the 1940s varsity team, on February 22, 1938 (it was the third game overall in PSU hockey history, following the pair played by the Herb Baetz-captained outfit in 1909-1910).

Click for gallery view.

It's important to note that it's "icers" at this point, not "Icers" (and in fact, the word was also used to describe the opposing Pitt team in the above article). For the entire history of Penn State hockey through about the late 1970s, "icers" was just one of many similar terms used interchangeably to refer to the hockey teams.

The others, like "puckmen," "pucksters," "icemen" and "rinkmen," were actually part of a larger set encompassing all sports in newspapers of a different era: "gridders" were football players, "cagers" were basketball players, "grapplers" were wrestlers, "mermen" (eesh) were men's swimmers (later, thankfully, it became "swimmen"), and so on. Many - okay, maybe not "mermen" - are still in occasional circulation today, although they're not as widespread now as they were 70 years ago. The words were never exclusively used at PSU, but it does seem as if Penn Staters, at one time anyway, embraced them more than most.

Around the late 1970s and early 1980s, "icers" finally more or less became the single accepted replacement word for "hockey players," and the word actually seemed to gain usage even as others like "stickmen" (lacrosse) and "booters" (soccer) faded. But when did lower-case "icers" gain proper noun status? Obviously language, as fluid and constantly evolving as it is, doesn't lend itself to identifying fixed points like that. There actually is some evidence on this front though, and it leads to a rather interesting answer.

In both 1986-1987 and 1987-1988, Dave Sottile was the team's beat writer for The Daily Collegian (if that name sounds familiar, it may be due to the fact that he was the managing editor of Pennsylvania Puck and has also worked for several south central PA newspapers). Here are two different articles he wrote:

On the left is Sottile covering the 1987 National Invitational Tournament, published March 13th of that year. On the right is Sottile covering the opening of the next season's practice exactly seven months later. Even without a change in writer, "icers" (and "Lions" in the body of the article) clearly gave way to "Icers."

So what was it if not a simple change in writer and individual style? Well, if you haven't put it together yet, a former PSU offensive defenseman by the name of Joe Battista took over as coach for the 1987-1988 season. I don't really believe that Battista swung into the Collegian offices like a pirate and demanded that Sottile capitalize Icers - it was probably something more subtle like Battista capitalizing Icers in a press release and Sottile just going with it. Maybe Sottile observed that fans had latched on to the name and finally reached some sort of capitalize-or-not tipping point. However it happened, I'm not sure that any involved party would remember the monumental moment if asked today. Regardless, the rest was history.

My Opinion and Recommendation

Admittedly, I've always had an awkward relationship with "Icers." Ever since my first exposure to Penn State hockey, I've resisted its usage because I wanted people to see the program as the big-time operation that it was, and felt that the moniker club-ified things and damaged the team's legitimacy to those who didn't know any better. My favorite Penn State hockey shirt at one time said "Penn State Nittany Lions Hockey" on it, in a style produced for several varsity Penn State sports, and I tended to avoid the merch sold at the games that placed "Icers" front and center.

In the same vein, when my father - on the rare occasions he took an interest - or some other outsider would occasionally ask who PSU was playing that weekend, my answer would range from "ILLINOIS! THE FIGHTING ILLINI! THEY'RE IN THE BIG TEN! WE'RE PLAYING THEM BECAUSE WE ARE ALSO IN THE BIG TEN!" to "<cough> Washington & Jefferson <cough>." Delaware and Rhode Island were okay as flagship schools in states that could conceivably be good at hockey (on a per-capita basis, anyway), West Chester and even Ohio were less okay. Michigan-Dearborn was always an opportunity to use both techniques in the same name. I've largely gotten over that, although when my dad asked about attending an ACHA National Tournament game last year, I did push for the quarterfinal matchup that was guaranteed to involve Oklahoma or Iowa State over the later rounds, which might have brought Lindenwood or Liberty (or Oakland, as it turned out) into play.

Basically, I desperately sought the approval of those who didn't understand the quality of top-end ACHA hockey or of Penn State's program, and "Icers" didn't really help my case. Maybe I was in the wrong for acting how I did - typing it all out certainly makes me feel that way - but hey, at least I'm being honest now. Anyway, with no reason for those sorts of concerns any longer, you would think I'd be full steam ahead on "Nittany Lions" and all things NCAA, right? I certainly thought I would be, but that hasn't really turned out to be the case.

There's a lot wrong with Fallis' tweet, but I think what bothers me most is that it flies in the face of the "Honoring the Past, Celebrating the Present, Roaring into the Future" slogan that has been fairly ubiquitous around the program since Terry Pegula's donation.

