Saturday, September 22, 2012

One Step Back, Two Steps Up

While a handful of teams played last weekend and 2012-2013 opponent Arizona State opened up on Thursday, Friday was the first truly robust day on the calendar of the ACHA season. And it had nothing to do with the Icers. Sure, it was of interest from a Nittany Lions standpoint to keep track of ASU, as well as fellow PSU schedule inhabitants Ohio and Oklahoma (all three won big over bottom feeders), and it was fun to laugh at now-former rivals Rhode Island and Illinois for their embarrassing losses...but beyond that, the only involvement Penn Staters had in the proceedings was based in nostalgia. It's hard to articulate how I feel about that. It's exciting remembering the reason PSU is out of it. It's a little bizarre, knowing that the organization and its teams will continue to grow and evolve without the Icers, to the point where we might not even recognize it after a few years. It's also a little sad.

I celebrated this rebirth of college hockey - sorry NCAA, the ACHA has you beat for allowing games in September - by attending an ACHA Division 2 game between Akron and Ohio State. In a match that read like an early-season game for both teams, with plenty of turnovers followed by unfinished chances both ways and throughout, the Zips managed to barely nurse a 3-0 second-period lead to the finish line, winning 4-2 following an empty-netter.

Akron goalie Max Miller, a Medina, OH native, turned in an excellent effort against Ohio State.

Akron plays at a rink called the Center Ice Sports Complex. Not only is it an off-campus facility, it's in an entirely different county, its location in North Canton about 17 miles from the sports facilities owned by UA. There's actually a (very) tenuous PSU connection to the building in the form of Icers Hall-of-Famer Don Coyne, who briefly played there with the UHL's Ohio Gears, which moved from Saginaw in the middle of 1999-2000. The team suspended operations after that season, eventually folding after a couple failed attempts to re-christen itself with a new arena in nearby Massillon that never came.

Zips hockey also has a pretty unremarkable history. In stark contrast to traditional archrival Kent State, which has had a long run of non-varsity hockey, and was even NCAA Division I from 1986 through 1994, Akron only started up in 2006 as an ACHA Division 3 program. In 2010, the Zips elevated to D2, where they remain today. While Akron has done reasonably well for the most part - they have spent a lot of last two seasons flirting with the poll in D2's Southeast Region - it has never progressed beyond that. In fact, their sole true appearance on the national radar was the result of an exploding hockey bag early in their first D2 season. Seriously.
A hockey bag which appeared to belong to a University of Akron hockey player was blown up by a bomb squad after it was determined to be a suspicious package, according to a report.

According to the website of WEWS, police in Akron, Ohio, responded to two suspicious package calls Wednesday morning, neither of which were determined to contain explosives. One of the packages was reportedly a bag belonging to a University of Akron hockey player. The report says the hockey bag was detonated by the Summit County Bomb Squad.
Things are drastically different now. Under second-year coach Michael Sadjadi, a 26-year-old former junior goalie from Fairbault, MN, the program seems to have a new focus. It now receives regular media coverage - for positive things. It's much more active in fundraising and community outreach. The recruiting, which has generally focused on Northeast Ohio high school and low-level junior players (particularly from the Wooster Oilers of the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League), is on the upswing. And the on-ice payoff is starting to follow. Last weekend, the Zips earned their first-ever win over an ACHA D1 program, topping Canisius 4-3.

They also have The Dream:
The huge support finally drew the attention of the Akron athletic department late last season, as several officials, including athletic director Tom Wistrcill attended a home contest. Though nothing has been made official, it’s become common knowledge that UA is seriously discussing the possibility of adding a D1 sport (or two) soon. And with plans for a new basketball arena currently a hot topic, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that a dual-purpose arena has been discussed.
So why a post about Akron? Well firstly, I see a lot of parallels with Penn State, and how our present circumstances developed. It seems to me like the Zips are currently at the point the Icers hit sometime between the opening of the Greenberg Ice Pavilion in 1981 and 1987, when Joe Battista returned as head coach. In my observation, the Icers of the 1970s had the varsity dream, but it wasn't realistic. Once the Ice Pavilion's size indefinitely delayed that dream, the team refocused on building an support organization that was the envy of many in the varsity ranks. That organization, along with the sheer force of Battista's will, is ultimately what led to Terry Pegula and the NCAA, not the previous approach of merely hoping to be handed a capable rink by the athletic department. It seems as if Akron now has that same sense of purpose that drove the Icers for about 30 years, and hopefully they won't have to wait as long before joining fellow MAC schools Miami, Western Michigan and Bowling Green among the ranks of NCAA DI programs.

More than that though, it helps me confront some of mixed feelings I have about the NCAA transition, as attending the Zips-Buckeyes tilt helped remind me why I became involved with Penn State hockey in the first place, and why I'm still here today.

At the game, I spoke with Kevin Davis, who is in charge of marketing for UA hockey. He described to me how he sold the ads on the boards, then stayed at the rink until the middle of Thursday night/Friday morning to put them up himself before returning early Friday morning to finish his preparations. Signage, streamers and balloons were ubiquitous to the point where Center Ice felt like a campus rink, and I'm sure he and a small but dedicated group of volunteers had something to do with that as well. The game presentation was nearly flawless, worthy of the Icers. And Davis packed the place out too. I have no clue how many seats the rink contains (probably in the neighborhood of 800-1000), but they were all full.

The atmosphere, in my judgment, was only surpassed in any obvious sense by Penn State and Ohio among ACHA venues I've attended. Davis and Sadjadi get marketing in the same way Battista does: there was a Score-O contest (with a car, which was driven on to the ice, as the prize), merchandise sales, a raffle, and a postgame autograph session, all things I've seen at the Ice Pavilion.

It may seem a little crazy to invest so much of yourself in non-varsity hockey, but that's precisely what so many of us did over the years at PSU. I can't speak for every Hockey Management Association member or support staffer ever, but to me, the Icers were easily the most important thing I did at Penn State - much more than school itself or the football team. My Friday night social life during the season was tearing down after the game, which generally took until after midnight for the 9 p.m. puck drops, followed by a late dinner at Perkins or Eat 'n Park (the two 24-hour eateries removed from downtown, and therefore not filled with drunk people), back home to catch up on other ACHA scores, then into bed for the quick turnaround on Saturday afternoon. And I loved every second of it. Well, other than fetching the six-foot sub for the booster hospitality room before games, I could have done without that.

I think there's a closeness to the program that comes from a certain level of involvement, which will be impossible to duplicate with the NCAA program. I can write this blog, obsessively follow every little development, donate money, have season tickets in the front row, but realistically, I'll never be as much a part of the program as I was then. And neither will anyone else who isn't a grown-up employed by Penn State or playing for the team. Yes, the plan is to keep HMA going, but from a distance, it seems like it will mostly be about limited marketing activities and game day operations while the most important stuff will be handled by the athletic department. Future HMA members, for example, are unlikely to be that socially awkward college student trying to sell ads door to door, as I once was (okay, I'm still socially awkward).

So yeah, I'm a little sad for the loss of all of that, while also a little envious of Davis and others all over the ACHA who are truly invested in a way not possible in the NCAA (even for many employees, I have to imagine that it's more job than passion).

There's still plenty of work to do at UA, of course. The team hasn't won on a significant level, it remains to be seen if the off-ice side can be maintained through a whole season let alone several, and to that end it would be nice if Davis had a little more help. The distance that remains was underscored by the people who sat behind me and had evidently never heard "sieve" or "it's all your fault" before. So time will tell if Sadjadi ends up being the Battista of Akron, but at the very least, the early signs are encouraging.

Ultimately, of course, my feelings of loss are outweighed by those of excitement - after all, NCAA status was the goal all along, and PSU finally made it. It's entirely possible that I'll forget all about what I've expressed here by October 6th when I'm skipping the Zips' next home weekend to live blog the NCAA debut of the Nittany Lion women. But hopefully you'll forgive me if one day, when this blog has run its course, I end up volunteering with Akron or another ACHA team local to wherever life takes me between now and then.


  1. I've thought some of the same things with the Penn State transition to D-1. Exciting as it is, and it's very exciting, you just know that the bond with the team won't be "allowed" like it is with non-NCAA D-1 hockey.

    To a degree, the layout of the Ice Pavilion and its locker rooms will allow it with the women's team for one last season, as they have to stand in the lobby waiting to hit the ice between periods, so you get a chance to chat with them, but once the Pegula opens you won't get near the teams without media credentials, and those will probably be issued sparingly and with a heavy hand. You would think a new team would want all the media it could get at games, no matter what level or method of media they offer.

    Half the fun of supporting non-NCAA D-1 hockey is the details, the personalities, the interaction with staff and players, the connection you feel with the team that makes you want to cheer and jeer like a banshee at their games. Those are your players out on the ice, and you know something about all of them, beyond the standard stats. You've talked to them, on and off the ice, and about more than just hockey. The whole atmosphere makes you feel like a part of the team, and not just a nameless fan in the stands on game nights.

    I hope Penn State understands the benefit of involving fans as much as possible with their D-1 teams. The more a fan gets to know the players, the more they want to follow them. I think that's true, anyway.