A good start, but not the whole answer.

In some ways, "honoring the past" has been done appropriately. Icers alumni have retroactively been given status as Penn State lettermen, a very classy move. There will be some sort of history display in the Pegula Ice Arena. I imagine a banner or banners commemorating the Icers' ACHA national championships will be part of the facility as well, much to the consternation of the self-appointed banner approval committee that roams college hockey message boards.

All of that contradicts the sentiment seemingly expressed by Fallis.

Even as someone who once hated "Icers," I now feel a sense of pride in the name. I once played a (very) small part in helping the name reach its exalted status. To this point, I've never worked harder in my life than when I was in HMA and on this blog (which certainly has covered far more Icers than Nittany Lions to this point), and the result has been two of my more rewarding experiences. There's another word that expresses how I felt when I read what led to this post: offended. Not so much for myself, but for the numerous others - players, coaches, support staff, HMA - who played a much bigger role than I in elevating the program to greatness, and who are having their accomplishments seemingly dismissed with very little thought. It's almost as if the athletic department is jealous of what was built without their help.

Am I reading too much into it? Maybe, but maybe not. Yeah, it's just a name, but it's also symbolic. And it seems like part of a larger pattern in athletic communications. Consider the boilerplate close to their press releases.
The 2012-13 season will mark the Nittany Lions' first-ever campaign at the NCAA Division I level. Penn State, which previously sponsored varsity hockey from 1940-47, will play 27 games against NCAA opponents in its first season of varsity hockey in more than 65 years.
It really isn't my intent to say a bad word about the first varsity team, but it happened in isolation and was an "era" that included all of 29 games. The Icers played 34 games last season alone and were the direct forerunner to everything happening now.

Consider also that zero effort has been placed into educating the Penn State mainstream on PSU hockey's rich history. While the athletic department does a good job in most other respects, I really feel as if it was a missed opportunity to tie everything together, to honor the past appropriately, and even to generate content and keep interest up through the summer. Penn State hockey is new to the NCAA, but it's not a new program, and that seems lost sometimes.

I think it's absolutely vital to remember that none of this - not Pegula, not NCAA status, none of it - ever happens without the Icers. That's not vague sentimentality, that's fact. Pegula didn't just wake up one day in 2005 and say "hey, I went to Penn State, I like hockey, I should write them a large check to start a hockey program." He was familiar with the Icers thanks to his son attending camp in the late 1980s and early 1990s (I have no idea how many non-varsity hockey schools even had camps then, but it couldn't have been very many, which sort of gets at my point). He didn't approach former athletic director Tim Curley or some other university official in charge of large gifts, he approached Battista, then "just" the Icers coach ("just" in quotes for the obvious reason that he was much more important than the title).

Everyone recognizes that the team will officially be called "Nittany Lions." If Fallis, or anyone else, is writing a press release, by all means, pump that thing full of Nittany Lions. This post isn't meant to question that, because it is a change I welcome. What I don't welcome are attempts to thought police everyone else. If someone wants to tweet "I'm pumped for the Icers season," if someone wants to yell "let's go Icers" at a game, who cares? There's literally zero harm in that. Let's let this thing develop organically, not via some ill-conceived edict. Maybe the new fans will overwhelm those with roots in the non-varsity era and "Icers" will die on its own. Maybe "Icers" will remain an informal name and become a unique Penn State tradition. I read somewhere once that unique traditions are part of what makes college hockey great, so why pre-emptively kill one before it's given a chance to take hold (or not)?

Will Yanakeff is a goalie for the Icers of Michigan State. And nobody in the MSU athletic department will
have a problem with this caption.

Another Example

Interestingly enough, future Big Ten rival Michigan State might provide some guidance in that department. Check out the following links to source material from...
Keep in mind, this is an athletic department concerned enough with consistency to go out of their way to develop a "brand and identity program" two years ago.

I have no idea how Michigan State came to be the Icers, but that's not the point. What is:
  • They're not smothering their tradition, at least in that respect (don't get me started on the script "Michigan State," which was fortunately returned in the form of alternate jerseys for this season).
  • It doesn't challenge "Spartans" as the official name of MSU's hockey team, nor is it even used as frequently.
  • I can't imagine that they have a better reason for using "Icers" than Penn State does.
The future of Penn State hockey, as Nittany Lions, is indeed exciting. I just hope we're not losing ourselves, and indeed what made that future possible, along the way. Much like my personal journey from hating "Icers" to being outraged enough to write this post when it's dismissed, I hope everyone who has a stake in the program at least comes around to respecting the name if they didn't before. I'm not telling anyone whether to keep using it or not - that would make me quite the hypocrite, after all - but I am encouraging everyone to reach their own conclusion and let the chips fall as they may.