  2. I sure hope they hang those ACHA Championship flags up when they open the new arena.

    1. I'm really interested to see what happens...I have it on good authority (the guy writing it) that the media guide won't be terribly in depth on the Icers. It will acknowledge their existence - I was actually kind of worried about that - in the form of an essay, but won't include much more than that. They'll have that interactive history thing in the PIA, but that doesn't really impress me, it's the sort of thing that everyone will look at once, but not twice. Banners would be a much more suitable nod to history.

      I'd even settle for the compromise of one ACHA banner with all the years on it, since the powers that be are afraid of the Icers "overwhelming" the NCAA era. That's not something that registers with me, since it's supposed to be the same program that we're simply "elevating" or "transitioning" to NCAA DI. Hopefully, it's a non-issue, but I'll definitely be taking on that fight if I have to.

  3. They should acknowledge the Icers in the same way that some non-eastern MLB baseball teams recognize the PCL and AAL teams that came before them in those cities. Recognize that it's not the same thing - so the statistics should be separate - but that it's an important part of the history.

    Access to players and coaches won't be what it used to be, I suppose, but part of that is because, I hope, so many more media outlets will want to be there that they'll have to manage it more.

    And it's really not such a bad thing that players and the public have some distance, because as we've seen repeatedly around college sports players hanging out with boosters is where trouble sneaks in. It's kind of cool to be able to follow PSU athletes on twitter, etc and send along the occasional good luck message or help out with whatever charity they're doing (I chipped in a few bucks for Cara Mendelson to go to Africa), but I can see how that could end up becoming a problem if it leads to a lot of assholes from other fanbases sending them hateful messages or our own "fans" riding them after a bad performance.

    And I think you'll find that the public's "access" to the program is still a lot better than you'd expect for a pro team or PSU football, for example. Then again, O'Brien is much more media friendly and seems to be encouraging a more media-friendly attitude among the players than the previous regime. And, based on all the invites and emails I get, Pat Chambers and Coquese Washington seem to be at a charity golf tournament or dinner every day. And Guy is very friendly and outgoing, so these seems to set the tone for the whole athletic department.

    1. There's definitely a dark side to access...not that it's even in the same universe as college hockey in terms of popularity/number of people involved, but Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel was driven off of Twitter by a flood of negative response (much of it racist) after his mistake against Juventus in the Champions League last week helped turn a win into a draw.

      Like I said in a previous comment somewhere above, this wasn't really meant to be about "access" as much as it was the idea of feeling part of a team despite marginal athletic ability and lacking the appropriate experience/coaching certifications to get a "grown-up" job with a team.

      Just to engage the discussion, the access can be fun on occasion, but I don't really even want more than I get. The men, who have generally already been covered by media for several years as junior players, don't really want that either. The women are much more appreciative for the attention, but even with them, there's a point where it's too much. If someone like Mendelson or Casey McCullion is asking for donations for something, I'll engage that, but I'm not about to start tweeting them "hey, how did your exams go" or other non-hockey things, because that's when it gets weird.

      The only exception, like I mentioned, is the somewhat informal relationships I've had with the coaches and also Battista going back to undergrad. It gets tricky to identify the line between "Kyle Rossi, credentialed media member" and "Kyle Rossi, booster" sometimes, and the heavy-handed approach I've already seen from sports info concerns me. If someone sees me chatting with Gadowsky before a game as Booster Kyle and I don't use anything here, will I get in trouble? I've been overtly threatened with access removal twice, once for emailing McCullion with the request for the interview I did a little bit ago, despite the fact that I copied the appropriate SID (it was my first time requesting an interview with a PSU person during the NCAA era outside of scheduled availability, and sincerely didn't know any better). The other time, I tweeted something about the PIA groundbreaking ceremony from an email I received from an SID (I don't remember what specifically). The SID had labeled something else in the email as off the record and tried to claim that the piece of info I tweeted was as well (I'm a little too smart to stab people in the back intentionally, especially sources and people that hold hammers).

      I just think there's a huge difference between pure transparency, and highly-regulated access on their terms creating the illusion of transparency. It's sort of a weird reality where media relations acts as its own outlet now, instead of just facilitating the work of actual media. They use their ability to hand out access very effectively in a competitive sense, like at the jersey unveiling where they tossed players and coaches into a scrum, then pulled them aside for their own exclusive. There's really very little doubt that they save the best stuff for themselves.

      That part of it is fine, it's how everyone operates in 2012, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me.

      As for the Icers, I've previously endorsed a model similar to yours - if you look at the records of programs with long histories outside of DI (RIT and Union to name two), they keep records of their DIII eras. They're separated in most cases (as they should be), and they're maybe a little less robust than the DI records (they'll maybe have the top five of some stat instead of the top ten, and fewer categories overall), but that's perfectly fine. It's a much better approach than dismissing the whole thing with a couple-page-long essay. That plus at least one banner is all I'm really asking. The alumni already have letterman status, and I'm not sure what else there is, to be honest.