  1. I'm glad I was not alone in being rubbed the wrong way by that tweet. One can assume that they weren't doing it for reasons to be hurtful/spiteful/what-have-you, but when I read it, I just thought, "Really?? Why on earth would you put it THAT way?!?" And to learn that he's an assistant communications director irks me even more because one would assume (I know what assuming does haha) that he would have the foresight to realize that this sort of statement should be said delicately rather than like a bull in a China shop.

    But anyhow. Thanks for the historical perspective on the Icers name. It was something I was curious about and am happy to hear more about.

    I didn't realize, re: MSU. I think that vindicates the use all the more.

    1. I think it was the "under every circumstance" language that did it for me. Had he said something like "Just to clear up any confusion, our varsity hockey teams will be called the Nittany Lions" I'm not sure I would have had any reaction at all.

      Why was any guidance on that point even necessary though? There obviously isn't an issue within the athletic department, and the media will fall in line with what comes from the AD. As for anyone else, not really their problem.

  2. I have taken a similar path as you, albeit a much shorter one. When I first came to Penn State I found Icers to be an idiosyncratic name that struck me as odd and, much like you implied, debasing in someway to the hockey program here as making it clubish even in name. However, as time passed, specifically last season, I began to grow fond of it as a unique part of Penn State hockey history that needs to be celebrated. Anticipating the white wash that is apparently happening of the association with the NCAA Division I Nittany Lions with the ACHA Division I Icers, I bought several items that display proudly the Icers name. It is a part of Penn State and Penn State hockey history that should be celebrated because without the Icers, as odd as I still find that name on some level, the Nittany Lions never would have taken the ice.

    I have noticed that icers is a term commonly used by most programs from the Midwest. Your example from Michigan State agrees with this point. As you know, I'm from Upstate New York and Western New York in particular where hockey is common, but had never heard the term icers used to refer to hockey players or a hockey team until I came to Happy Valley. Then, I noticed that my friend who attended the University of Michigan for undergrad referred to Michigan's hockey program as icers in his Facebook statuses. I think that a few of the Buckeye fans do it on occasion too, I might be wrong. But, it is with that smattering of evidence that I began to surmise that it might be a regional term which makes it all the more interesting that the flagship university of Pennsylvania adopted the Midwestern term. The affiliation with JoeBa and the rise of the term Icers might lend some more credence to it considering his Pittsburgh roots with Pittsburgh having dual Pennsylvanian and Midwestern identities it is possible that he has picked up that term.

    I have come full circle somewhat too. I do not care how people refer to the NCAA Division I team so long as they are respectful of its past. History is a very important thing for how I view the programs that I follow. So, I think that appropriate reverence for the Icers should be fostered among the current and future Nittany Lions fans. I'd love if PIA was someday filled with chants of "Let's Go Icers!!!" or something similar to that effect. Fans of Clarkson still break into cheers of "Let's Go Tech!!!" during games at Cheel even though Clarkson has been Clarkson University not the Clarkson College of Technology since before I was born (1984 was the last time Clarkson was not a "university"). Even though RPI mocks Clarkson for this choice of theirs fans (they are archrivals, you really cannot blame them for capitalizing on such a rich opportunity, can you?), I think it shows an appropriate appreciation for the roots of their program and university. I hope that Icers is somehow incorporated into the fanfare and antics of the new varsity era in Penn State hockey.

    1. I had never heard about "Let's go Tech!" Very cool, and exactly what I'm getting at. I believe I dropped a "Drexel Tech" in a post at some point, just because.

      You're probably right about the midwest/icers connection - I know for a fact I've seen it used in connection with Ohio State before. Michigan State just happened to be the case familiar to me.

      I'm really curious to see how the media guide looks. There's not really a ton of precedent for something like this, but programs like RIT and Union have entirely separate subsections for DIII and DI records, which is probably the best way to do it. Notre Dame doesn't ignore their club season of 1983-84 (which has helped me out immensely). I have no idea what UAH does as really the only legitimate example of succesful club to DI (others have flirted with it of course - Ohio, Illinois, Villanova - but never with any staying power). I certainly know as well as anyone that the records aren't perfect, but hopefully they make it in.

  3. FYI - Icers is only really used because it's shorter and easier to say/type than Hockey Team. It isn't in the nickname or anything like that. The hockey team at Michigan State is still the Michigan State Spartans. You say 'Icers' and you know you are talking about the hockey program.