  4. That's how media works now, unfortunately. I've run into the same thing in my line of work covering companies and government agencies. Press officers like to control the media's access to people in their organization and sometimes it feels like (probably because it's true) like they're just doing that for the sake of being in control and letting you know that they're in control.

    It's irritating, but I suppose that they feel like if they let you ever anyone in the organization without going through them first, that it's a slippery slope and then they'll totally lose control of the situation and somebody will say something they shouldn't and then they'll be held responsible and get fired. So they come off as paranoid. The NCAA is so arbitrary and capricious, I'd be a bit paranoid if I were an SID.

    I don't know what form HMA will have in the future, but I'm sure there will still be a lot of students involved with the running of the teams. At least, that's how it seems to be with all the other non-football sports that I follow here. A lot of work previously done by students will now be done by professionals, which is good and bad, but I suspect that there will still be lots of opportunities for students to get involved somehow.

    As an adult in the community, I'm happy to help the coaches if I can through the appropriate booster organizations and I do want the players to feel supported, but its important to keep all of that communication through appropriate channels. However, I do like to keep a mental tally of my PSU "celebrity sightings" for fun. Recently, I've seen 1986 PSU football co-captain Bob White in the grocery store carrying several cases of bottled water in one arm.

    1. Hopefully they find a place for it beyond "set up a tent and hand out schedules at football games" and "open and close the penalty box." Obviously the big boy sales and marketing, ticketing, media relations and things like that are off the table now.

      After thinking about things, I think the competition with media might even be a contributing factor to the general emphasis out there on recruiting news, which the official people can't touch by NCAA rule, of course. A lot of what I do, including that, at first with the women's team, now with both of the club teams is simply based on a desire to talk about something beyond just parroting every release that comes out of the BJC. I try to be a little more opponent-centric too, at least in the Three Stars posts. I don't even RT PennStateMHKY and PennStateWHKY much anymore, figuring that anyone who follows me and cares also follows them. It's a struggle (usually a subconscious one) to find a niche, and it may even explain why I've become more of a contrarian in the last year or so (if that's even true, I have no idea).

  5. I imagine students will still have opportunities to contribute to these functions, but that they'll be working for professionals rather than running the show. There are pros and cons to either situation.

    This is only tangentially related, but have you heard anything about the broadcast for games? I know BTN will cover a lot of the games, especially next year, but is that it? Will the games not on TV, if there are some, at least be available online on the BigTen website? This is how I've watched a lot of PSU soccer. You have to pay for it and the commentators are students (there's another great opportunity) but the overall quality of the image is better than UStream, I think.

    Also, Steve Penstone does a great job on the radio, but the sound quality is terrible. Icers games sounded like they were being broadcast from Mars on old Soviet technology. I hope he can continue to do the PBP, but with better equipment. I haven't heard anything on this front. I don't know Steve, but I do see him around. I thought about just asking him what the plan is for TV/web/radio but I'm afraid I won't like the answer.

    1. I do know Steve, but honestly, I'm sort of afraid to broach the subject with him because I know it's touchy. Aaron Griffin, who I'm sure you're familiar with, tweeted him a couple times bringing it up but never got an answer directly to that (as far as I saw). For whatever that's worth.

      I'm not counting on a huge package of TV games from BTN this year, since they technically aren't into hockey yet. In the past, they've done about 10 games, and I'm hoping PSU can sneak in one of the MSU or Wisconsin games. MAYBE Air Force, but I really can't imagine BTN setting up at the Ice Pavilion.

      I would think that either the games will be on the digital platform, probably with students, or they'll let Steve do his UStream thing for one more year. Worst-case scenario, many (most?) DI teams have some sort of streaming PPV (usually) that they do for their home games. Then again, I'd guess that a lot of the schools not included in "many/most" are in Atlantic Hockey, where we're spending a lot of time this year.

    2. PS. It's so bizarre that the women's team is completely resolved with America One, which will do every CHA game and non-con home games but the men's team is almost completely up in the air 16 days ahead of the season.

  6. I suspect that's because whatever they do this year is not going to be what they do once the BigTen hockey league starts next year so nobody wants to spend a lot on a one year stop-gap. Whereas the CHA women's league is what it's going to be for the foreseeable future so there's no impediment to making a long-term deal.

    On that topic: are we to assume that tix to women's games will be free this year? I've heard no discussion of prices or season ticket offers or anything. I love free as much as the next guy, and I understand supply and demand, but I think it sends the wrong message to give those tickets away while charging, albeit modestly, for the men's team. PSU has a great history of supporting women's sports. I think that if they can get some success, they could draw very well.